Professor Emerita, Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, UNC Chapel Hill

Month: March 2021

Nice shot, Maiko! Ooh, look at the golf ball soar!

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash.

Maiko sending golf balls flying?
A geiko golf tournament?

Today’s post dips into quirky golf stories and graphics. We go from maiko comedy to geiko as accomplished golfers.  Zooming back to the 1920s and 30s, we see golf shaping modern girl fashion in Japan.  Returning to golf comedy makes us re-think the maiko’s current status and training.

“Nice shot, Maiko! Ooh, look at the ball soar!”

Textile firm Eirakuya designed this tenugui (hand towel).

This funny tenugui (cotton hand towel) comes from Kyoto textile firm Eirakuya. It imagines formally dressed maiko on an expansive golf course. They play beneath a vivid lavender sky.  One holds a huge golf club. Her long kimono and obi don’t inhibit this maiko’s swing at all. Nice shot!

It’s a comic fantasy. But it recalls how hard one must practice to get good at sport. When proficient, the golfer makes it look so easy.  Just like a practiced maiko dancing gracefully.


“Geiko are good golfers, and it’s all because of Inoue dance training.”    –Kiriki Chizu

Some of Kyoto’s geiko do develop proficiency in golf.

Retired geiko Kiriki Chizu credits the geiko’s golf skill to her dance training. She develops core strength through practicing the Inoue form of Japanese dance.  Traditional dance, like Noh, emphasizes holding the hips low and the upper body still. Quite a feat. On an earlier post, we saw even world skating star Asada Mao struggling to do it.

The Gion way to skill in becoming loveable: A woman’s polish by Kiriki Chizu. Copyright © 2007. Kōdansha.

In her 2007 memoir, Kiriki describes an event that captures the playful spirit of the sporting maiko tenugui.  It’s called, Gion Golf Classic.

Held twice a year for over 20 years, Gion Golf Classic gathers about 20 Gion women– active geiko, retirees, and teahouse managers.  Although many teahouse clients also play golf avidly, they may not join the tournament. It’s a strictly women-only event. (Clients may contribute to the prize money though, Kiriki writes with a wink).  (Kiriki, 92; 96-97).

The vision of geiko and clients at the golf course reminds us of the luxury associated with teahouse culture, even outside the teahouse. It also recalls that clients are mostly well-off men, likely enjoying hefty corporate entertainment budgets. The scene also points to the easy camaraderie that develops in teahouse culture.

The Groundbreaking 1926 Women’s Golf Tournament

Golfing women, 1926.
Fujin Gahō magazine.

Curious, I researched a bit about the history of women and golf in Japan.  !920S fashions caught my eye.

Often played at expensive country clubs, golf has long connoted aristocratic leisure abroad and in Japan.  The women’s magazine Fujin gahō captured elite ladies playing golf in its November 1926 issue.  Historian Ikuta Makoto describes this event as the first major golf tournament for women.  The  skill of the players and the media attention to “elite ladies” out on the green made it a groundbreaking event in Japanese golf history.

Fujin gahō reproduced the images for its 150th anniversary. The magazine often featured women in western-style sports.  In one photo here, we see a woman giving golf lessons to a girl.

Modern girls as fashionable golfers in Japan 

Postcard by Suzuki Toshio. Early Showa. In Ikuta Makoto, Modern Girl,118.

Picture postcard, early Showa era. Ikuta Makoto, Modern Girl, 118.

Fashion magazines and films in the 1920s and 30s featured chic women active in sports. Each sport, including golf, had its own costume. Sportswomen at play conveyed leisure and self-confidence. In turn, sportwear shaped fashion design from Paris to Tokyo. Ikuta Makoto displays postcards of modern girls golfing.

Since Kyoto geiko were experimenting with modern dance styles and entertainments in the 1920s, too, I wonder if any photos of modern golfing geiko exist.

Japanese women’s global golfing success

Catching up with the times, we see Japanese women have achieved global success in golf. Hisako “Chako” Higuchi became the first Asian to win a major championship when she triumphed at the LPGA in 1977. In 2003, Higuchi “became the first Japanese golfer inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame” (Wikipedia). By the early 2000s, women may have comprised up to 15% of the golf players in Japan (Guttmann and Thompson, 212).

