Adorned in Good Fortune: The Maiko’s New Year Kanzashi

Bright ornaments (kanzashi) adorn the maiko’s hair in the early new year.  The photo above captures Tomitsuyu wearing hers in 2015.  Look closely at the base of the golden ear of rice on her right.  You’ll see a tiny white dove. To the left, we see a cluster of small flowers.

What do these emblems of good fortune mean?  The ear of rice, the dove, the cluster of flowers?  Today’s blog explores these questions, taking us to maiko customs, a Japanese proverb, and the auspicious “three friends of winter.”

When do maiko wear the new year kanzashi?

Maiko wear these kanzashi when they attend their district’s Opening Ceremony and parties in the early new year.  In Gion, the largest district, maiko wear these from January 7th through the 15th. Dates differ by district.

Gion Higashi 2015.
https://giwonhigashi.com/sigyousiki2015/

Let’s look first at the meanings attached to the ear of rice.  In Japanese, the ear is called inaho (稲穂). Inaho is also used as a gender-neutral first name. By the way, the “ear” of rice refers to the “grain-bearing tip part of the stem of a cereal plant” (Thank you Google).

Rice seeds for good luck

Rice and dove hairpin

https://kanzasiya.exblog.jp/12438809/, 2009.

Here we have an ear of unhusked, dried rice affixed to a long hairpin.  A tiny white dove figurine sits at its base. (This one is a version for sale online.) Sometimes we see an artificial plum blossom placed at the base with the dove, too.

Maiko wear this kanzashi on their right. Geiko wear it on the left.

At parties in the new year, maiko and geiko give the seeds from the rice to clients. As the story goes, placing these seeds in one’s wallet makes your business prosper.

 

What values does the ear of rice symbolize?

Rice Aomori, Japan, 2017.Aomori kuma, Wikimedia.

「実るほど、頭を垂れる稲穂かな」

“The boughs that bear most hang lowest.”

Notice that Tomitsuyu’s ear of rice droops down. This recalls the Japanese proverb, “The boughs that bear most hang lowest.” Midori Ukita explains that ears of rice droop as they grow and ripen. The greater the number of seeds they hold, the more they bow. This combination of bounty and bowing evokes the famous proverb. That is,  “the wiser a person becomes, the stronger sense of humility one develops.”

This fits the ideals taught to maiko and geiko. As artists, they realize that no matter how proficient they become in dance, there’s still more to learn. The inaho kanzashi expresses their resolve to remain humble while continually striving for improvement.

Bonds of Affection and the White Dove

The dove figurine has no eyes. As the custom goes, maiko and geiko paint on one eye. Then, they ask someone they admire (or secretly adore) to paint the other. Supposedly, giving the dove eyes makes the maiko and geiko’s dreams come true.

Of course, this custom can cause difficulty. How does a popular maiko or geiko choose one among many loyal clients for the favor? No wonder, as Kyoko Aihara reports, some women just paint in the other eye themselves (38).

Aiko Koyama, 2017.

The dove-painting quest spurs drama in fiction. Here, we see Aiko Koyama’s star maiko Momohana contemplating her dove.  Koyama also draws a group of maiko overly excited about getting one of their idols to paint the missing eye. They yearn to ask: a kabuki actor, a guitarist, a professional Japanese chess player, and even a secretly admired barista. Unbeknownst to the others and offscreen, Momohana chooses her best pal Kiyo for the honor.

The Auspicious Charm of Pine, Bamboo, and Plum Blossoms

Pine, Bamboo, Plum. Wikipedia.

Lots of color comes from the cluster of fabric ornaments. Here, they represent the famed “three friends of winter”– pine, bamboo, and plum bossoms–commonly associated with  the start of the New Year.  In Japanese, Shōchikubai 松竹梅.  Due to “their ability to thrive even in the harshness of winter, pine, bamboo, and plum together embody steadfastness, perseverance, and resilience,” according to Princeton U. Art Museum.

