The main differences between maiko and geisha (geiko) are age, appearance, and skills.
Maiko is usually younger than 20, wears a more colorful kimono with a red collar, and lacks conversation skills. Maiko means “dancing child” which refers to apprentice geisha who are still training. Maiko have to live in the geisha lodging house (okiya) with their mother (okami-san) for 5 years. Maiko is not allowed to have a cell phone, carry any money, or have a boyfriend.
What is a Maiko?
“Maiko are the apprentice geisha who are still training to perfect their cultural and entertainment skills. Maiko’s outfits are more eye-catching to divert attention from the lack of knowledge and experience. Geisha’s fashion is usually more mature and subtle. Maiko must live in the “mother”s house and depend on the little stipend she receives from the geisha house. Geisha, on the other hand, are more independent and live in a separate house of their own in the geisha neighborhoods. You can easily distinguish between geisha and maiko based on the images below”. (Source: Geisha by Liza Dalby)
What is a Geisha (Geiko)?
Geisha are professional artists who are registered in official geisha associations and excel in traditional Japanese arts and crafts such as shamisen playing, dancing, and tea ceremony. Geiko is the word that refers to geisha in the Kyoto dialect. Broma-Smenda (2014) defines it as “Geisha (geigi or geiko) is a traditional Japanese female entertainer, whose skills include various arts like dancing, singing, and playing music. Geishas as male companions at banquets were specialized only in traditional Japanese arts in contrast to courtesans (yujô). Read the origins of geisha, geiko and maiko history here.
What are the differences between a maiko and geiko (geisha)?
The table below demonstrates the differences between maiko and geisha (geiko). Below the table, you will find detailed illustrations and textual explanations as well. If you have any questions, you can email Maikoya or join one of our maiko and geisha experiences in Kyoto.
Geisha vs. Maiko
|Geisha = Geiko||Maiko|
|Gei (arts) sha (person)||Mai (dance) ko (young person)|
|Master in traditional arts, can have a sophisticated conversation||Still training, talks less|
|Older than 20||Between 15 ~ 20|
|Completely white face||Little space between hairline and the white powdered skin|
|Both lips are red||Only the lower lip is red|
|Red around the eyes but less||Red around the eyes|
|No pink blush around the cheeks||Pink blush around the cheeks|
|Different hair style with less hair ornaments||Ware shinobu hairstyle (split peach and sides are also emphasized) with flowers and hairpins|
|Hairpin (kanzashi) are simpler and shorter||Hairpins (kanzashi) are more elaborate. Maiko wears long flowerlike hairpins during the first year|
|Simpler kimono with simpler colors||Brightly colored long sleeve kimono|
|The collars are white||Back of the neck shows the inside of the kimono that is usually red and white|
|The obi (belt) is shorter||The obi (belt) is long and colorful|
|Zori (low sandals)||Okobo (high sandals)|
Maiko vs. Geisha
Meaning of the words Maiko and Geisha
Gei-sha means the person of arts and mai-ko means the child who dances. The word gei in gei-sha and gei-ko refers to performing arts. Sha and ko pretty much have the same meaning in this context: which means a person. Mai means “dance” in Japanese and –ko in this context refers to a child.
Since maiko is still training, she would speak less and usually nods or smiles during a conversation. Geiko, on the other hand, is an expert on how to initiate and maintain a conversation in any circumstance. Geisha would know what kind of conversations make patrons feel calm, relaxed, or happy.
Maiko would attend the dance school every day and practice shamisen playing until she is perfect. Geiko is a professional who can dance, play shamisen, and perform tea ceremonies. The reason that the training takes so long is, geisha dance to different themes and songs almost every month as seasons and festivals pass by. In Kyoto, each geisha district specializes in different musical instruments and different Tea ceremony styles. So, it is not true that all geisha could play any kind of instrument.
Maiko is between the ages of 15 and 20 while the geiko is older than 20. In the past little girls used to be sold to okiya at the age of 7 but since this is now illegal in Japan many girls enter the okiya after they complete the mandatory national education requirement which is junior high school. Even though the typical maiko training is 3~5 years, sometimes the maiko stage can last 7-8 years. So there is actually maiko in Kyoto who are older than 20. Readers should note that maiko only exist in Kyoto, there is no such thing as the maiko-stage in the other geisha districts.
The traces of young girls’ becoming a maiko can still be seen from the outfit of maiko today. For instance, maiko usually wear a sash that shows a huge crest of the okiya they belong to. The reason that mark is very big is, in the past, these little girls used to get lost and people could have brought them back to the houses they belonged to by recognizing the crest.
