“Maiko”(舞妓) refers to a trainee of Geisha, traditional female dancers in Japan. Their attractive make up and traditional beautiful garment known as kimono are the typical features which attract beaming attention by tourists on the busy streets of Gion in Kyoto. They sing, play traditional musical instruments and talk to guests who visit Ozashiki (お座敷), which can be found in specific districts in Kyoto. The world of Maiko is doubtlessly gorgeous, but becoming Maiko is another story. It requires years of hard training and work.
But what process should it take to become a Maiko?
1. Qualifications to become Maiko
First of all, age is the most important factor if you want to become Maiko in Japan. The age of Maiko is from 15 to 20, and most girls who decided to become Maiko start to look for Okiya (置屋) which can accept them at the age of 15. However, no other specific qualification or academic background will be required to be a Maiko. As long as you have a strong will to get through difficult training and hardship, everyone can apply for Maiko even if you are not Japanese.
2. What are the basic steps to become Maiko?
- Find Okiya and contact them to ask if they can accept you.
First, you need to contact any of Okiya in Kyoto and ask them whether they can accept you as an apprentice. They are responsible for providing a range of support which includes food, clothing and housing for their apprentices. They play an essential role as not only a Maiko agency but also a dormitory for them. Once you get accepted, you need to move to Kyoto and reside with other apprentices.
- Participate in rigorous training (6 months – 1 year)
At Okiya, you will learn the fundamental manners and traditional rules which are required to become a professional Maiko. In general, senior Maiko take care of new apprentices and teach them how to behave and speak like Maiko. That includes learning Kyo-kotoba(Kyoto dialect). Not all of the Maiko trainees are Kyoto naitive, so they have to learn the Kyoto dialect and master them first.
- Start to work as a professional Maiko at Ozashiki
After finishing 6-month up to a year training at Okiya, you can start to welcome guests as a professional Maiko at Ozashiki. In general, they spend their morning preparing for evening performances or improving their skills. It includes lessons for Shamisen(三味線), a traditional Japanese musical instrument played by Maiko at Ozashiki.
Many Ozashiki get busy around 6pm, when guests get off their work and flock to the alluring districts. As many of them adopt “Members only” policy, meaning they don’t accept first-time customers, Maiko are expected to be specialized in entertaining regular guests who visit there frequently.
- What happens when they turn 20?
At the age of 20, Maiko become Geisha (芸者), which is generally considered as a more mature and professional entertainer. It is a turning point for Maiko in their life, and some of them choose to continue their career, whereas others make a new start in a completely different field.
3. Traditional rules that Maiko have to follow
It may surprise you, but Maiko can basically receive no salary until they finally become Geisha at the age of 20. This is because Maiko is considered as an “immature apprentice” rather than “professional job”.
While they live at Okiya, however, they don’t need to pay for all the daily necessities including food, clothing and housing. They can also receive some pocket money which they can use freely.
- No boyfriend rule
In some cases, Maiko is not allowed to have a boyfriend to protect the image. Some people also say they are just too busy with their training to make a boyfriend.
4. Maiko experiences in Kyoto
It’s difficult to get in Ozashiki for the first-timer as we mentioned, but there are some places offering Maiko experience and the opportunity to see their performance for travelers.
5. Things to remember when you see Maiko in Kyoto
Not every person who walks on the street of Kyoto wearing Kimono and traditional makeup is Maiko, since it is also popular for tourists to try a Maiko experience. But please note that when you see a real Maiko, don’t follow them, nor touch or ask for a picture with you. Imagine you get asked to take pictures every second you walk on the street, and keep being followed by strangers every day. Please pay some respect and leave them alone, if you want to interact with Maiko, visit Ozashiki or the experiences we mentioned above.
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