You have no doubt heard other people tell you that they had seen a geisha during their trip to Japan, in Kyoto, but was it really a geisha or was it a maiko that they had seen? ? Or could it even be that it was a tourist who paid to dress as a geisha? The differences can be subtle, but let’s see how to tell the difference between a geisha and a maiko and between a geisha and a geiko.

The geisha and the geiko

Word geisha (芸 者) consists of the two terms (芸, gei) or “art” and (者, sha) or “person”. Geisha are experts in traditional Japanese arts including music, song and dance, and referred exclusively to those of the region of Tokyo and its surroundings. Conversely, the geiko was usually the name given to the geisha of Kyoto. Nowadays, the term “geisha” has become generic and now encompasses both regions.

The geiko and the maiko

A maiko (舞 妓), which translates to “dancing girl” or “child”, is a geiko apprentice. They trained for about 5 years in different Japanese arts before becoming geiko. Outside of Kyoto, Tokyo’s hangyoku (半 玉) are the closest to maiko. The term “hangyoku” translates to “half jewel”. They are geisha apprentices but little is known about their training.

So to sum up the difference between a geiko and a maiko, or between a geisha and a hangyoku, is the same as between a master and his apprentice.

Now that the definition between the two is clear, how do you recognize a geisha from a maiko?

1. Hair

Geisha usually wear a very simple wig called a shimada over their hair like in the picture below. Maiko do not wear wigs but arrange their own hair in different ways depending on the advancement in their training, the most typical being the wareshinobu or “split peach”.

A typical geisha hairstyle

A typical geisha hairstyle

An example of a maiko's hairstyle during her apprenticeship

An example of a maiko’s hairstyle during her apprenticeship

2. The decorations in the hair

Maiko wear decorations or kanzashi very elaborate in the hair during their 5 years of training.
They also wear beautiful hana-kanzashi, ornaments with silk flowers that hang from the top of the maiko’s head to the side of her chin. Although these are the most recognizable adornments, they only wear them during their first year of learning.

In contrast, the decorations that geisha wear in their hair are much simpler and never wear hana-kanzashi.

An assortment of hana-kanzashi for the month of May with purple irises and wisteria

An assortment of hana-kanzashi for the month of May with purple irises and wisteria

An example of the much simpler hair accessories worn by a geisha

An example of the much simpler hair accessories worn by a geisha

3. Make-up

Since maiko do not wear a wig, they have a characteristic band of white makeup-free skin at the base of the hair. On the other hand, they color their eyebrows red or pink and their eyes are highlighted in red and black. Maiko in their first year of apprenticeship will only have lipstick on the lower lip. The following years, they will wear on both lips.

Since geishas normally wear a wig, they have no visible strip of skin at the base of the hair, their eyebrows have a slight touch of red, their eyes are only highlighted in black, and finally, their lips are shiny red. .

Makeup of a maiko

Makeup of a maiko

4. The kimono

Maiko often wear very colorful kimono with long sleeves and a very wide obi that they wear in a “train” with a knot that goes up to the shoulder blades, the end of the obi almost dragging on the ground. This one is called obi darari and can grow up to 10 meters long! The collar of the kimono is worn very low in the back, is thick and embroidered and contains only the colors red, gold and white.

Geisha are more mature and therefore wear kimonos in relation to their age, duller than those of maiko and with shorter sleeves. Their obi (obi nagoya) is shorter and worn in a “drum knot”. Finally, the kimono collar is completely white and higher, at the neck.

The simple kimono with shorter sleeves and a shorter obi of the geiko contrasts with the more elaborate one of the maiko

The simple kimono with shorter sleeves and a shorter obi of the geiko contrasts with the more elaborate one of the maiko

5. The shoes

Maiko wear okobo(お こ ぼ), very thick wooden sandals which decrease in thickness as the learning progresses.

Geisha wear zori (草 履) or geta(下 駄) that maiko can also use for special occasions.

The geisha geta are lower than the maiko's okobo

The geisha geta are lower than the maiko’s okobo

Here is a video (in Japanese and English) of the differences between maiko and geiko explained by a geiko:

The real geisha compared to the geisha or maiko for tourists

With all these differences between geisha and maikos, how can you know about a person with white make-up, wearing a kimono and traditional hairstyle is really a maiko or geisha or just a copy? Here are some signs that do not lie!

1. Decorations in hair and makeup

Since hana-kanzashi is only worn for the first year by maiko and in this case only their lower lip is painted red, a person with these decorations in their hair and both red lips is a sham!

Signs that do not deceive:

Signs that do not deceive: “hana-kanzahi” with the two red lips, the presence of colors other than red, gold and white on the collar and very little red on the same collar

2. The time of day

The maiko and geisha start their work around 5:30 p.m. So, if you see a person in geisha attire during the day, it probably isn’t!

Be careful though because exceptionally, they can have an appointment during the day but it is rare.

3. The place where you meet them

Because maiko and geisha have celebrity status, they avoid crowded places and therefore use alleys rather than large avenues to move from one place to another.

4. Photos

Their clients pay the maiko and geisha for the time spent with them, which includes the time for them to move from one place to another. That’s why they won’t stop to take pictures.

5. The process

Maiko okobos can be very tall so for someone who is not used to it, it will be very difficult to walk or even balance. Maiko are used to it and don’t have this kind of problem.

6. The patterns on the kimono

The geisha and the maiko wear kimono whose patterns vary with the rhythm of the seasons. Likewise, the patterns of the decorations in their hair correspond to the season. if you see someone wearing a fall kimono in the spring, they are definitely not a geisha!

With all of this information, you should now be able to easily distinguish between geisha and maiko and between true and bad copies!

Source: What’s the difference between a Geisha, a Maiko and a Geiko?

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