Much is unknown about the world of a Maiko. On an early April afternoon in central Kyoto I cross a borrowed stone wall entrance in an unassuming side street and enter a strolling garden. I arrive to take photos of a Maiko and find out more. In a situation that feels somewhat unworldly yet welcoming, we begin the photoshoot.

What is a Maiko?
A Maiko is an apprentice Geisha 芸者 (or Geiko 芸子 as they are known in Kyoto). Maiko train in many traditional Japanese art forms, including music, dance, tea ceremony, traditional instruments such as the shamisen, calligraphy and the art of conversation. Geisha means ‘arts person’ with the original Geisha being men. There is often misunderstanding about the role of Maiko and Geisha; they are not courtesans but professional entertainers. They keep alive century-old traditions and use skills in arts and communication to make guests and customers feel at ease at gatherings and parties, often performing dances and playing drinking games.

The word Maiko 舞妓 can translate as ‘dancing child’. Maiko Kanohisa (the name given when she began her studies) is in her first year of training. Girls as young as 15 can choose to begin their apprenticeship once compulsory education has been completed. Training can take 5 to 6 years and if successful, they become Geisha, often after the age of 20. These young women must have great resolve to complete such strict and disciplined training.

Maiko Kanohisa, a natural in front of the camera, started with a fan dance. A captivated audience sat in silence whilst she expressed a story filled with emotion through concise, lyrical movements.

Every kimono tells a story
After the dance we continue the shoot. I am privileged to see up close her elaborate multi-layered silk kimono. The tradition a Maiko embodies also includes the artists and craftspeople who create the clothes and accessories that she wears. Kimono motifs have symbolic meanings. Seasons and the natural world are frequently represented. Several motifs depicted on Maiko Kanohisa’s kimono, including the Camilla – the harbinger of spring. Often kimono have designs that anticipate the future. Japan’s most celebrated April bloom, cherry blossom, is also shown on parts of her garment. She wears other motifs including butterflies, and the tamari ball alludes to her youth.

The long silk sash which hangs to the ground is called a darariobi だらり帯 and is roughly 5-7 metres in length. Her ensemble is extremely heavy and so the only man who can enter the lodging house or Okiya 置屋 where she lives dressed her. Maiko and Geisha live and work in districts called Hanamachi 花街. The lower part of each Maiko’s obi shows the name and crest of each Okiya.

The journey from Maiko to Geisha

Maiko dress differently from Geisha and the different stages of training are shown in clothes, make-up and hair. Here Maiko Kanohisa is in her first year of training, she wears lipstick only on the lower lip and this stage of her training is also shown in her hair ornament or kanazashi 簪. Kanazashi, like kimono, are seasonal and change each month. In April the kanazashi is cherry blossom or sakura; during her first year it is a long spray but in subsequent years will become less ornate. Unlike Geisha, who wear wigs, a Maiko has her own hair styled.

At the end of what was a remarkable day we step out of the villa. Maiko Kanohisa slips on her 10cm high wooden sandals (which often have a bell inside) called okobo おこぼ; this helps prevent her kimono from touching the ground. As we say our goodbyes, a gentle sound rings as she walks away.

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