Most women enter the profession at the young age of 15 as compulsory education in Japan only goes up to middle school. Once they’ve made up their minds they can either be referred to the proprietress of an okiya by someone that they know, applying to the geisha union of a specific district, or contacting an okiya directly. Due to the popularity of the internet more and more okiya have started their own websites to showcase the glamorous lives of geisha and maiko and to allow young women to apply directly to them. The woman in question will then be interviewed by the proprietress of an okiya to see whether or not she’s serious about this line of work. If she is accepted then she will move into the okiya and begin her training.
When these women join the profession they are known as Shikomi (仕込み), which means “In Training.” This stage of training will last for approximately one year. During this time the young women will take lessons in dance and music, learn how to wear kimono, and speak in the special dialect of Kyoto known as Kyo Ben (京弁). Once she is deemed ready to enter the profession by her teachers she will take an exam. If she passes then she will set a date for her official debut.
Approximately one month before her debut she will begin to entertain at parties wearing the heavy kimono and makeup that have become iconic symbols of the profession, but instead of directly entertaining guests directly she will sit and watch her seniors and learn from their example. This stage is known as Minarai (見習い), which means “Learning By Observation.”
Once that period is up she will debut in a special ceremony known as Misedashi (見世出し), which means “Open For Business.” From this day forward she will be a Maiko (舞妓), meaning “Woman of Dance,” and undergo an apprenticeship that lasts an average of five years. Unlike geisha, maiko are yet untrained in the art of conversation and other formal arts, so their name reflects their limited specialization in dance.
Towards the end of their apprenticeship a maiko will enter a stage known as Sakkō (先笄), named for the special sakkō hairstyle that they wear, which lasts approximately 2-4 weeks. During this time they will wear the sakkō hairstyle as a sign that their apprenticeship is ending and that they will soon become geisha. They will even perform a special dance named Kurokami (黒髪), meaning “Black Hair,” to show their newfound womanhood. On the final day of their apprenticeship the maiko will take part in a special ceremony known as Danpatsu Shiki (断髪式), in which fellow maiko and geisha, along with loyal customers, will take turns clipping the wires that held her elaborate hairstyle in place. Once her hair is free she is no longer a maiko.
The day after this ceremony she will have her Erikae (襟替え), meaning “Turning of The Collar.” It is named for the different colours of kimono collars that maiko and geisha wear; a maiko will wear a red collar with heavy white embroidery while a geisha will wear a pure white collar with no ornamentation. From this day on she will now wear the more subdued outfits of a full geisha.
While rare, a woman can enter the profession at a later age, but they will debut directly as a geisha instead of a maiko at the end of their one year of shikomi training.
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