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  • Writer's pictureRobin Yong

Becoming a Geisha 芸妓になる

Updated: Nov 25, 2023

This was my first photo session with TomiFuku. At only 16 years of age and hailing from Okinawa, TomiFuku has come to Kyoto to fulfil her dream of becoming a maiko/ gesiha. TomiFuku was barely six months into her new job when we first met.

For me, TomiFuku has been one of my greatest models of all time. She's got an incredibly different and round face and is always full of positivity and smiles.

On this day, it was raining heavily. But Tomifuku is undeterred. We were unable to go out to view the autumn leaves at this time but we still managed to get many beautiful photos. We found a yellow colored oil painting so we did a few portraits with TomiFuku standing in front of it...

Her kimono today is so colorful, nicely complementing her sunshine personality. First year maikos with unpainted upper lips and very long kanzashi (hair decorations) actually make the best photos.

After a few shots at the oil painting, Tomifuku showed me a few of her very slick dance moves. These are the dance moves she does at the teahouses and restaurants when they are entertaining guests. She really looks like a doll!

A maiko is an apprentice geisha in Kyoto. Their jobs consist of performing songs, dances, and playing the shamisen or other traditional Japanese instruments for visitors during banquets and parties, known as ozashiki.

Maikos are usually aged 16 to 20, and graduate to geisha status after a period of training that includes traditional dance, the shamisen, kouta (lit. 'short songs'), and, in Kyoto only, learning the Kyoto dialect. Their training generally last 5 years. In the morning, maiko take lessons in the traditional arts. At night, they dance, sing, play the shamisen, and serve visitors at exclusive ochaya (teahouses).

Maikos do not get paid during their training. Everything goes to the teahouse who in turn sponsor their training, food and lodging. Every month, they get a day off work. The training period is tough and few girls complete the 5 years training to become a full fledged geisha.

In modern Japan, geisha and their apprentices are a rarer sight outside of the hanamachi or chayagai (茶屋街, "tea house district", often referred to as "entertainment district"); most sightings of geisha and maiko in and around cities such as Kyoto are actually tourists who pay a fee to be dressed up as either a maiko or geisha for the day, a practice known as henshin.

Over time the number of geisha has declined, despite the efforts of those within the profession. Factors include the nature of the economy, declining interest in the traditional arts, the exclusive and closed-off nature of the karyūkai, and the expense of being entertained by geisha. The number of maiko and geisha in Kyoto fell from 76 and 548 in 1965 respectively to just 71 and 202 in 2006 as a result.

In recent years, a growing number of geisha have complained to the authorities about being pursued and harassed by groups of tourists keen to take their photograph when out walking. As a result, tourists in Kyoto have been warned not to harass geisha on the streets, with local residents of the city and businesses in the areas surrounding the hanamachi of Kyoto launching patrols throughout Gion in order to prevent tourists from doing so. In addition, there are many hidden cameras now set up around Gion to catch naughty tourists, with many signs informing tourists of the presence of such cameras around. It is a very sad state of affairs with so many naughty tourists around. TomiFuku said she has been a victim as well and had people chasing her down the streets of Gion so they could get a picture of her, with some going so far as to tug and pull at her kimono. And I have even seen rogue photographers organising photo workshops with an evening activities waiting in the streets of Gion to take pictures of the geishas!

After an hour, the rain miraculously stopped, so we quickly headed to the Philosopher's Path to do more photos, but that is another story altogether...

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