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Maiko: The history of apprentice geisha and their Fan

Maiko, known as apprentice geisha in Kyoto and Western Japan, have a long and bountiful history. The role of a Maiko is to perform songs and dances, and play the shamisen or other traditional Japanese instruments for visitors during ozashiki, a form of geisha gathering. Maiko are usually introduced to the geisha lifestyle around 15 to 20 years old and become a geiko, a qualified geisha, after learning how to dance the traditional dances, play the shamisen and speak Kyō-kotoba, the dialect of Kyoto. Let’s take a look at the unique journey of the well known traditional Japanese geisha and her origins where she will have started as a Maiko.

What makes the Maiko

The translation of Maiko literally means ‘Woman of Dance’, o-shaku (御酌), ‘one who pours (alcohol)’ or Hangyoku (半玉), the ‘Half-Jewel’ as apprentice geisha were paid half of the wage of a full geisha whilst in training and were often found to be serving alcohol during performances. Maiko originated from women who served green tea and dango, a Japanese dumpling made from rice flour, to people who visited the Kitano Tenman-gū or Yasaka Shrine, two of the most famous shrines in Kyoto. Maiko also served tea at the temple teahouses in the temple town, a tradition that dates back over 300 years. Tradition is still evident in modern Maiko. In the mornings, Maiko take authentic lessons to polish their performance skills and at night they go out to work. The evening sees Maiko girls dancing, singing, playing the shamisen and serving visitors at exclusive ochaya, establishments where patrons are entertained by geisha.

A certain look

Characterised in appearance by distinctive Japanese costumes and makeup, the signature Maiko style is instantly recognisable. The white make-up and elaborate kimono and hair of Maiko mirrors the popular image that is held of geisha. During their career, a Maiko will wear different kinds of nihongami, traditional Japanese hairstyles, depending on their rank, formality and occasion. They often decorate their hairstyles with seasonal kanzashi, traditional hair ornaments, and unlike geisha, Maiko use their own hair and not wigs. Typically, at the start of a Maiko’s career, she will wear the traditionally elaborate makeup and dress every day but, as she becomes a trained geisha, after three years of her profession, her elaborate makeup and dress becomes lighter and simpler as she will be known more for her talent and skill rather than her appearance.

The Maiko fan

The history of the Japanese hand fan is a beautiful and cultural piece of the past. Used as a way to keep cool, for decorative purposes or in this case entertainment, the hand fan has changed vastly in terms of purpose however the unique style and craft has continued to stay the same. Geisha of all types often use hand fans for performance or as an accessory, especially Maiko. Maiko fans are used in the famous fan dances that apprentice geisha are trained to perform and execute with true elegance. Geisha and Maiko also use fans as a way of expressing themselves and they are critical elements in their dances. More so in previous years, the fan was used to cover a geisha’s face in an act of purposeful shyness, while using the eyes emotively to portray a sense of mystery and enticement. Fans could be held in many ways to show different feelings.

Kamogawa Odori

More than any other place in Japan, Kyoto is known for geisha and Maiko. Though visiting a traditional tea house is very difficult without invitation, geisha and Maiko from Kyoto’s traditional geisha districts put on public dance displays every spring and summer, giving visitors an excellent chance to witness the skill and grace of Kyoto’s best performing artists. The Kamogawa Odori Dance or The Kamo River Dance is performed in May by the Pontocho geisha and shares its long tradition with the Miyaki Odori Dance, both of which date back to the Kyoto Exposition in 1872. The Kamogawa Odori is unique in its extensive use of fans during the dancing, where geisha and Maiko weave around the stage in swirling patterns, twirling fans in one hand and flower bouquets in the other.
Geisha and Maiko use only the best quality traditional products for dressing and entertaining including their kimono, shoes, and of course fans, keeping craftsmen in work and preserving their knowledge and history for years to come. At Atelier Japan, we have an exclusive range of traditional Maiko fans that have never before been sold outside of Japan, explore our unique range of handcrafted fans and purchase your own piece of authentic Japanese culture.

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Japanese Entertainment: The history of Geisha

Over the years, many Japanese traditions have evolved, including that of the geisha; a piece of Japanese culture that exemplifies just how much influences from all areas of history and society can alter a long-held tradition. Geisha are Japanese women who entertain through the performance of ancient skills such as art, dance and signing. Characterised in appearance by distinctive Japanese costumes and makeup, the signature style is instantly recognisable. With many stages to the training of becoming a geisha and the levels of accomplishment thereafter, there is more than meets the eye to this iconic part of Japanese culture. Let’s take a look at the history of geisha and how its traditions have changed over time.

Early origins

In early Japanese history, female entertainers were often girls whose families were displaced during the struggles of the early 600s. Whilst Saburuko girls sold sexual services, others with a higher level of education made their living by entertaining at high-class social gatherings, initiating the start of geisha culture.
As this new culture grew, so did the emergence of beauty-focused, elite female performers.
‘Tayuu’ would entertain both as an actress and a prostitute during the 16th century. This early geisha performed dances and skits, a new form of Japanese art dubbed as ‘kabuku’ which meant ‘to be wild and outrageous’. These dances and acts were also the beginning of Kabuki theatre, a classical Japanese dance-drama that features dance and elaborate looks similar to that of the geisha.

Emergence of the geisha

Near the turn of the 18th-century, the first geisha began to appear. The first recordings were males who entertained customers waiting to see the most popular and gifted courtesans. It wasn’t until after 1760 that female geisha become more known and worked in the same establishments as male geisha after first performing as ‘dancing girls’ from a young age in the private homes of the upper-class samurai.

Rise of the culture

By 1800, being a geisha was considered a female occupation and as time evolved so did the style of dress, which would soon be emulated by fashionable women throughout society. The many different ranks and classifications of geisha meant that whilst some still chose to have engagements with male customers, others were strictly seen for their performance of traditional art forms.
Highly accomplished geisha began to offer an even more unique style of entertainment during the 18th century. Many courtesans entertained their clients by singing, dancing and playing music, with the exception of some renowned poets and calligraphers.
The popularity continually grew until World War II. The war brought a huge decline in the arts, meaning most of the women were forced to work in factories or elsewhere. The geisha lost its name and status during this time as many prostitutes began to refer to themselves as geisha girls to American military men. In 1944, geisha tea houses, bars and homes were forced to close. Within a year they were allowed to re-open, but with only a few women returning to the areas that were once at the heart of geisha culture, it was decided that as much of the custom and culture linked to the geisha name as possible would be preserved by rejecting Western influences and reverting back to the traditional standards of the profession.

Modern influence

Modern geisha still live on in traditional houses called ‘okiya’, where they spend their time in training as young apprentices, though the number of women taking on the role is continually in decline. New rules mean that girls must go to school until they are 15 before they can make the choice to train to become a geisha; a contradiction of traditional training methods where girls began training when they were around the age of six. However, they can still study and practice traditional Japanese instruments, songs, calligraphy, dances, tea ceremonies, literature and poetry to have the skills needed to perform in the future. In modern Japan, geisha and their apprentices are now a rare sight outside of the tea house and entertainment district, with the most common place to see their influence being that of tourists paying a fee to be dressed up as one.
There is a lot to learn about this culture, history, and its continual transformation. The performance and lifestyle of the geisha will always remain a tradition of Japan with the efforts to increase the numbers of geisha being something of a priority. For many people, this ancient form of entertainment is one that should remain extraordinary, not just a tourist attraction.
At Atelier Japan, we focus on traditional Japanese culture and history throughout all of our products. Go online to find an exquisite range of traditional Japanese tea, pottery, jewellery and silverware and let us bring traditional Japanese design to your home.