The path to becoming maiko no bed of roses

The path to becoming maiko no bed of roses
In this photo taken last June, Toshiemi, right, sees off a senior maiko at the door of Komaya, a geisha house in Kyoto, where she received 10 months of training to become a maiko.

KYOTO - In the geisha quarters of Kyoto's Miyagawacho, training to become a maiko requires around 10 months. During that time, all the young trainees sleep and eat with their proprietress and senior geisha, who are called geiko in Kyoto. Trainees are immersed in what they must learn to work in the geisha quarters.

In Komaya, a geisha house, nine trainees, geiko and maiko live. It is also where one maiko called Toshiemi, whose real name is Asaki Hasegawa, lives and works. The trainees have to share the rooms with senior maiko.

Each trainee is given a private area measuring 1.8 x 1.8 meters. Around their mirror stands, they place alarm clocks, DVD players, makeup pouches decorated with such things as Disney characters and postcards featuring the popular rock band UVERworld. Through such items, you may catch a glimpse of their natural faces buried beneath the makeup.

Trainees like Asaki must clean the rooms. After vacuuming, they clean the mirror stands with wet cloths before polishing them with dry ones.

Once they finish cleaning the room, they move on to cleaning the bathroom.

"Have a good day, ma'am."

When their proprietress leaves the house, the trainees have to see her off in the entrance hall, waiting there until they can no longer see her.

When she comes home, they have to kneel down with their fingers on the floor and say, "Welcome back, ma'am." Before their senior maiko go off to a dinner party, the trainees must take oboko lacquered wooden clogs out of a shoe box and line them up in the entrance hall for maiko. When their seniors leave, they must say, "Have a good day, sister." They must repeat the same words and the same actions every time.

"It's very difficult to reform the attitudes of teenage girls, who have never lived with anyone other than their family," said Fumie Komai, the 70-year-old proprietress of Komaya.

She has nurtured 27 maiko over nearly 50 years and fully understands how difficult it is to raise today's young girls to full-fledged maiko.

Since about 10 years ago, Komaya has allowed girls wishing to become maiko to experience training for a week to help them understand life in the geisha quarters. Asaki, too, experienced this trial training two months before becoming a live-in trainee.

"When you talk to your proprietress or senior sisters, you must sit in seiza [the Japanese style of kneeling on the floor]," Toshimana, a senior maiko from Gifu Prefecture, told Asaki in a way that suggested she was recalling her trainee days. "When you thank people, you must say, 'Oki-ni' [Kyoto dialect for Thank you]."

Listening to Toshimana, a maiko as she longs to be, Asaki's heart beat faster.

However, the actual training was not glamorous at all - it was routine work day in and day out. The girls start with everyday greetings, move on to helping others get dressed and do things behind the scenes at dinner parties, such as setting tables, in addition to practicing dancing and playing instruments, like taiko drums, day after day.

Two others entered Komaya as trainees with Asaki. But they left because they were not allowed to use LINE, a communication app on their smartphones, found it painful to communicate with seniors and, above all, could not stand being away from their families.

"I want to go home," Asaki confessed to her mother, Tomomi, 44, when she called her last September. She had just returned to Komaya after visiting home for the first time in four months.

"You were the one who said you could do this," Tomomi told her daughter coldly. In fact, she missed Asaki very much, but she decided to leave the role of Asaki's mother to the proprietress when she sent her daughter to be trained at Komaya.

It used to be a regular career path in the geisha quarters for girls to join the business as trainees, then become maiko and finally gain the status of geiko after sufficient expertise in dancing and playing shamisen.

Nowadays, though, many girls quit before even becoming maiko.

"In the past, girls were firmly determined to make a career only using the Japanese arts they mastered," the proprietress said. "The determination [of girls today] might be different."

The proprietress understands how difficult it is to hand down the tradition to younger generations.

Akihiko Chine, 57, vice principal of the middle school Asaka had attended, initially helped guide her through the geisha world. He heard of her homesickness via her mother and sent her a letter.

"If you ever come across something you want to run away from, tell yourself, 'This will be over by this time tomorrow, next week or next month,'" Chine told Asaka in his letter. "It's surprisingly effective ... If you think you can't take it anymore, talk to the proprietress or your seniors."

Even now that Toshiemi is a maiko, she sometimes takes out the letter and reads it again.

Geisha house

Maiko trainees live together with a proprietress and senior geiko and maiko in a geisha house called okiya or yakata, where they learn the Kyoto dialect and geisha quarter customs. Customers have parties and are entertained by geiko and maiko at a geisha house called ochaya. Ochaya traditionally do not accept customers that have not been introduced by someone else. When a trainee is about a month away from making her maiko debut, she is allowed to attend a party, wearing handara, or a kimono sash that is half the length of that of maiko. Some places double as okiya and ochaya, like Komaya.

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