Differences Between A Maiko and Geisha

by Krystina Quintana

If you stop by Gion Corner in Japan and see a performance by a maiko, you may confuse them with a geisha (or geiko). Leaving you wondering, what is a maiko? While on the exterior, the outfit, makeup, and other aspects of the appearance of maikos and geisha are similar, there are major differences between the two.

Continue reading our complete guide to learn what is a maiko, what is a geisha, and more about these two types of individuals in Japanese culture.

Differences Between a Maiko and Geisha

Since maiko and geisha are both in the "hospitality business," it can be easy to confuse them. However, a simple way of differentiating the two is that a geisha has already completed her training, while a maiko is an apprentice geisha. Part of the confusion may be due to the living spaces of both individuals – maikos and geishas -- living livein a geisha house. However, maiko (meaning dancing child) must live in an okiya (geisha house) with a geisha mother for five years of training.

A quick way to tell the difference between maiko and geisha is by the style of kimono each wears. As maiko are still training in communication, they wear brightly colored kimonos to distract from their underdeveloped skills. In contrast, geisha are fully trained as professional artists and can rely on their hospitality skills to entertain and lead cultural activities.

What is a Maiko?

Still unsure about the answer to the question, “what is a maiko? A maiko is a geisha apprentice in the Kyoto area. Outside this area, those in a similar position would be called hangyoku, meaning half-jewel.

Two maiko talking.

The maiko experience involves a rigorous training regime, which many cannot complete. Often, maiko will either stop training partway through or retire after five years of training and shift to a different field. While training, maiko live at an okiya, which provides maiko with housing, food, training, and clothing. For the first year, junior maiko are trained by senior maiko.

Junior maiko learn traditional rules, manners, and Kyoto dialect during this time. Not all maiko are from the Gion Kobu (largest geisha entertainment district), Gion Higashi, or another Kyoto geisha district, so it's essential to learn the local dialect. After this period, maiko become official maiko, and they perform at ozashiki, a geisha gathering at an ochaya (tea house).

During the day, maiko take lessons to learn traditional Japanese arts. These lessons include learning traditional Japanese instruments, such as the shamisen. Additionally, the days are spent learning Japanese traditional dance and how to put together a tea ceremony.

What Is a Geisha?

A geisha is an entertainer or host registered with the official geisha associations. As a note, a geiko is a geisha, specifically in Kyoto. Outside of the Kyoto area, they are referred to as geisha. Geisha are highly trained entertainers who perform in the arena of singing, dancing, and music. Additionally, they’re trained in the art of communication. Their primary goal is to entertain guests at social gatherings, such as tea houses.

Geisha are also at social gatherings to help make the guests feel comfortable. They are in charge of keeping the conversation flowing, performing, and even drinking games. Becoming a successful geisha means mastering their chosen creative talents, traditional skills, the local dialect, etc. Once the skills are mastered, geisha are ready to perform.

Difference in Age

A maiko is typically between the ages of 15 and 20. Geishas are over 20 years of age. At this point, they have completed their required five or six years of training.

Many years ago, maiko would begin their training at the young age of seven or eight. Now, girls are required to finish their junior high education.

Difference in Appearance

As mentioned, there are quite a few differences between maiko and geiko, especially in their appearance. Besides looking younger, there are other apparent appearance variations between the two. Geisha are intended to look more sophisticated, so their hairstyles, clothing, makeup, etc., reflect this by featuring less color than maiko. Maiko wear colorful outfits and makeup to signify their youth and purity.

Below are additional differences in the appearance of geiko and maiko.

Makeup

It’s important to note that geisha and maiko do not always wear white makeup. It is only worn during performances in the evening, as the white color helps the audience see the performer’s faces more easily. When a maiko wears makeup, there will be a line near their hairline which is not white as they do not wear wigs. Geisha do not have this white line as their wig covers the area.

Additionally, maiko wear red lipstick on their lower lip only during their first year of training, while geisha wear red lipstick on both lips. Maiko typically wear red and pink-hued makeup around their eyes and eyebrows. Additionally, maiko usually wear pink blush. Geisha will have simpler makeup, with only a hint of red around their eyebrows and eyelids. They also typically wear black eyeliner.

Hair

As mentioned, the hairstyles of geisha are simpler and more sophisticated, while maiko have much more ornate hairstyles. Maiko hairstyles use their own hair and include brightly colored hair ornaments. Their hairstyle is typically worn for a few days, as it's very labor-intensive and expensive. This means they must sleep on a takamakura, a piece of wood that holds their head up. Geiko only wear a simple comb in their wigs. Geiko typically wear wigs as they're easier to maintain, and often their hair has sustained damage from the detailed hairstyles worn as maiko.

Wardrobe

The wardrobe is also quite different between geiko and maiko. As expected, maiko wear more ornate kimonos, typically featuring a floral pattern, long sleeves, and a red collar. Geiko wear simpler kimonos with short sleeves and a white collar. Additionally, maiko wear long sashes on the back of their kimonos. Geikos also wear sashes, but they’re much shorter.

Even the sandals worn by maiko and geiko are different. Maiko wear taller sandals with bells, called okobo, while geiko wear shorter sandals, known as zori.

Maiko shoes.

Difference in Skills

Of course, appearance and age are just some of the differences between a maiko and a geiko. They each bring different skill levels and sets of skills in Japanese art to the world.

Conversational

She will likely come across as shy if you converse with a maiko. While in training, maiko are developing their conversational skills. Meaning most of their responses come in the form of a smile or nod. In contrast, geiko are experts on the topic of conversation. They can approach any patron and make them feel at ease by knowing what to discuss to create a comfortable environment. Geiko are also experts in maintaining a conversation.

Cultural

Maiko spend their days learning cultural skills, such as dancing and singing. Geiko already have these skills established. Depending on the district, maiko will learn different instruments (like the shamisen) and tea ceremony styles. It's also important to note that maiko must learn different dances and songs to perform each month according to the festivals and events. One example of a seasonal performance is Miyako Odori, a spring show which occurs in April each year. The need to learn many dances and songs is the reason for the long training period.

Do Geishas Still Exist?

Perhaps you’re wondering, “do geishas still exist?” To put it simply, yes! You can still see maiko and geiko walking around Kyoto. However, it's important to note that their workday starts in the evening. So, if you see someone dressed as maiko or geiko during the day, they are likely tourists.

If you do see maiko or geiko walking in the streets, it’s common courtesy to avoid asking for pictures or stopping them. However, you can visit an ozashiki to see geisha culture in person. Most people travel via Japan railway to Kyoto Station and then to an ozashiki near Yasaka Shrine in the geisha district. As a note, it is necessary to arrange a geisha experience beforehand. 

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