Monday, February 20, 2017

Geisha in Kyoto? Probably Not: Five Ways to Tell Real Maiko from Cosplayers

Sorry, if your photos on Instagram are any indication, you didn't see geishas on your recent trip to Kyoto. 

It has to be said.

The reason I'm saying it here is because it's not socially acceptable to go around peoples' Instagram photos on the #travelgram tag and burst their bubbles with a comment saying “No, that's a tourist in a costume, not a real geisha” (though there is an account I follow dedicated to that very thing).

A bit of background: I'm addicted to Instagram. I follow a lot of people who travel. My Kyoto account falls into the popular "travel" category as a destination for globe-trotting folks. When they make it to Kyoto they sometimes upload photos like this with the caption: "I saw geisha!!!1 #inlovewithjapan" 

These are not real geisha, but ordinary folks in costume
No. Nine times out of ten, you did not. You saw, wait for it, dressed-up Japanese (and non-Japanese!) tourists. This flub seems to be coming up more and more often as "maiko for a day" costuming experiences are becoming more popular.

Some background on Kyoto and "geisha" or geiko as they are called here. Kyoto has been a center for the traditional arts for a thousand years, going back to when the Emperor moved his court there from Nara (in the 1800s the imperial palace was moved to Tokyo where it remains today). It has been a "tourist destination" for at least as long. Japanese people have loved Kyoto as a beautiful travel destination for at least a thousand years. Businesses to serve and entertain travelers have a long history here, and the 花街 kagai or traditional entertainment (red-light?) districts in Kyoto are remnants of them. Geiko and their apprentice counterparts maiko are professional entertainers and masters of several traditional arts including dance, musical instruments, tea ceremony, drinking games, and conversation. Are they basically high-end prostitutes? People with connections to the kagai will be offended and say no to such a question. Have they been so in history? Most likely. But who knows. A lot of things here are not allowed to be as black-and-white as in Western countries. The kagai is a very closed world even to the average Japanese person, that since WWII especially has worked hard to improve its image. The idea is that mastery of traditional arts (even those whose basic purpose is to entertain men) deserves respect and preservation, not criticism or divulging of sordid stories. I'm quite sure the kagai has its share of darkness going on, whether it's any better or worse than the typical hostess bar or even typical Japanese company practices is anyone's guess. 

But in any case, I find maiko—the real ones—stunning. They have made becoming a symbol of ideal female beauty from another time and culture into their full-time profession, starting apprenticeships from when compulsory education ends around age 16 (now there's a hairy human rights question foreigners love to bring up). At this stage they are called maiko and wear the high chunky wooden okobo shoes, long trailing obi sash, and dangling hair ornaments most people think of when they hear “geisha”. At age 20 they become full-fledged geiko or recognized masters of their arts, and they switch to wearing more subdued kimono, flatter shoes, a shorter obi, and wigs in a more elaborate style rather than their own hair, though with less accessories. Geiko are less often seen in the streets. The young, bright-colored maiko draw everyone's attention, I think they also have to go out more often to various functions and music and dance lessons. It's hard not to be fascinated. But this is an exclusive world where personal connections are more important than the money you're willing to spend (and you would still need a lot for a dinner with a maiko in attendance). In recent years this public fascination for the inaccessible has resulted in a booming business: maiko makeovers! 舞妓体験 in Japanese. These fancy photo studios concentrated in the Higashiyama area of Kyoto will apply the white makeup, dress you up in rental kimono, wig, and accessories, and arrange photo shoots for a day as a maiko. I think social media has contributed to the boom, as young people are on the prowl for cool photo op experiences. There's a very, very high chance the “maiko” you caught a glimpse of on your trip around Higashiyama are just normal Japanese girls out for a day of touring Kyoto, just like you!

Here are five ways to tell the difference, in order from easiest/most obvious to more subtle.

1. Location

Yes, the Gion area of Higashiyama is part of the old kagai there. But it is also the main tourist destination in Kyoto, especially the routes to Kiyomizu temple. The area is always very crowded. The real maiko know this and do not use these streets. If they must go through the tourist attractions they use the maze of tiny little back streets, or simply take a taxi. So if you see a maiko walking around the tourist attractions, she's probably not the real thing.

"Off-duty" maiko in Miyagawa-cho on a spring afternoon. I didn't get a shot of their faces but they weren't wearing the white  makeup. Their hairstyle is what gives them away as real maiko!

