It Ain’t Necessarily So

Cosplay Maiko vs Real Maiko

A Stroll Before Dusk 2011

A Stroll Before Dusk

During my early visits to Kyoto I thought that cosplay maiko were real maiko (apprentice geisha).  If I saw a girl dressed in maiko costume, I assumed she was the real deal.

You won’t be ignorant like I was because I am going to tell you about cosplay maiko in this post.

There are several establishments in Kyoto which dress up girls and women as maiko.  Once transformed, the girls promenade around various historic and touristy areas.  It may be done alone but most often it is a shared experience.  They walk together, photograph one another and enjoy being stared at and snapped by tourists.  What a cool day out!

Some people are dismissive of young women who become cosplay maiko, as if they are being dishonest by pretending to be real maiko.  (How dare they?!)  I don’t see it that way.  When I encounter cosplay maiko, or henshin (‘henshin’ meaning ‘to transform’) I am happy to see them having a wonderful time.  Sometimes they ask me to take a photo of them using their cameras and maybe I am asked to pose with them (out of politeness I expect).

A photo I took of three excited girls who are about to be transformed.

A photo I took of three excited girls who are about to be transformed.

A photo I took of the three girls about an hour and a half later.

A photo I took of the three girls about an hour and a half later.

When I finally realised that some of the maiko I was photographing were girls dressing up, I was disappointed.   I didn’t mind what they were doing but I didn’t want to draw them.  I only wanted to draw real maiko.

Eventually I came to the conclusion that they can also be good subject matter for drawing.  For one thing, they often walk around the beautiful and historic Higashiyama (Eastern Hills) area where one generally doesn’t find real maiko (resulting in different views of Kyoto from those I normally draw).  And for another, they are having fun so they want to be photographed and made a fuss of.

In 2008 I was in Kyoto with my youngest daughter, Lucy, who was then 14 years old.  We came across a couple of merry maiko.  They were super friendly and so happy to be photographed by Lucy (because they thought she was cute) that we lamented after the photo “Weren’t they lovely, but obviously fake maiko because they were WAAAY too nice!”

It wasn’t until later I found out that they had been the genuine articles after all.  In fact they were Ichifuku-san* and Ichitomi-san of Pontocho.  Below is the photo which Lucy took of them.  (Note: it is always useful to have a cute teenage daughter with you when you want to photograph maiko!)

Lucy's photo of Ichifuku-san and Ichino-san, Maiko of Pontocho, in October 2008.

Lucy’s photo of Ichifuku-san and Ichitomi-san, Maiko of Pontocho, in October 2008.

How does one tell the difference between cosplay and real?  Not always easily at first.  The cosplay maiko may walk a little clumsily because it is not easy to walk in the high wooden okobo which maiko walk in.  The flawless make-up and hair of the genuine maiko will not be quite so perfect on the cosplay maiko.  The kimono may look as if it has seen better days.  An observant person may notice a wrist watch or rings on fingers.  Though having said this, one may come across girls who are quite convincing.

"Candid" colour pencil drawing of cosplay maiko, 2006.

“Candid” colour pencil drawing of cosplay maiko, 2006.

Cosplay maiko have a place in everyday Kyoto.  I am glad Kyoto gives girls the opportunity to become maiko, even just for a few hours.

There is a gentle poignancy to the sight of them watching their steps as they clack-clack beneath the weeping willows.

*See the ‘Work in Progress 2: Ichifuku-san’ page to see my drawing of her just before she became a geiko in 2010.

Related page:  Subject 2: Geisha

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6 thoughts on “It Ain’t Necessarily So

  1. moushifj

    Very well done ^^ If you are interested I have also written a blog about how to tell real Maiko from Henshin along with the different stages a girl will go through to become a Maiko and ultimately a Geisha ^^ Though I really feel indifferent when I see girls dressed up as Maiko (Except for a few who pay quite a bit of money and are dressed quite nicely where they could easily pass for the real thing) I do however feel that they should be supervised as tourists will act… well, like tourists and can be quite inappropriate, I’ve even seen pictures of these Henshin girls flicking off the camera, which is absolutely ridiculous. You can find my blog here ^^

    1. juliepodstolski Post author

      I highly recommend that anyone who reads my post “It Ain’t Necessarily So” also reads moushifj’s blog post too. It is extremely informative! (The link is just above).

  2. backpackerz

    Amazing Julie – thanks for sharing. Wonder what Gabbi would think if she could go there one day.

    *Nick** *


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