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.
Turning of The Collar
The day after this ceremony she will have her Erikae (襟替え), meaning “Turning of The Collar.” It is named for the different colors 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.
“When a girl finishes middle school, she immerses herself in this world, sharing quarters with the “mothers” and “sisters” whose way of moving, speaking, and social interaction she will copy. As she starts her dance lessons she is surrounded by professionals to critique, support, and continue her education.The next step, when she is allowed to help out at parties, is yet another opportunity for her to learn by watching and imitating the more experienced geisha. By the time she makes her official maiko debut, she has been tested and judged ready by the larger community, which has a collective stake in her success.” ― Liza Dalby (Geisha, p.12)
In the past, maiko used to be poor girls who are sold to geisha houses at the age of 6-7 and did the house chores until their puberty. Nowadays, young girls who dream of becoming an elegant maiko choose to enter a geisha house (okiya) of their choice after graduating from junior high school. Usually, family members of the future maiko either direct contact with a particular geisha house or go to the geisha association of their town and submit an application. The geisha association can introduce them to various geisha houses. When a housemaster “mother” (okasan) accepts a girl to become a maiko, her long journey begins:
Shikomi Stage (3 months ~ 1 year)
This is the initial phase for adjusting to the hanamachi life and strict rules, taking basic art classes, helping at the okiya with tasks such as cleaning, cooking, etc. Shikomi usually start their training at the age of 15-16, after graduating from junior high school. They can be either introduced to an okiya or contact it directly via mail or phone. Shikomi wear normal clothes at first and then they switch to kimono in prior to move to the next level.
Minarai Stage (2 weeks ~ 1 month)
Minarai means “learning by observation.” Shikomi who passed the first stage of training are allowed to wear the nihongami hairstyle, white makeup, and stage kimono with short obi. They accompany the geiko and maiko at banquets and sometimes they perform simple dances.
Maiko Stage (2 ~6 years)
Maiko is an apprentice geisha, usually between 15 and 21 years old. They style their own hair in complicated nihongami hairstyles, wear 7-meter-long darari obi on their back, put on long-sleeved furisode kimono, and also start putting flower ornaments in their hair. They do the same job as geiko, but they are less experienced and refined. Maiko aspire to become geiko eventually.
* Junior maiko (Usually the first years of training): During the first year, all maiko (except Pontocho maiko) paint the lower lip only and wear kanzashi with long petals hanging loosely. The appearance is a bit different: wareshinobu hairstyle, red collar, flat style of obiage.
* Senior maiko (2nd ~ 6th year of training): Senior maiko are able to wear a white collar in the front and an obiage tied. Ofuku hairstyle plus additional hairstyles for special occasions, such as the katsuyama hairstyle and yakko shimada hairstyle.
Maiko who are over the age of 20 years are allowed to become geiko. There is no test for maiko to become a geiko. Usually, the headmaster of the house decides when the maiko gets to become a geiko (around the age of 21 or so). Geiko wear wigs instead of styling their hair and have much more freedom, but also more duties. Geiko can choose either to specialize in dance or music. There are no age limits on the geisha, there is a geisha (geiko) in Gion who is 90. However, one loses the status of geisha whenever she chooses to marry. Geisha (geiko) must be single.
Did you know?
Maiko, an apprentice geisha, are not allowed to have a smartphone and can see their families only once or twice a year.
There are various ceremonies throughout the career of a geisha. The most important ones are misedashi and erikae.
Misedashi is a formal debut as a maiko or geiko. In general, maiko debut under an “older sister” (more experienced geiko) who guide them through the first moments of career. Misedashi includes a bonding ceremony between the “sisters”. The debutant wears a formal five-crested black kimono and takes rounds at the district to greet local businesses and ask for their favor. The debut outfit consists of the black formal kimono and gold obi. Maiko wear also two bira-bira kanzashi in the front and a pair of miokuri kanzashi (three silver prongs) in the back of their wareshinobu hairstyle.
Erikae means “changing of collar” and it’s the graduation ceremony from maiko to geiko. Erikae is the first day of wearing a wig (instead of styling own hair), fully white-collar, taiko obi, and short-sleeved kimono.
Sakkou is a special period that lasts for 2-4 weeks before erikae. Maiko style their hair in the sakkou hairstyle, wear special kimono and kanzashi. They also perform the Kurokami ( 黒髪 ) dance for the first time. During the sakkou period maiko paint their teeth black known as ohaguro. They cannot drink hot drinks and alcohol during this stage.
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