Geisha, Geiko, and Maiko

Geishas, Geikos, and Maikos are well-known around the world as long-standing representatives of Japanese culture. Unlike other Japanese professions, these iconic ladies and their careers have stood the test of time, and continue to do their jobs even now with grace and success.

Maiko in Japan

While the literal meanings of geisha, Geiko, and Maiko are different from each other, these refer to a group of professional women who entertain guests during occasions and entertain them using their skills in the traditional Japanese arts of music, song, and dance.

In this article, I’ll be explaining what geisha, Geiko, and Maiko do, and how they differ from one another. Dive right into the article below to know more!

Geisha

The word “Geisha” in Japanese refers to “Woman of arts”.  The main job of a geisha is to entertain customers through the traditional arts of Japan.

In Japan, geishas serve as professional performers who have been around for centuries to entertain guests at banquets and dinners. They have training in a variety of arts, including music, painting, and dance.

Geisha in Traditional Dance

Apart from being skilled entertainers, they are great at engaging in a good conversation on many topics as well! Their job entails entertaining guests and pouring them drinks to make them feel more at ease.

Geiko

A geisha is also known as Geiko in the Kyoto dialect of the Japanese language. The only difference between these women is that they are known as Geiko in Kyoto and geisha in Tokyo.

“Geisha” is now a commonly accepted term for this profession, and it has become a loanword in several languages around the globe. However, in Kyoto, people still refer to the geishas as Geikos.

Japanese Geisha in Kyoto

Maiko

The Japanese word “Maiko” translates to “dancing child” in English. Simply put, a Maiko is a geisha apprentice who is still honing her skill in traditional Japanese arts and entertainment.

Maikos are typically younger women, aged between seventeen to twenty, who are undergoing training to become full-fledged Geishas. Prior to becoming a geisha, they train for around two years in a variety of disciplines.

Maiko girl – apprentice Geisha in Japan

Due to their status as trainees, their services are considerably less expensive than a professional geisha. The term “Maiko” also translates to “half jewel,” referring to the fact that a Maiko can be hired at a fraction of the cost, unlike a Geisha.

How Do They Differ From Each Other?

Age, appearance, and level of skills are the key differences between Maiko and geisha. But, other factors, including makeup, hair, and jewelry also come into play in differentiating them from one another.

When it comes to spotting the difference between Maikos and geishas, many tend to struggle to tell which one is which. Below is a list of things that you have to keep in mind when identifying them!

Age

Age is a major factor that sets Maikos apart from geishas. Maikos are typically aged between sixteen to twenty, but to be a geisha, a woman has to be more than twenty years old.

As a general rule, it does not take a Maiko more than two years to become a graduate, but in some cases, it can last up to seven years. As a result, there are Maikos in Kyoto who are much older than twenty. But as for the other regions in Japan, they strictly abide by the rules when it comes to age.

Japanese Shamisen a Three Stringed Instrument Played by Skilled Geisha

Women can be geisha at any age, but they must be at least twenty years old. They can be in their mid-40’s and still continue their profession as a geisha. In general, they tend to become increasingly skilled as they age. It takes years of practice to master the art of dance, music, and communication. And, doing it for decades really gives you the time to perfect your skills!

Kimonos

When thinking about ancient Japanese culture, the first thing that comes to our mind is geishas with their distinctive white makeup and gorgeous kimonos. While they all look pretty similar, it’s the subtle differences that make them unique!

 wearing traditional Japanese kimono in Sensoji temple in Tokyo, Japan

The kimono is a traditional Japanese attire worn by Maikos and geishas, both at work and in their everyday life. However, the kimonos they wear are different from the ones an average Japanese woman wears. It’s their age that determines the type of kimono they wear.

Geishas have a simple yet elegant appearance that reflects their maturity. Maiko’s attire, on the other hand, tends to be more bright and colorful, reflecting their youth and innocence.

Maikos wear “sodehiki”, a kimono that is pretty long in size and has a bright hue to it. As geishas are older in age, the kimono they wear comes with shorter sleeves and plain colors.

