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

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.

Twins Nozomi (maiko Yumehana) and Megumi harmonize magically. Here they are in Megumi’s hometown Matsue.

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.


  1. Rebecca

    Poor Yumehana! I hope she got some mac-n-cheese later.
    When tourists are in maiko cosplay, do they go to live houses and behave inappropriately to the “uniform”?

    • Janice Bardsley

      Yumehana never got her mac-n-cheese, but she and her twin did become pop stars! Ishibashi’s persistence paid off.
      In the end, however, Yumehana returned to Gion, became a geiko, and later the manager of her okiya. Her twin married Ishibashi! He became a medical doctor while Megumi became a geriatric nurse, and they ended up living on a small Japanese island, bringing youthful vigor and hope. Dandan is such a wonderful melodrama.

  2. Aki Hirota

    The NHK World channel introduced “Maiko-san-chi no makanai-san” this week!
    As you know, mac and cheese is a far-cry from macaroni gratin. I love the latter, which is a favorite dish of many Japanese women. I won’t eat mac and cheese.

    • Janice Bardsley

      Interesting to see the animated version of “Maiko-san-chi no makanai-san” for a global audience. The manga sold over a million copies.

      I didn’t know macaroni gratin was a favorite among Japanese women. Thanks for letting me know! The manga describes the dish as “white sauce with chicken, beef or mushroom over pre-prepared macaroni.” I must confess that I do love the occasional Mac-n-Cheese.

  3. Haruka

    For rich clients, gohan tabe is another style of entertainment that satisfies their self-esteem. That’s because gohan tabe is in the public gaze in contrast to ozashiki asobi.

    • Janice Bardsley

      Thanks for your wonderful insight, Haruka. This reminds me of a spectacular maiko scene at Kabuki in 2011. I went to Kyoto’s Minamiza theater to see the December Kaomise (face-showing) Kabuki when the famous actors perform. Lots of maiko and geiko in full formal costume attend. I will never forget the man sitting near the stage, perhaps in a kind of box seat. He must have hired five maiko to join him. He was beaming with joy and basking in the attention. Surrounded by colorful maiko, the man in the middle stood out. I kept thinking–Wow, that must be expensive (another aspect of the spectacle). Your comment also reminds me of how the contemporary literature on the maiko always focuses on her, leaving the client rather out of the picture. Again, thanks for your post, Haruka. Jan

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