Koen-san is an 18-year-old maiko living in Kyoto, Japan. For the last three years, she has been training intensely to become a geiko (commonly known as a geisha outside of Kyoto), learning the ritual dances and songs by day and performing by night. Through a translator, she described her daily life, the meaning of her beauty look, and what Westerners misunderstand about geiko traditions and culture. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You know the movie Memoirs of a Geisha? In it, the heroine didn’t want to become a maiko; she was sold into this industry. Foreigners think that's what it's like, but in reality, we choose this life on our own; we're not being forced into it.
When I was 13, I visited Kyoto and watched a maiko's dance performance. I was fascinated by how beautiful and feminine the kimono and her movements were. It was so attractive to me, but all I really knew about maikos at the time was that you have to become one in order to become a geiko, and you can only do it when you're a teenager. So when I was 15 and had finished school, I decided to pursue it. My parents were very supportive and wished me good luck, but my friends were all quite surprised by my decision. In total, there are only about 70 maikos in Kyoto, so it's rare for girls to choose this path.
Maikos live in teahouses together with a mother who runs the house. A long time ago, which teahouse you would live in was decided by a customer. He or she would have to introduce you in order for you to be welcomed there. But now, if you want to become a maiko, you can look up teahouses online and call one to ask if you can live there. In my case, I happened to be travelling to Kyoto and I was staying in a ryokan [a traditional Japanese-style hotel], and the owner introduced me to a teahouse after I told her I wanted to be a maiko.
After finding your house, the mother chooses a geiko to be your teacher and guide for the next five to six years. When you meet your geiko, you drink sake together in a ceremony, which makes you like sisters, then the mother gives you a maiko name using one character from your geiko's name. Hierarchy is very strict in this world, though, so I don't think of the geiko as my friend. You have to show respect. Even with the other maikos, if someone entered the teahouse one day before you, she is your senior.
Every day, I wake up at 9 am and prepare myself for my lessons in dancing, playing the shamisen [an instrument with three strings] and tsuzumi [a hand drum], singing, and learning how to do the tea ceremony. Then I eat an early dinner before doing my makeup and putting on my kimono.
It takes me 40 minutes to apply makeup to my face and the back of my neck. I use Shiseido and Mitsuyoshi products, but there aren't many options. The reason the powder is so white is because before there was electricity, the maikos and geikos had to make their faces stand out clearly in a dark room lit only by candles. As for the red colouring around the eyes and brows, that's because in the past, girls as young as eight or nine could become maikos and red is considered to be a colour that fends off bad spirits and protects you. We also believe that applying lipstick fully over the lips looks vulgar, which is why I draw my lipstick on in a smaller shape. It's more elegant. Maikos in their first year only wear lipstick on the lower lip as a sign that they're a beginner and may make mistakes. It’s a cute way of telling people to go easy on you.
At around 6, I leave the teahouse to entertain at a dinner party. I pour drinks while the customers eat, talk and play games with them, and perform a dance. Most customers are males in their 60s and 70s, but sometimes females come for a girls' night out. I get very nervous when I have to perform in front of customers who know geikos and maikos well, or know the mother of my teahouse. In the beginning, I made mistakes and when that happens, I have to apologise to the person who is playing the shamisen, then she comes with me to apologise to the customer. And sometimes I receive a gift from the customer and I have to tell that to the mother, who will call them and say thank you.
The party lasts until 1 am, then I go to sleep around 3. I take out the decorations in my hair (they change every month; this month, it's the nanohana flower), but I have to sleep in the hairstyle and make it last for a week between hairdresser appointments. This means that I sleep with my head in a pillow that's shaped like a box and I can't toss or turn in the night or else I'll ruin it. When you become a geiko, your hairstyle changes and you can wear a wig.
All the money I make at work goes to the mother of the teahouse. She pays for my food, lets me wear her kimonos, and gives me an allowance, but maikos do not have salaries. At the most, I will have two days off per month, but if a customer puts in a request for me on a day off, I have to prioritise that. When I'm off, I have my hair down and wear regular makeup and clothes. I might go watch a movie or go to Starbucks, because when I'm dressed as a maiko, I'm not allowed to go places where there are a lot of people or to stores that have Western-style names (meaning names that can be read from left to right). The other main rules are that I'm not allowed to carry a mobile phone or to date, I have to abide by a curfew, and I only get to see my parents for New Year's. Once I become a geiko, though, I can have a phone, live independently, and get married if I choose.
When I decided to become a maiko, I knew that this would be the situation and I was prepared. Over the course of the five to six years, some of the maikos will think they can't continue and want to leave, but the other maikos will support them. We're in the same boat, so we help each other through problems. I do miss my friends and family, but I meet so many different people all the time so I never feel lonely or disconnected.
Travel and accommodations were provided by Shiseido for the purpose of writing this story.