2. Time of day

The maiko's typical day is made up of lessons and the occasional ceremony or event in the morning. She goes out at this time in a simple kimono without the white makeup on her face, so you might mistake her for simply a well-dressed Kyoto lady (there are many women in Kyoto who wear kimono when making formal social calls, or when practicing traditional arts). Her youth and her hair done up in traditional fashion will give her away to the practiced eye though. The afternoon is spent in preparation for the night's work: donning the giant obi sash and white makeup we all know and love. Real maiko start ducking out to work--to restaurants, hotels, and dance theaters—in full maiko ensemble between 5 and 6pm. If you see a maiko walking in the street with all her white makeup on in the morning or afternoon, she is probably a cosplayer.

3. Behavior

A maiko has to hold up yards of fabric to walk
A maiko's clients pay her okiya (boarding house?) for the time she spends commuting to the restaurant or bar. So she doesn't dwaddle around gazing at the sights, chatting with other maiko, or posing for pictures, and she most definitely does not eat or use a cellphone or camera en route to her destination. Maiko doing those things I can say with 100% certainty are tourists dressed up. Real maiko dash quickly, almost running, and usually ignore requests for photos. The typical Japanese girl is not used to wearing kimono or the traditional footwear and most cannot manage a graceful dash like the maiko, nor are they often in a hurry.
Also, a maiko walking with both hands free is not going to happen either. Instead of a purse they will carry small cloth and straw baskets, and they will also be holding up their kimono train. This something the photo studios miss. Maiko wear their kimono so they trail behind in a long train, and when walking they have to gather this train to the front and hold it up with one hand. Pardon the silly clipart but it shows what I'm talking about. Most kimono in most situations are not worn in this way but extra fabric is folded and tied up at the waist, so most Japanese people are not used to walking around holding onto a train. To allow unpracticed customers ease of movement (and probably also to minimize damage to the studio's property) customers are dressed in kimono tied up at the waist like a normal kimono. They can walk around without holding up yards of extra fabric, and their ensemble does not trail on the ground. If you look again the first photo I posted you will see this is the case for the two girls enjoying maiko style costume in Kyoto.

4. Age

As I noted previously, maiko are most likely teenagers, with an age range of 15-20 years old. After age 20 they either choose to retire from the kagai world (not so uncommon) or become geiko, and their kimono and hairstyles change completely. You will never see a real maiko older than 20. But, the photo studios cater to all ages. If you see a little girl in the costume, or a lady obviously older than 20, she is not a real maiko. Also, as a general rule, if the maiko has a figure similar to that of Matsuko Deluxe (Google him) she is not a real maiko.

5. Makeup and Accessories 
Maiko makeover studios boast about giving their customers an authentic experience, and some do get close, even fooling Japanese people unfamiliar with maiko. But they make mistakes in the makeup and hair ornaments. The dangly hair ornament on the side of the face is only worn by first-year apprentice maiko. During this year, they do not apply rouge to the upper lip, but just the bottom one. Here's a photo I took at an event some years ago: note her white upper lip and dangling flower-blossom hairpiece. The older maiko color both lips, but never again wear these dangling hair ornaments.
First-year maiko Umeraku. Note her lipstick and dangling hair ornament.

Older maiko Umeyae. 
However, maiko makeover studios and their customers don't seem to be aware of this. So if you get close enough to notice the all-too-common but incorrect full lipstick+dangling hair ornament combination, you'll know she's not a maiko. There are other more subtle differences as well, such as floral motifs in the kimono and hair ornaments that maiko change according to the season. The photo studios do not change their stock so much depending on the season, so the practiced eye will be able to instantly recognize a plum-blossom print being worn in summer, for example, a wardrobe malfunction a real maiko would never make. The quality of the white makeup is apparently different as well, real maiko won't look “ thickly painted” but the white makeup is incredibly smooth and in a way transparent—showing the natural quality of the skin underneath. Maiko hairstyles are also done using the maiko's own hair, but most makeover studios provide wigs instead, so if you get close enough to notice an odd hairline or smeary makeup, she's a tourist and not a real maiko.


So there you go, now you know how to tell real maiko from the tourists dressed up, and burst your own bubbles, should you come visit Kyoto. Let me know if you do, we can smirk at tourists who don't know any better together and then bum around the places where real maiko may be seen in the evening, if we're lucky...

A living symbol of ideal beauty from another time. The red on the back of the collar is also typical of a real maiko, a detail the photo studios often miss.

P.S. I don't actually know a whole lot about maiko. I've seen the real deal a grand total of three times in 6 years here, and only once was I able to get photos. A lot of the info and the names of the maiko whose photos I got were provided by some kind knowledgeable people I've connected with on Instagram. Hey, I learn things, so it's is good for something!

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