Meeting a real maiko in Kyoto might feel like an impossible challenge. Sometimes, geisha spotting in Gion can be a form of an extreme sport. Also, you can be fooled easily by random tourists dressed up in kimono. While I really don’t recommend chasing maiko on the streets, I’m very happy to discover much better ways for meeting a geisha in Kyoto. Open parties with maiko are now a big thing over here. It’s a fun, budget, and unique experience. The world of traditional entertainment has never been closer.
Over the last 15-20 years, the kagai had to adopt new methods to survive in the modern era. The economic situation has been complicated and unstable. Globalization led to a huge development of the tourism industry. Foreign tourists, year by year, started to flood the most famous Japanese sights, as well as the all five of Kyoto’s geisha districts. Restaurants, souvenir stores, kimono rental shops, and others adjusted their prices. But geiko and maiko remained out of reach. The charge itself wasn’t the biggest problem though; it was the unspoken refusal for every first-timer. Such situation caused in fewer bookings and earnings. Hence the need for extraordinary forms of promotion and, gradually, an open access to geisha parties. The kimono and art class bills had to be paid somehow. Tourism finally started to become a helpful instrument of financial stability, not a major threat to the traditional world.
I have already noticed this demand for change within the hanamachi business in 2014. I’ve concluded my observations in both of my academic dissertations. Kyoto’s geisha districts were having a hard time at this certain moment. Back then, I wished I could use my professional skills and help them out in the age of digital marketing. Luckily, I wasn’t the only one who has recognized the problem. Affordable dinners with maiko are now available for everyone. Even the first-timers.
I got invited to experience Enchanted Time with Maiko this week. I must admit that it was an amazing evening. Every single detail was perfect. And I loved the atmosphere over there—relaxing, yet not too casual.
I arrived fifteen minutes before the event at Enraku restaurant on Yasaka-dori. The building, located in Gion, is impressive—huge, traditional, and stylish. I was greeted by an Enraku host, put my zori on a shelf, passed by a beautiful Japanese garden, and headed straight to the second floor. Enraku’s ozashiki room, with tatami mats and uchiwa fans from maiko on the walls, has eight tables. All of them were booked for that night. Several hosts were taking a good care of the guests—answering our questions, collecting drink orders, chatting, and looking fabulous, all dressed in different kimono style.
We were informed that the maiko arrives in ten minutes. I was so eager to find out which maiko visits us this evening. It’s always a surprise at the Enchanted events; even the restaurant staff never has a clue who is booked for the night! I was extremely happy when I saw Fukuna of Miyagawacho, one of my favourite maiko, on the stairs to the second floor. She’s known for her inevitable smile. And I received a bright smile from her when she noticed me in the room.
The lovely Enraku host explained to us the details of Fukuna’s job. She admitted that Fukuna had to sacrifice a lot in order to become a maiko, but she loves working with kimono and traditional entertainment. Such job also brings a lot of extraordinary opportunities, which other 18-year-old girls cannot experience. Fukuna has only one day off per month, though. She loves spending these precious days on shopping and at the movie theater. She can be a bit anonymous during this time, as she is able to let her hair down and wear jeans or skirts.
But this particular evening was reserved for the job. Fukuna performed “Kyo no Shiki” for us. I was quite relieved to see a different dance than classic “Gion Kouta”! It was flawless. Luckily, I had the best seating, so I could enjoy the performance from a short distance.
Fukuna slowly approached me after the dance. She seemed to be surprised. “Onesan, I think I’ve seen you somewhere before… Let me think! I know you for sure!”—she grinned and tried to focus. “Oh, maybe on the streets of Miyagawa? I live in Kyoto now and I hang out here quite often… We bumped into each other at least twice!”. She agreed. “I think it must be one of these accidental encounters indeed! Have you got my hanameishi in this color already?”—Fukuna tossed some white name cards from a silk case. I was unfamiliar with this particular design, so I happily accepted Fukuna’s gift. “Please keep hanameishi in your wallet!”—the Enraku host informed me—”The custom says that their name cards bring money to your pockets”.
Fukuna decided to pose for a photo. “Oh, I totally love your phone case, onesan!”—she squealed—”Is it a black panther? Cool!”. I thanked her heartily and decided to ask a few questions, as we had some time together ahead.
Q: Why did you choose Miyagawacho (among five available hanamachi) for your new home?
Fukuna: I decided to become a maiko after I’ve watched a TV program featuring geisha. I’ve always been in love with kimono and I wanted to wear it every day. Prior to joining my okiya, I’ve done a small research. I wanted to choose a big hanamachi with many active geiko and maiko. This is because I was a bit afraid that I might feel lonely. So I wanted to make a lot of friends! That’s why I chose Miyagawacho—it had the highest number of geimaiko. Here I’ve got eight other friends who debuted as maiko around the same time as I did!
Q: What is the most difficult part of your maiko job?
Fukuna: I find it very hard to have my hair done in nihongami all the time. I can wash and brush it only once per week. And I have to sleep on a special ”pillow” at night—it’s not really a pillow, but a wooden stand. My hair is quite long, but we use a lot of extensions for the nihongami, as well.
Q: Fukuna, what does your name mean (ふく那)?
Fukuna: My name consists of two parts. The first one is Fuku-（ふく）I got it after my onesan (older geiko sister¹) because everyone at my okiya has names with the Fuku prefix. It doesn’t mean anything in particular, it’s just our tradition. However, the last part of my name, -na (那), is more personal. I got the kanji from my hometown, Nasu region in Tochigi prefecture.
Q: Which dance is your favourite?
Fukuna: Definitely “Momiji no Hashi”! I really love the part when I have to dance with two folding fans at once. It looks amazing!
Q: And I must ask which kanzashi is your favourite and why!
Fukuna: I think it’s the maneki kanzashi for December. It’s very cute! I love the dangling maneki neko attachments the most. This kanzashi has paper boards, too. We get them signed by our favourite kabuki actors. My favourite actor is Tamasaburo Bando!
Q: What do you like to eat the most?
Fukuna: I especially love meat. So, oniku meals are my fave ones!
Q: As I recently moved to Kyoto, what do you recommend to visit in here? Besides the hanamachi, of course.
Fukuna: (after a while of intensive thinking) Hmmm, I think that you can stroll around the city center—there are many traditional buildings! I’m a fan of old architecture. You should also see the Gion Kaku tower. The floats of Gion Matsuri (one-month street festival in July²) resemble this temple. So cool!
Q: Have you got any advice for tourists in Kyoto?
Fukuna: Oh, one thing. I’d like them to stop walking and smoking on the streets. It’s really dangerous! They can burn our kimono easily…
Q: By the way, what are your thoughts on street photography in hanamachi? Is it okay or it should be banned?
Fukuna: I’m actually fine with streets shots. I understand that our world is very intriguing for other people, so I don’t mind when they photograph me. However, please be polite and do it in a respectful way. So if you see me on the street, I’m happy to pose for you if I have time!
Q: Are you also okay with photographing you in the morning, when you don’t wear your full maiko attire?
Fukuna: Yes, for me it’s also okay! Just don’t stop me when I’m in hurry. I don’t want to be late! Please remember that I like photographs, but some of my maiko friends don’t like them. It depends. You should always be careful.
Enchanted Time with Maiko—book your seatings here!
The event includes:
– 8-course kaiseki dinner with an all-you-can-drink menu;
– maiko performance and drinking games;
– conversation with maiko.