Oh, how it soars!
Tenugui design. Eirakuya.

Back to maiko comedy: What more can we learn?

It is no longer remarkable for young women to enjoy a round of golf today. Yet, it still remains an expensive sport—requiring access to clubs, proper gear, and the de rigueur golfing ensemble. The charming image of saucy maiko swinging clubs on the Eirakuya’s tenugui may seem at glance anachronistic. But it is no more so than observing a maiko perched properly on a chair in a fancy French restaurant.  Maiko point to affluence and training as well as to the subtle discipline demonstrated in a “nice shot.”

Featured image: “Oh, How it soars” captures maiko enjoying golf. This is a contemporary design for tengui  by the Kyoto textile firm Eirakuya,


Guttman, Alan and Lee Thompson. Japanese Sports: A History. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2001.

Ikuta Makoto.  Modan gāru daizukan [Big picture book of the modern girl]. Tokyo: Kawade Shobō Shinsha, 2012.

Kiriki Chizu. Aisare jōzu ni naru Gion-ryū: Onna migaki [The Gion way to skill in
becoming loveable: A woman’s polish]. Tokyo: Kōdansha, 2007.

Steele, Valerie. Paris Fashion: A Culture History. London: Bloomsbury, 2017.


Jan Bardsley, “Nice shot, Maiko! Ooh, look at the ball soar!”,, March 29, 2021.

I designed this website and blog for educational and informational purposes only. I strive to  locate the names of the creators of texts and images cited, and properly acknowledge them.

Treat a Maiko to Dinner (Hint: Mac and Cheese, Please).

Fine dining.
Jamie Coupaud. Unsplash.

How do maiko get treated to fancy dinners?
What maiko misadventures occur in stories of these events?

Today’s post explains the custom of clients taking maiko out to dinner, gohan tabe. We see the custom described in a TV drama, memoir, and a girls comic.

Dining out with the dashing talent scout

Talent manager talks with maiko Yumehana and her twin Megumi. in a scene from NHK-TV drama Dandan, 2008-09.

How exciting to be on a “date” with the young dashing talent scout Ishibashi-san! Usually only her twin Megumi, a college student, gets to do fun stuff.  Dressed in her formal finery, maiko Yumehana basks in Ishibashi’s attention.
Little does she know this elegant dinner is prelude to calamity.  For now, she enjoys the delight of the gohan tabe custom–when generous, long-time clients treat a maiko to dinner at a fine restaurant.

But before we discover the path to Yumehana’s misadventure, let’s explore the changing conventions of gohan tabe.

Dinner to the rescue of the busy maiko

Fine dining. Photo by Johen Redman on Unsplash

Having only two days off per month, maiko follow a busy schedule of daytime arts lessons and evening parties. To give the maiko a break, and with the permission of her okiya mother, a client will invite her for a meal at a fine restaurant. The client pays for the maiko’s time from the point that she leaves her okiya to the time she returns. He covers all costs of the meal and taxis.  For maiko, gohan tabe events are a welcome rescue from the strict supervision of their seniors–older maiko, geiko, and teahouse managers.

Watch your table manners

Arai Mameji. 2015.

In her memoir, Arai Mameji, who became a maiko in 1969, recalls gohan tabe experiences. In the 1970s, okiya mothers accompanied maiko on these dinners. They insisted on chaperoning a maiko on any client outing. Arai also remembers being told to take care to follow proper table manners. Today, however, clients may take maiko to dinner without a chaperone.

As more women become teahouse clients, I wonder whether they, too, will participate in gohan tabe.  So far, I have seen no evidence of that.

Maiko Taste: Macaroni over Posh Cuisine

On gohan tabe outings, maiko taste an elite world of luxury dining. But many report feeling out of their depth. French menus, elaborate table settings, and hushed environments are all new.  Fictional maiko are befuddled, too.

Maiko Momohana dines out with client and okiya mother. Koyama Aiko. Maiko-san-chi no Makanai-san, Vol. 4, Episode 40. page 116. (2017).

