Weekly Shiritori #49

Last week’s post was about Gunma (ぐんま / 群馬), so this week I need to start with ま (ma). A big thank you to everyone who joined in this week and played the game – UK Seikatsu who suggested Mario Brothers (マリオブラザース), Mameshiba (豆しば – which I wrote about in Week 10), manga (漫画), maguro (マグロ / tuna), matsuri (祭り / festivals – which I wrote about in Week 34), and maiko (舞妓); Judith who suggested Marugame (丸亀) and maiko; lovelycomplex22 who suggested maiko and maguro; zoomingjapan who suggested  Matsumoto (松本 – which I wrote about in Week 26), Matsuyama (松山) and matcha (抹茶); Andreh who suggested matcha; and JayDee who suggested  maguro and Matsumoto Castle (松本城). All such great suggestions, but with three votes I decided to write about…

Maiko (まいこ / 舞妓)

Maiko in Matsuo Taisha Shrine

Maiko in Matsuo Taisha Shrine © Q.Sawami/© JNTO

Most people would recognise the girls in the image above, but many would call them geisha (芸者). However, these girls are not geisha, they are maiko (舞妓). A maiko is an apprentice geisha, usually aged 15 to 20 years old. They don’t become a geisha until after they have learnt how to dance and play the shamisen (three-stringed japanese instrument), and the learning process is very tough. You can tell the difference between a maiko and a geisha quite easily –  a geisha is usually dressed more plainly than a maiko, with simpler accessories. Here’s an example from Wikipedia:

A mature geisha (centre) and two maiko, serving tea at the Plum Blossom Festival at Kitano Tenman-gū

A mature geisha (centre) and two maiko, serving tea at the Plum Blossom Festival at Kitano Tenman-gū

Maiko and geisha are most commonly found in Kyoto, but do also live in other parts of Japan, including Tokyo. However, Kyoto will always be the place that tourists flock to for a glimpse of these beautifully dressed women. Modern geisha still live in traditional geisha houses called okiya (置屋) in areas called hanamachi (花街 / flower towns), such as Gion and Ponto-cho in Kyoto. I have been lucky enough to spot a maiko in Kyoto before, but would never aim to hunt them down in the way some tourists do. I spotted this maiko back in 2006:

Maiko in Kyoto, 2006

Maiko in Kyoto, 2006

At the time I wasn’t sure if she was a real maiko or not, but according to the comments left on my Flickr page it appears she is (although I don’t know how valid the comments are):

Flickr comments

I also spotted a few ‘fake’ maiko around Kyoto, which are much easier to find than the real thing:

Women dressed up as maiko in Kyoto, 2006

Women dressed up as maiko in Kyoto, 2006

Dressing up as a maiko or geisha is very popular among tourists and, as you must know from my blog, I did it myself back in 2006 on my first trip to Japan. I went to a studio called Yume Koubou, and went to their Kyoto Eki-Mae Head Studio just to have photos taken (not to walk around, as you can at some studios). The price today is ¥9,975 (about £75), which includes a CD of all the photos. I think it was about that much when I did it six years ago, and it was absolutely great value for money. I’d do it again any day!

Maiko Me, March 2006

Maiko Me, March 2006

The word ‘geisha’ literally means ‘art person’ or ‘performing artist’ and ‘maiko’ means ‘dance child’. These days maiko and geisha still work hard as entertainers (perhaps harder than ever before, in order to maintain their craft), and can be seen performing for the public as well as at private functions. As well as learning traditional dances and learning to play the shamisen, maiko now learn other instruments and arts, such as shakuhachi (bamboo flute) and calligraphy, making them all-round entertainers.

The world of maiko and geisha – the karyūkai (花柳界 / the flower and willow world) – is one which fascinates me. It seems incredible that even today such artists exist, walking around modern Japan in beautiful kimonos, working hard to perfect their crafts. In a way the tradition seems archaic, but it’s one of the remaining things that makes Japan the mysterious place we foreigners often see it as, and it’s the mystery and ‘otherness’ that is the main attraction for most people when it comes to falling in love with Japan.

Maiko in Kyoto, 2006

Maiko in Kyoto, 2006


Maiko (まいこ) ends with こ (ko), so next week I will be looking for a noun beginning with “ko”. Please join in with your suggestions and I’ll give you a mention next week. It’s getting tougher now as the year comes to an end (only 3 weeks to go!), so I really appreciate your ideas and input! But don’t forget, no words ending in ん! (^_^)v

Also, as the year is coming to an end, I’m starting to think about next year’s weekly series. I want to try something new, so if you have any ideas or suggestions, please leave a comment below! 😀

14 thoughts on “Weekly Shiritori #49

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