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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.