After paying for an exorbitantly priced meal, clients may be surprised to learn that maiko much prefer macaroni.  This scene from Koyama Aiko’s maiko cooking manga shows Momohana on a gohan tabe outing. Having no idea how to read the menu, she orders what her mother does.  Later, she tells other maiko that she has no idea what she ate. Back home at the okiya, she happily tucks into macaroni gratin.

Maiko Yumehana’s Gohan tabe Mishap

Returning to maiko Yumehana’s dinner with Ishibashi, we notice an unusual situation. Most teahouse clients are much older men, but Ishibashi is only in his twenties.  This transforms gohan tabe into a cool date.

Calamity ensues when Ishibashi coaxes Yumehana to accompany him next to a “live house,” a young people’s hang out with live music. A talent scout, Ishibashi wants Yumehana to become a professional pop singer. Soon we see maiko Yumehana singing a pop song with Megumi at the live house. Big mistake! 

Actress Ishida Hikari as geiko Hanayuki.

Suddenly, Yumehana’s geisha mother Hanayuki appears! She catches Yumehana in the act of disrespecting her maiko uniform.  Ever the poised professional, Hanayuki gently scolds Ishibashi. She thanks him for inviting Yumehana to gohan tabe, but reminds him of the custom’s boundaries. At teahouse parties, he may request any maiko dance in Yumehana’s repertoire. However, he must never ask her to go beyond the bounds of the maiko’s traditional arts.  She cannot sing pop songs and certainly not dressed as a maiko. Yumehana must hurry to her next engagement, unsettled by her love of pop singing (and affection for Ishibashi).

For Hanayuki, this is definitely a case of gohan tabe gone wrong.


Jan Bardsley, “Treat a Maiko to Dinner (Hint: Mac and Cheese, Please).” March 25, 2021

I designed this website and blog for educational and informational purposes only. I strive to  locate the names of the creators of texts and images cited, and properly acknowledge them.

Maiko and the Charm of Small Things


Maiko turn up in Kyoto as all kinds of small things.
How does that affect their public persona?

Maiko Stickers.

Maiko keychains, stickers, cell-phone straps, and tiny candies abound in souvenir shops—a veritable cornucopia of girlish delights.  Uniformly bright, perky, and inexpensive, they fit easily in your pocket. Portable talismans of kawaii, like Hello Kitty goods, they bring a dash of charm to daily routines.

But Hello Kitty is a fiction. Maiko are real people. So, how do these charming “small things” help define the public image of the maiko herself?  Three aspects stand out.

1.Maiko are childlike.

Child maiko. 1920s.
Photo by Kurokawa Suizan.
Kyoto Institute, Library and Archives.

Many souvenir maiko look cherubic. This recalls how maiko of the 1920s and 1930s really were children, sometimes as young as eleven. Now maiko trainees (shikomi) must be at least fifteen years old. Still, an air of girlish innocence remains essential to the maiko’s appeal.  In Maiko Masquerade, I discuss how some maiko find “living down” to this naivete constraining, while others feel free in their girl role.

Of course, even ferocious characters like Godzilla can become childlike as plastic toys. The maiko’s girlish persona makes the transformation especially easy.

 2. Maiko are kawaii.

Maiko candies.
Photo: Jan Bardsley Mar 2021.

The maiko defines a certain stripe of kawaii. The kind of kawaii that sits at  “the juncture of ‘cute,’ ‘tiny,’ or ‘lovable” (Merriam-Webster).  According to scholar Joshua Paul Dale, kawaii things convey the “unabashed joy found in the undemanding presence of innocent, harmless, adorable things.”

While “kawaii” encompasses different registers, including the grotesque and creepy, maiko kawaii embraces this sense of  “unabashed joy.”

Travel and fashion guides portray the maiko, too, as a fan of kawaii things. She likes bite-size sushi and colorful fruit sandwiches. She may carry Minnie Mouse or Hello Kitty goods in her handbag.  In the Kyoto visual field, the kawaii maiko and her adorable souvenir likeness blend to produce an aura of charm.

