Facts about Kyoto’s Geisha Quarter

Kyoto’s Geisha Quarters

Kyoto’s districts of Kamishichiken, Gion Kobu, Gion Higashi, Ponto-cho, and Miyagawa-cho are known as the five kagai, or geisha quarters. (This word is written with characters meaning “flower” and “town,” but in other dialects of Japanese, the word is read as “hanamachi,” instead.) When Shimabara is included, they are called the six kagai. (*Shimabara was a district for courtesans, known as oiran, and did not have apprentice geisha.)*Acceptable even with the kagai mark.

Trainees, Apprentices, and Geisha

To become a geisha, a young woman moves into a geisha house, or okiya, following graduation from junior high school around the age of 15. This is her training period, when she is known as a trainee, or shikomi, and during this time, she learns the particular expressions and behavior of the kagai. Another word for this kind of trainee is “ochobo.” During this time, trainees take lessons, aid their “elder sisters,” and help out with work in the okiya. When a trainee passes her examination in dance, which occurs after about a year, she spends time as an apprentice, and then becomes a geisha.

This is known as a debut, or misedashi, and the newly-minted maiko spends three days visiting dinner parties dressed in crested black kimono. Before a maiko becomes a fully-fledged geisha, she wears her own hair arranged in the distinctive hairstyle required. Younger maiko wear a traditional hairstyle known as wareshinobu, while senior maiko wear a style called ofuku. A maiko must sleep at night using a raised pillow to avoid spoiling the arrangement of her hair. A maiko spends each day taking lessons and each night attending parties.

As a maiko approaches the age of 20, she becomes more and more of an adult. The ceremony in which a maiko becomes a fully-fledged geisha is known as erigae (literally, “changing the collar”). Until now, she has worn red collars with her kimono; now, she will switch to white ones. She has also lived in an okiya until now, but when she moves out, she is said to “go solo.” It is akin to an entertainment production becoming independent.

Ochaya and Okiya

For geisha and maiko, the okiya acts similarly to a talent agency to which modern performers are affiliated. Becoming a maiko requires a period of training called “shikomi.” A young woman moves out of her family home after graduating from junior high school, moves into an okiya , and studies to become a maiko. Her training in traditional performing arts, such as music and dance, also occurs in the okiya. A tea house, or ochaya, is like a studio available for rent. It offers the hardware needed: the venue of a banquet room , beverages and snacks, and decor that are suited to the season and particular guests, uch as wall scrolls and flower arrangements. Ochaya have banquet rooms but no kitchens. Thus, the meals they serve are catered by restaurants.

The proprietress of an ochaya acts as the producer, so to speak, of the receptions. Based on the requests of the guest, she makes the arrangements to prepare the banquet rooms and books geisha and maiko. By the way, guests are not allowed to contact okiya on their own to make arrangements for geisha and maiko. The rules require guests to rely upon the ochaya for all such matters.

Types of Geisha Parties

The basic format of a geisha party is for guests to enjoy a catered meal and entertainment by geisha and maiko, arranged by the ochaya in a banquet room. It is also possible to have restaurant staff make the trip to you, as we do with Kyoto Maiko Experience. For those who are experienced in engaging geisha, there is also the option of being accompanied by a maiko to dine out, which is called “gohantabe.”

The fees paid for geisha, maiko, and musicians, known as “flower fees,” vary according to the geisha quarter, the okiya, and even from one customer to another. As guests enjoy the entertainment provided by geisha and maiko, they steadily begin to understand why the prices are so idefinite, and they come to value the relationships they make. Nowadays, however, new kinds of events are held to promote awareness of the cultural tradition of maiko. There are dance performances held in the five kagai, and guests can attend productions at the various theaters, which are known as kaburenjo. During the summertime, there are events at beer gardens where one can interact with maiko.

● Various Banquet Games ●

Konpira Fune Fune

This is a game in which you and a maiko take turns to tap a sake bottle-rest on a table in time with a song. You will face off against the maiko over a table and the two of you take turns resting your hand on the bottle-rest in time to the singing of the song, “Konpira Fune Fune.” When it is your turn to touch the bottle-rest, you can also pick it up and take it away, then return it to the table at your next turn. If it’s your turn and the bottle-rest is there, you should touch it with your hand flattened (like “paper” in rock paper scissors); if your opponent has taken it, you should put out a fist (like “rock”). If you make a mistake, you lose! The rules sound simple, but the game gets more and more difficult as the song is sung faster and faster.

Tiger Tiger Tiger!

This is a game like rock paper scissors but played through miming, using a folding screen for concealment. There are three poses that players may take: Watonai (who thrusts a spear), the tiger (who crawls on the ground), and the old lady (who uses a cane). Watonai beats the tiger but is beaten by the old lady. The tiger wins against the old lady but is defeated by Watonai. The old lady defeats Watonai but is weak against the tiger. These rules determine the winner of the game. It is said that the character of Watonai is based on the daimyo Kiyomasa Kato.


This well-known game is played to the tune of a song, “If you’re going to play baseball,” accompanied by the shamisen. Players mime the roles of pitcher, batter, and runner and then playrock paper scissors. Some people believe the rules specify that the loser must remove a piece of clothing; at ochaya banquets, however, the loser must take a drink instead.

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