Geiko usually have simple, elegant, and sophisticated looks that reflect their maturity and wisdom. Maiko’s outfit is colorful and vibrant that reflects her youth and purity.
White Powder on the face
First of all, contrary to the common belief, neither geiko nor maiko wear white makeup all the time; however, when they do, there are differences. Geiko would have a completely white face while maiko has a little space between the hairline and white powdered skin. The reason geiko and maiko put on the white makeup is to be seen clearly when the room is dark as in the past there was no electricity.
Geiko colors both of her lips red while maiko, especially junior maiko color only the lower lip red. Senior and junior maiko have different lip make up patterns.
Red around the eyes
Maiko have distinctive red makeup around the eyes while this redness is less emphasized for geiko. The red makeup around the eyes is often tied to the kabuki tradition who often use white, red, and black colors to be visible to the audience members who may be watching from the distance.
Maiko have some pink blush on their cheeks while the geiko don’t. The idea is that maiko always look young and pure.
Maiko don’t wear a wig. They have to have their own hair styled which costs time and money. Maiko often sleep on a piece of wood (takamakura) at night to keep their hairstyle for a few days. Geiko wear wigs as the styling usually damages the hair over time and aging makes the hair a bit oily which makes it difficult to maintain.
One of the biggest differences between a maiko and geiko is the hairstyle. As clearly visible in the illustrations, maiko have the wareshinobu hairstyle while the geiko have the shimada hairstyle. Senior and junior maiko have different hairstyles. Maiko wear colorful hair ornaments with flower motifs which change every month. Geiko do not wear hair ornaments except a simple comb.
Maiko wears silver dangling metal hairpins called bira. Geiko usually don’t wear hairpins or just use very simple ones.
As can be seen in the images, maiko wear a colorful, usually flower-decorated, kimono with long sleeves while geiko wear a simple kimono with short sleeves. The innerwear of maiko and geiko are also different as illustrated above. To emphasize the young age and purity of maiko usually the chest of maiko is usually suppressed. Both maiko and geiko wear expensive silk kimonos that are always tailor-made and not sold in stores.
One of the main differences between maiko and geiko is the color of the collar they wear. Maiko wear a red collar and geiko wear a white-collar. That is why, when a maiko becomes a professional geiko, they use the term “turning the collar.” Read More about the kimono of maiko and geisha.
Maiko wear a long silk sash that is 5~7 meters long. Geiko wear a simple short sash. Maiko’s outfit can be as heavy as 15 kilos in the winter with the long sash, the complicated innerwear, and the jacket.
Maiko wear tall sandals called okobo and geiko wear short sandals called zori. Maiko’s sandals usually have a bell in place that makes a sound when they move. Although the sounds of these little bells may make them look childish, among the locals this is called the sound of Kyoto streets.
“When the new maiko makes a mistake, she may be surprised, then ashamed, to find that, it is her older sister who will apologize to others. She learns.” ― Liza Dalby (Geisha, 25th Anniversary Edition)
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How to become a Geisha?
To become a geisha, the first step is to apply and be accepted into an okiya, where one can undergo training as a maiko before becoming a geisha. Traditionally, geisha are women of Japanese origin, although it is still possible, just not typical, for foreigners to be accepted for training.
How do Geisha sleep?
Maiko would often be trained to sleep using a takamura as a pillow to maintain their hairstyle. While geiko or geisha would sometimes do the same, some opt to use a wig because the hairstyle would often damage the natural hair over time.
How do I hire a Geisha?
There are many geisha experiences around Kyoto, especially from Kyoto Maikoya Tea ceremony where visitors will be able to see geikos or maikos perform, through a virtual meeting or a private session in person.
Why do Geisha have black teeth and white makeup?
The reason geiko and maiko put on the white makeup is to be seen clearly when the room is dark as in the past there was no electricity. The black teeth or “Ohaguro” is a practice observed to show someone had come of age or become adults and it provides an attractive contrast to the white makeup. Although the practice has died out, some geishas would still dye their teeth in Kyoto.
Are Geishas respected in Japan?
Geishas are highly respected artists and performers in Japan; it is a long and difficult process to become one, especially in Kyoto where the traditions are strictly observed.
Broma-Smenda, K. (2014). Enjo-kôsai (compensated dating) in contemporary Japanese society as seen through the lens of the play Call Me Komachi. Acta Asiatica Varsoviensia, (27), 19-41
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