As Kyoto girl and Kyoto souvenir, the maiko lightens the cultural weight of ancient temples, gardens, and Zen-inspired arts. Transferred into countless small objects, the maiko makes Kyoto accessible and consumable. Yet, as Kyoto’s mascot, the maiko continually reminds tourists that they are in the old capital.

3. Maiko make Kyoto a girls’ playground.

Maiko strap

Photo: Jan Bardsley Mar 2021

Charming maiko goods, kawaii maiko images recreate Kyoto as a leisure space friendly to girls and women.  While the historical maiko emerged, too, in a world of play for purchase, it was a world geared to providing pleasure to Japanese men.  Contemporary maiko and their souvenir look-alikes, however, shift the concern from pleasing men to inviting girls to have fun. Girlish play extends into all kinds of small consumables and sweet experiences. Crossing gender boundaries, tourists of all sexes today may enjoy the invitation to have fun.

The maiko trinkets on my desk and bookcase always make me smile. Maybe they’re telling me to relax and enjoy the moment.


Jan Bardsley, “Maiko and the Charm of Small Things,”  March 22, 2021.



Maiko, Noodles, and the 47 Rōnin

The Storehouse of Loyalty – Chūshingura (47 Rōnin) ukiyo-e set by Hiroshige Utagawa, circa 1836.  Wikimedia Commons.

Maiko dancing and serving soba noodles to guests?  What was the story behind this March event?  In today’s post, I take up an annual Gion event with one foot in history and the other in myth.

Honoring Ōishi Kuranosuke, Leader of the 47 Rōnin

Ichiriki Teahouse Photo: Mariemon Wikimedia Commons

On March 20, Gion Kōbu honors the memory of Kyoto revolutionary Ōishi Kuranosuke, the leader of the 47 rōnin (masterless men). The ceremony takes place at the exclusive Gion teahouse, Ichiriki. Only regular clients are invited.

Inoue Yachiyo V V

At the Ichiriki ceremony, Inoue Yachiyo V, designated a Living National Treasure, performs.  She dances Fukaki kokoro (Deep Heart) in front of a Buddhist mortuary tablet (ihai) honoring the men.  Maiko and geiko also dance.  They later serve tea and hand-made soba noodles to the guests (Mizobuchi, 15).

Who was Ōishi Kuranosuke? What’s his connection to Gion?

As part of an elaborate plot to avenge the death of his lord, the stalwart Ōishi assumed deep cover by disguising his true character. He played the part of a dissolute. For two years,  he frequented the Ichiriki teahouse until he and the 47 rōnin were ready to attack and kill their lord’s enemy.  The men were arrested and ordered to commit ritualized suicide (seppuku), which they did on March 20, 1703. Long romanticized in all manner of Japanese arts as symbolizing samurai loyalty, Ōishi and the 47 rōnin are buried at Sengakuji, a Zen temple near Shinagawa, Tokyo—their graveyard now a tourist site.

Why soba noodles?

Photo Masaaki Komori  Unsplash

Lori Brau highlights the soba symbolism here. She explains how  uchiiri soba (soba of the raid) allude to the story that Ōishi and his band gathered at a soba shop. They ate this simple meal together before launching their raid and accomplishing their vendetta. Brau notes, “Soba’s tendency to break easily, due to its lack of gluten (which adds viscosity), renders it an apt symbol for parting (71).”

According to Lesley Downer, doubt exists as to whether the current Ichiriki was actually the site of Ōishi ’s debauchery. But, the connection has worked in the teahouse’s favor as “there were always people willing to dissipate an evening at the scene of the most celebrated partying in Japanese history (162).”

Why do tales of the 47 Rōnin  endure?

The Gion ceremony offers only one way of remembering Ōishi and the 47 Rōnin. All manner of art forms–puppet theater, Noh, film and TV, graphic novels and anime–have recounted versions of the tale. The tale has been put in service of widely different movements, including “popular rights, Christianity, capitalism, Marxism, pacifism, and contemporary cartoon culture (Tucker, 3).”

