Gaining access into the enigmatic world of Japan’s modern-day geishas is no easy task, but award-winning French photographer Philippe Marinig has managed to pull off just that.
His new book, “Secret Moments of Maikos: The Grace, Beauty and Mystery of Apprentice Geishas,” is an impressive 80-image glance into the lives of maikos, young women training to be geishas, in Kyoto’s Gion Quarter.
The photographs capture the apprentices during unguarded moments as they train in the art, which was established more than 300 years ago. This project has been a four-year labor of love for Marinig, who traveled back and forth to Kyoto around 10 times during the process.
Although he struggled to break ground during his first visit, his persistence in going to Japan paid off over time and he was able to gain the trust of key members of the geisha community.
“I’m a man who likes a challenge. I think they saw me in a different light when I kept coming back,” he says. “It wasn’t only about the photography. I maybe used photography as an excuse to be part of their world for a moment.”
In one image from the collection, a maiko is seen shyly glancing toward the camera as she prepares for a performance, while another shows a group of young apprentices chatting in a taxi as they make their way to meet with clients.
Marinig opted to focus on more natural instances in the maikos lives as, “they are on stage all the time, even when they’re in the street.”
“My main goal is to produce real images and show the most honest perception of my subject in the way they live and perform,” he says.
The difference between maiko and geisha
While the life of a geisha is depicted as glamorous, the route to becoming one is very rigorous. Usually aged around 15 to 20 years old, a maiko will train for at least five years before she’s considered accomplished enough to make the transition.
There are some simple ways to differentiate between maiko and geisha. A maiko will have decorations such as flowers in her hair; a geisha will not. The maiko’s obi (kimono belt) will hang nearly to the floor while the geisha’s is folded into a square shape on her back.
Also, maiko will often wear high platform wooden okobo (slippers) while geiko always wear flat ones, called zori.
“It took me quite some time to recognize maiko,” says Marinig.
Where to see a maiko
Former imperial capital Kyoto (794-1869) is considered the birthplace of geisha culture, and Gion is its most famous geisha district.
The area is home to two hanamachi (Japanese geisha districts): Gion Higashi and Gion Kobu. While maikos can be spotted all over Kyoto, this is where you’re most likely to see one.
You can sometimes catch a glimpse of maikos leaving their okiya (lodging house) to go to an ochaya (tea house) at around 5 to 6 p.m. in the evening. Ichiriki Chaya on Hanami-koji street is the most famous geisha tea house in Kyoto. While access is invitation-only, there’s a chance you’ll spot maiko entering for a party if you position yourself outside.
When you do come to face to face with one, avoid crowding her or shoving cameras in her face.
“The Japanese are very respectful and will not bother them [maikos] when they see them in the street, but so many foreigners are interested in them now,” says Philippe. “They get scared when tourists try to touch them.”
Where to watch them perform
If you want a guaranteed sighting, Four Seasons Hotel Kyoto hosts weekly maiko performances between 6 and 7 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays, which sees a geisha perform a dance and play drinking games with guests.
You can also see maiko in action at one of the annual dance performances put on by each hanamachi, four of which are held in April or May. The largest is Miyako Odori, which features geisha and maiko from the Gion district and is usually held daily throughout April.
There are also a few studios in Kyoto that provide full geisha and maiko makeovers.
For example, Aya Studio in Gion offers a variety of packages ranging in price starting at 12,340 yen ($112), depending on how many photographs you want taken. The full experience at Maiko Henshin lasts about four hours and costs around 40,000 yen ($362) and includes photos in a garden, studio, tea room and rickshaw.
“Secret Moments of Maikos: The Grace, Beauty and Mystery of Apprentice Geishas” is available via the online store at Gatehouse Publishing.