The following is a sample of my article published in the magazine Kleopatra


Girls of the Flower Cities

You will not hear the expression geisha in Kyoto. Women who perform traditional arts professionally are referred to as geiko (literally “artists”). Geiko used to prepare themselves for their carriers from an early age, but nowadays it’s usually not until the age of 15. They can become official apprentices called maiko (literally “dancers”) after they finish their compulsory school attendance. Those who have gone through this preparatory stage for at least 3 years become highly respected as professionals, because these days girls longing to become geiko are unable to undergo this stage because of their advanced age.

Both novice, and later professionals, devote 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, to their art. Apprentices live in houses called yakata or okiya together with a woman who runs the whole house. She is referred to as okaasan (mother). According to tradition, a person who decides to study a traditional art, is adopted by the family of the teacher with whom she/he has a parental relationship. This is the same for maiko as well as for students of the tea ceremony. An okiya will lend a variety of kimonos to a novice and also pay for her studies. In return, the maiko turns over a certain percentage of her income to the house to pay back her “debt”. Everyday studies consist of traditional dance, singing, tea ceremony, flower arrangement (ikebana), calligraphy and playing musical instruments (especially koto and the 3-stringed guitar-like shamisen), etc...

I heard "Ookini Oneesan" ("thank you sister") in one of the lanes winding between the wooden houses. Like elsewhere in Japan, the apparent humility and respect towards the elders and more experienced, can also be noticed in the geiko-maiko relationship. Apprentices call their elder colleagues “oneesan” (“older sister”). Together with them, they attend parties and learn how to dance and pour sake to the guests by watching them - “minarai”. This is also very attractive to the customers as they are able to watch young maiko dancing to music professionally played by geiko. Geiko are often active at an advanced age. The oldest are over 90 years old.

Not only music and dance contribute to the loose atmosphere, but also several games. For example, a popular one is called “The tiger game”, which is similar to our “rock, scissors, paper”. A big paper screen is placed between a customer and a geiko, and they simultaneously imitate one of the following: a hunter, a tiger or an old woman. They can not see one another, but the other customers are entertained by watching the old woman beating up the hunter or being eaten by the tiger. All this entertainment is accompanied by the pouring of more and more sake into cups that mustn’t get dry. Even though maiko and geiko always have to look for new ways to make their guests happy, customers (to the disappointment of Europeans) can never expect any sexual services in the tearooms. You can often find people of consequence among the guests, and it is mainly the intimate atmosphere of confidentiality, that is important to them. In a tearoom, they can talk about anything without having to worry that somebody outside the closed door is going to learn about it.