I caught up with John Tucker, Professor of History at East Carolina University, to ask why the tale endures. He’s the author of The Forty-Seven Rōnin: The Vendetta in History (Cambridge UP, 2018).   John responded, The historic 47 Rōnin vendetta became an unparalleled sensation in Japan due to its retelling on stage as Chūshingura (Storehouse of Loyal Retainers). And of the eleven acts in that play, the most popular ones present Ōboshi Yuranosuke (Ōishi  Kuranosuke) as a dissolute hedonist enjoying himself in Kyoto’s pleasure quarters even while plotting to take murderous revenge on his late-lord’s enemy.”

Ōishi’s “shrewd tango with life”

Author John A. Tucker
Cambridge UP, 2018

“Everyone knows the grisly end and so relishes the chance to share vicariously Ōishi’s last and quite shrewd tango with life,” explained John. “After all, his time in the pleasure quarters made Ōishi most fully human, alive with passions and flaws even if the latter were so much subterfuge for his mortal sincerity and lethal vengeance. In affirming life unto death, Ōishi epitomized an existential ideal that all admire, though few might actually realize.”

Want to learn more?  I recommend John Tucker’s The Forty-Seven Rōnin for an approachable, well-researched guide. Historian Peter Nosco praises the book as,  “The definitive book-length study by a uniquely qualified scholar of one of Japanese history’s most contested events.”   Perhaps read The Forty-Seven Rōnin this March while enjoying soba.


Brau, Lori. 2018. “Soba, Edo Style:  Food, Aesthetics, and Cultural Identity.” In Devouring Japan: Perspectives on Japanese Culinary Identity, edited by Nancy Stalker,  65-80.  New York: Oxford University Press.

Downer, Lesley. 2002. Women of the Pleasure Quarters: The Secret History of the Geisha. New York: Broadway.

Mizobuchi Hiroshi.  2002.  Kyoto kagai. Kyoto: Mitsumura Suiko Shoin Publishing Co., Ltd.

Tucker, John A.  2018. The Forty-Seven Rōnin: The Vendetta in History.  Cambridge University Press.

Jan Bardsley, “Maiko, Noodles, and the 47 Rōnin,”  March 18, 2021.

Asada Mao: Olympic Skater in Maiko Masquerade

Airweave advertisement. Miyako Odori program 2019.

Wasn’t  that the Olympic figure skater Asada Mao?
What was she doing in maiko masquerade?

This ad in my Miyako Odori 2019 dance program caught me by surprise. What was the story here?   As I explore in today’s post, this famous Japanese athlete in maiko garb invites us to think about performances of femininity in sports, dance, and costuming.

Airweave promotion.

The World Champion as Girl Next Door

Asada was 29 in 2019, almost a decade older than the oldest maiko. But her small frame, apparent youth and innocence, and her “girl next door” persona made Asada a good fit for role-playing as Kyoto’s quintessential girl.  As it turns out, Asada has role-played as a maiko in previous commercials set in Kyoto.  Her maiko masquerade is never a trick, though.  Rather, these performances invite viewers to contemplate the transformation of the national sports icon as a maiko. (As I explain in Maiko Masquerade, media often portray the maiko as an “ordinary girl” transformed).

Asada has maiko make-up applied for the August 17, 2014 SMILE event at Kyoto Takashimaya.

In 2014, the department store Takashimaya launched SMILE, an exhibit in honor of Asada Mao.  The exhibit, which traveled to various Takashimaya stores in Japan, attracted over 600,000 visitors (Asahi Shimbun).  When in Kyoto for SMILE, Asada did another turn as a maiko.

But let’s not forget the fierce athlete on ice

Certainly, there is more to this hard-driving Olympic athlete than her pretty costumes suggest.  In his insightful Diva Nation chapter, “Ice Princess: Asada Mao the Demure Diva,” Masafumi Monden looks beyond the compliant good girl persona to examine Asada’s strengths and ambition. He argues that, “Asada consciously or otherwise uses her demure, good girl persona to allow the exercise of the ego and power of a diva without attracting criticism, in a subtle, effective, and notably Japanese fashion.”

Mao Asada during her long program at the 2013 World Championships. Photo David W. Carmichael
Wikimedia Commons

Born in Nagoya Prefecture in 1990, Asada Mao was already a graceful ballerina when she tried ice skating to boost her dance skills.  As a teen, Asada earned fame for her ability to land the risky triple axel and triple-triple jumps. In 2010, she won a silver medal at the Vancouver Winter Olympics.  Monden explains, “Asada is surely one of the few women skaters whose technical proficiency rivals that of men.”