Geisha or Geiko Often Seen Walking Thru Historic District of Kyoto

Hair

In total, the iconic hairstyles of these women tell a lot more about them than one might think. Maikos wear intricate traditional hairstyles, whereas geishas use a natural wig designed just for them. The hairdos of Maikos are very intricate and it takes them hours to style.

Geisha Wear Custom Fitted Wigs Whereas Maiko Will Carefully Style Their Own Hair

While all geishas can wear a wig of their choice, Maikos are not allowed to do so. They have to style their hair according to their level of training and experience. On top of that, Maikos wash their hair only once a week. They have to sleep on silk woven pillows to keep their hair healthy as well!

Makeup

Contrary to popular belief, Geikos and Maikos do not wear white makeup all the time. It is mandatory for a Maiko to cover her face with white powder, but they have to leave a hint of their bare skin on their hairline.

As for blush, only the Maikos are allowed to have rosy cheeks as it accentuates their face and makes them look young. However, the geishas are not allowed to wear pink or red blush on their cheeks.

An Older Geisha With Both Lips Painted To Signify Status

When it comes to their classic crimson lip, only geishas can paint their lip red. But the Maikos are only allowed to paint their lower lip to appear more innocent. After completing the very first year of employment, they can put on more makeup to appear mature.

Geisha Today 

Geishas have existed in this uniquely Japanese profession for many centuries. So, questions regarding their existence even today are a common phenomenon. However, they still exist in many areas of Japan and especially in Kyoto.

Geishas are widespread throughout different cities in Japan. The most well-known cities where Geishas reside and perform different forms of art are Tokyo, Kanazawa, and Kyoto. However, Kyoto is the most popular city where you are more likely to spot geishas or Maikos in everyday settings throughout the area.

Geisha Greet Each Other As They Pass In Old Kyoto

In fact, four out of the five most popular districts where Geishas reside are from Kyoto. These districts are as follows- Miyagawacho, Gion Higashi, Gion Kobu, and Pontocho. On the other hand, the fifth district where Geishas dwell in other than central Kyoto is Kamishichiken. This area is close to the Kitano Tenmangu Shrine.

 Kitano Tenmangu Shrine in Kamigyo-ku, Kyoto, Japan

Geishas and rising Maikos live in distinct or lodging houses. These houses are called Okiya in Japanese. To master the art of communication and hospitality, young girls training to become Geisha, who live in Kyoto will move to these dormitory-style homes. That’s why the number of relatively younger Maikos is somewhat higher in Kyoto.

Geisha Experience In Kyoto (TripAdvisor Reviews)

As a whole, these young Maiko tend to undergo years of training, study, and testing where only the most talented individuals move forward to become Geisha apprentices. Over the next couple of years, they hone their skills and move on to becoming a highly skilled geisha.

Become A Maiko For A Day In Kyoto

Click the above link if your visiting Kyoto and become Geisha for a day Reservation Required (Kyoto-Maiko.com)

Final Thoughts

Geishas, Geikos, and Maikos are unquestionably icons of Japanese tradition and hospitality. While it’s a shame that the number of them is dropping gradually, it is safe to say that they will never lose their appeal to both Japanese and tourists around the world.

Martial arts is just practice Being a geisha requires complete control

M Yeoh
Maiko Identified By Their Hair Adornments and Colorful Kimonos
MT Lee
My fascination with Japan began several years back at a roadside bonsai stand while on vacation. I became more interested in the where and why's more than the trees themselves. My love of Bonsai led me to further research my interest in the gardens where they originated from and the places and people that surrounded those little trees. My curiosity was well rewarded upon visiting Saitama where the National Bonsai Museum was located and Omiya Village the bonsai mecca for lovers of this ancient art form. Exploring many towns and villages and even making my way to Japan's furthest southern prefecture of Okinawa. I hope to share my love of this wonderful and exotic place with all those who want to know more about Japan.