The winner of multiple championships, Asada became a national icon, managing to blend her obvious diligence, skill, and sportsmanship with a feminine, modest persona.  Her good manners won Asada praise abroad, too. Monden shows how she asserts herself in making career choices, never losing fans.  “Asada’s popularity in Japan is massive….[she] claimed the top slot in the ranking of most successful female athletes in 2015.

Mao_Asada_2010_OP_Press_conference.jpg: David W. Carmichael Wikimedia Commons

Asada’s regular feats on the rink astonished spectators, exemplifying “the diva [who] takes risks.”

In April 2017, Asada retired from figure skating. She continues to take an active public role. Asada participates in charity events, makes commercials, and publishes books.  She maintains an official website and blog in Japanese:

What Asada Mao tells us about maiko & geiko

The Strength to Be Able to Fulfill Dreams, What I learned from skating by Asada Mao, 2020.

    Asada Mao’s determination, athleticism, and ability to manage her public persona make us take another look at Kyoto’s maiko and geiko.  Devoting themselves to strenuous dance practice, performing as the city’s celebrities, and modeling Japanese etiquette take work.  It’s tempting to see Asada and the maiko’s femininity performances as masquerades given their obvious personal strengths, even a disguise of female ambition that makes it more acceptable. But we can also consider these divas as redefining the feminine. Monden sees Asada as “an icon who demonstrates the potential of a new kind of divahood, as a young diva who gets her own way and refuses to give in, but in a polite, upright amicable way that wins people’s hearts.”

Asada dancing with the geiko

On Aug. 17, 2014, Asada posted photos of herself costumed as a maiko for the Kyoto Takashimaya SMILE exhibit.
The summer fan displays her name, Mao.

Let’s close with a clip of Asada Mao visiting Kyoto posted in 2015 that Masafumi Monden passed on to me.

The clip shows Asada approaching the famous Gion teahouse Tomiyo. Here, she observes a Gion geiko, also named Mao, dancing. The jikata (musician) Danyū plays the samisen. Then, Asada takes her first lesson in Kyōmai dance from Inoue Yasuko, daughter of dance master Inoue Yachiyo V. Next Asada costumes as a maiko. Now, she’s ready for her dance performance with geiko Mao!  Since the video ends with a night’s rest on an Airweave mattress, we might conclude the event is staged as a commercial. But this clip is more than a fanciful mattress ad–it shows the difficulty of maiko dance, the practiced skill of the geiko, and even champion athlete Asada struggling to learn it.

I come away with admiration for the skills of both the dancer and the skater.




Masafumi Monden. “Ice Princess: Asada Mao the Demure Diva,”  in  Laura Miller and Rebecca Copeland, eds. Diva Nation: Female Icons from Japanese Cultural History. Oakland: University of California Press, 2018.

Jan Bardsley, “Asada Mao: Olympic Skater in Maiko Masquerade,” March 15, 2021

Don’t Harass Maiko

Catching sight of a maiko off to an assignment in formal costume offers an “only in Kyoto” experience.  This enthusiasm has led to the hanamachi (geisha neighborhoods), especially Gion Kōbu, becoming tourist areas.

But this successful promotion of the maiko as Kyoto mascot has led to tourist enthusiasm almost impossible to manage.

Some tourists demand selfies. Others engulf maiko with flash photography.  Videos show tourists crowding around maiko or running ahead to snap photos of maiko coming toward them. Day and night. Tourist exuberance became so intense that maiko had to take taxis to go even a short distance.

How should a maiko respond to tourist paparazzi?

Manga by Koyama Aiko.
Maiko-san-chi no Makanai-san, vol. 6 (2018)

Artist Koyama Aiko takes up the problem in her popular manga, now an NHK-World Japan anime. This manga frame shows the shikomi (trainee) Riko accompanying maiko Momohana to an evening assignment. Riko scowls at the rude tourists. But Momohana, celebrated as a perfect maiko, never loses her poise.  Although Riko gets scolded by an elder for her “bad attitude,” I think Koyama depicts her anger sympathetically in this episode. (See Maiko Masquerade, 137; Koyama, Maiko-san-chi, Vol. 6, 65-74).

Iwasaki Mineko and Rande Brown. Geisha, a Life. Translated by Rande Brown. Atria, 2002.

As a maiko in the late 1960s, Iwasaki Mineko experienced her share of harassment on the street, too. In those days before Gion became a tourist site, Iwasaki had to fight off unruly, drunk men.  She had to run away from men trying to grab her. One even “dropped a live cigarette butt down the nape of my kimono (190).” Iwasaki fought back–yelling and even biting one harasser’s hand until it bled.  She, too,  finally had to “travel everywhere by taxi, even if my engagements were only a few hundred feet apart (191).

How has Kyoto tried to help the maiko?

In 2020, of course, the pandemic caused a sharp decline in tourism. Will the “tourist paparazzi” problem resume in the post-pandemic? What measures were taken to curb the problem?

Gion Hanamikoji Street, Kyoto, Japan Maiko Mameroku-san.   Unsplash uploaded by Jie@imjma

Gion deluged by tourists

In 2019, TBS News carried a report (in Japanese) on maiko harassment by tourist paparazzi:  Tourists from abroad flooding into Gion are disturbing the quiet charm of the neighborhood.   One café owner complains that tourists stand outside his shop trying to take photos of maiko through the windows. Some even open the door and go inside to get the picture.  The report is careful not to single out any particular nationality of tourists.  Some scenes show respectful tourists quietly listening to their guide, but this is still viewed as a nuisance.

Signs of the Times

Kyoto tried posting manners signs. Signs sprung up around Kyoto tourist areas warning tourists “not to touch the maiko.”  The Kyoto City Official Travel Guide, among its five tips for enjoying Gion, cautions tourists about taking photos of maiko and geiko. (Note that in English, this warns against objectionable behavior to “geisha” but in Chinese, uses “maiko” (舞妓).

“Maiko, who can be said to be a symbol of Gion, is a practice in the daytime and a repetition of work at night. It’s a busy day, and it ’s not uncommon to have many requests, especially at night. When they see Maiko in Gion, they are on their way to work. Let’s not disturb them.” PHOTO:

Kyoto also initiated a smartphone app in 2019 that cautioned tourists, once they stepped foot in Gion, to mind their manners:  “Show good manners in Gion. Gion is a residential area. Please behave with courtesy.”

They also hired individuals (the tape shows these are older men) who can speak English or Chinese to patrol the area, asking tourists to move on, stop taking photos, and generally trying to keep order.

In 2019, taking photos in small residential alleys in Gion was banned.

In 2021, Gion and other hanamachi are likely more concerned about bringing  tourists back to the districts and their shops and cafes. Let’s hope when tourists come back, everyone respects the maiko.

Featured Image: This section of a poster on manners comes from the Kyoto City Official Travel Guide

Iwasaki Mineko and Rande Brown. Geisha, a Life. Translated by Rande Brown. Atria, 2002.

Jan Bardsley, “Don’t Harass Maiko,” March 12, 2021

I designed this website and blog for educational and informational purposes only. I strive to  locate the names of the creators of texts and images cited, and properly acknowledge them.

Maiko Manners:  Bowing to the Telephone Pole

Boudewijn Huysmans

Bow— even when you see a telephone pole.


Respect for hierarchy forms the bedrock of  maiko manners. When she encounters any of her superiors, geiko or senior maiko on an afternoon walk, for example, the maiko must stop, bow, and greet the other. Being in a rush is no excuse to forego this ritual.

This behavior becomes so ingrained that, as the saying exaggerates, the maiko will even accord a telephone pole the same respect since it is “higher” than she.

The maiko, using the hanamachi dialect, humbly requests the other’s favor or guidance. Otanomō shimasu. One of the first phrases she learns as a trainee.

Professor Kumiko Nishio, who researches maiko training, explains how the greeting ritual benefits the brand-new trainee (18-21).  Too new to her hanamachi to know its community members well, the trainee must make a favorable impression on all she meets. Whether or not she knows them yet.  After all, these elders can positively influence her career, recommending her for parties and other assignments. Conversely, ignoring greetings would be a sign of disrespect.

Only in Kyoto?

It’s tempting to consider this emphasis on formal greetings a quaint custom of the hanamachi. But I remember many years ago hearing an American university leader advise assistant professors concerned about gaining tenure in the U.S.  He urged them to get in the habit of greeting their department colleagues. Worried, one young person asked, “But what can I do?  My office isn’t even in the same building as my department.” The leader responded, “Then, go to the department every day to check your mail. Greet people. Make yourself known.”

Even when you see a passing car with your superiors aboard…..

Sometimes signs of respect in the hanamachi can be taken to comic extremes. Kiriki Chizu, a maiko in the late 1960s, recalls repeatedly being told, “Don’t forget your greetings even when you see your sempai geiko in a car coming down the road (32).”

Once, completely unaware, she failed to heed this advice.

Photo by Jie on Unsplash

She did not notice the car with her geiko colleagues aboard.

An offended geiko swiftly complained to Kiriki’s elder sister, who scolded her.  Kiriki knew it was useless to explain how the light shining on the car windows must have prevented her from seeing who was inside. This “excuse” would not work in Gion and she had to apologize to the geiko, promising to take more care in the future.

As a retired geiko, Kiriki tries not to place maiko and young geiko in tricky greeting situations. Many may get the sense when they see her walking in the hanamachi that she is somehow connected to the community. Not knowing the retiree’s name or position makes them uncomfortable, unsure of what to do. Kiriki tries to put them at ease by avoiding  meeting their eyes and simply walking on. They seem relieved.

When in doubt— bow.


Kiriki Chizu. Aisare jōzu ni naru Gion-ryū: Onna migaki [The Gion way to skill in becoming loveable: A woman’s polish]. Tokyo: Kōdansha, 2007.

Nishio Kumiko.  Maiko no kotoba: Kyoto hanamachi hitosodate no gokui [Maiko language: Training secrets from the Kyoto hanamachi]. Tokyo: Tōyō Keizai Shinpōsha, 2012.

Jan Bardsley, “Maiko Manners: Bowing to the Telephone Pole,” March 5, 2021

I designed this website and blog for educational and informational purposes only. I strive to  locate the names of the creators of texts and images cited, and properly acknowledge them.

Welcome to my blog

Solar Dolls. ”We bow with solar power.”

Welcome to my blog

Happy Girls’ Day!  Celebrated in Japan on March 3 with displays of dolls representing the ancient court,  Girls’ Day features special foods, too. Now there’s even a KitKat bar flavored like “strawberry daifuku” (mochi balls filled with strawberries), a Girls’ Day treat.


For my Girls’ Day celebration, I’m choosing to display solar-powered maiko dolls.  The dolls capture the playful spirit of maiko souvenirs. Solar dolls coax you to relax, smile, and show your childlike side. The perky solar maiko atop my desk reminds me to have fun with this blog.

Toy maiko solar

Solar maiko  also calls to mind the associations of “solar power” and feminism in Japan. In 1911 when Seitō (Bluestockings) burst on the scene, it’s rallying cry became, “In the beginning, woman was the sun.”

Manga artist Takenaka Ranko’s 1996 graphic history of the Bluestockings and leader Hiratsuka Raichō

Produced by young Japanese women in Tokyo, Seitō invited women to seek adventure and expand their boundaries, even as they advocated for education and equality.

My blog follows these twin trajectories, having fun while expanding knowledge. I begin with posts about maiko, Kyoto’s apprentice geisha. Researching my book Maiko Masquerade, I ran into lots of stories about maiko and geisha past and present, about art and objects, books and movies, people and places. I’m writing this blog to tell these stories, the comic and the serious, and share images. Let’s see where this solar-powered path goes.

I look forward to your comments. Happy Girls’ Day and thanks for visiting.
Jan Bardsley.

Jan Bardsley, “Welcome to my blog,” March 3, 2021

I designed this website and blog for educational and informational purposes only. I strive to  locate the names of the creators of texts and images cited, and properly acknowledge them.




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