But this example of a new year’s kanzashi is not the only one.  In fact, the new year’s kanzashi design changes every year. You may see miniature versions of old-fashioned toys such as the spinning top (koma) and wooden paddles decorated with images of kabuki actors and geisha (hagoita). Kyoko Aihara notes that Winter Chrysanthemums have been popular in recent years (38).

Making Connections to the Public Good beyond Maiko

The maiko’s new year kanzashi and participation in her district’s Opening Ceremony affirms her connection to community.   I like the way Midori Ukita connects the humility of the inaho to our life in the pandemic. “The pandemic has served as a reminder that individual virtues are tied to civic virtues.  We are humbled at this time and ever more aware that our personal sacrifices are connected to a broader public good.”

I hope to learn more about the maiko’s new year and her other kanzashi in 2022. I’ll post as I go.

FEATURED IMAGE: GION HIGASHI’S BILINGUAL TOMITSUYU
This 2015 photo of maiko Tomitsuyu is posted on the website of her small district Gion Higashi. Born in Kyoto, Tomitsuyu became a maiko in 2013 and a geiko in 2018. Having studied in New Zealand during middle school, Tomitsuyu is fluent in Japanese and English. https://giwonhigashi.com/sigyousiki2015/

REFERENCES

Aihara Kyoko. Maiko-san no Kyoto kagai kentei [The Maiko’s Kyoto Hanamachi Test]. Kyoto Shimbun Shuppan Sentā. 2021.

Koyama Aiko. Maiko-san-chi no Makanai-san. Serialized manga. Volume 3. Cover art. Shōgakukan, 2017. The White Dove (Episode 30) of the manga with English translation is available here: https://mangaboat.com/manga/maiko-san-chi-no-makanai-san/ch-030/

For its new online anime adaptation, NHK World translates the manga title as Kiyo in Kyoto: From the Maiko House. For New Year customs in the hanamachi, see Chapter 23: Opening Ceremony, Chapter 24: White Dove.  Broadcast on September 23, 2021 Available until September 23, 2022. https://www3.nhk.or.jp/nhkworld/en/ondemand/video/2094008/

Ukita, Midori.  NIHONGO Words of the Week (8). Japan America Society of Houston. May 11, 2020. https://www.jas-hou.org/weekly-nihongo/2020/5/11/nihongo-words-of-the-week-week-8

Jan Bardsley, “Adorned in Good Fortune: The Maiko’s New Year Kanzashi,” janbardsley.web.unc.edu, January 21, 2022.

 

8 thoughts on “Adorned in Good Fortune: The Maiko’s New Year Kanzashi

  1. Aki Hirota

    Maiko in their full New Year’s formals with the head full of kanzashi are so goergeous. It may be a lot of work for hair dressers and otoko-shu (dressers who are men strong enough to tie the stiff obi) as well as the maiko who have to darry a lot of weight of their kimono and hair-do, but they are really pretty.
    Thank you for all the explanations about the special kanzashi ornaments for the ocassion.

    Reply
    1. Janice Bardsley Post author

      Thanks, Aki. The new year’s costumes make a gorgeous display, especially when the maiko are pictured in a group. They look like they really enjoy wearing the finery.

      Reply
  2. Rebecca Copeland

    What a great overview of kanzashi with so much detail about meaning!
    I remember the first translation I did while I was a graduate student was of a short story by Shiga Naoya. He wrote of a young boy who goes to Enoshima on a school trip and wants to buy his mother some gifts. He bought a matching set of kushi 櫛, kogai 笄, and kanzashi 簪. Oh my goodness! I struggled with trying to put those items into English. Kushi wasn’t hard. But kogai and kanzashi were more challenging!

    Reply
    1. Janice Bardsley Post author

      Fascinating about the Shiga Naoya story, Rebecca. I tried looking it up online and my first hit was an essay about the story that you could purchase. Right, “hair ornament” doesn’t have the dash of “kanzashi.” Once I visited a kushi- kanzashi museum outside of Tokyo. Quite an assortment! https://www.gotokyo.org/en/spot/320/index.html

      Reply
  3. Haruka

    This is the first time I have heard of the dove-painting. I only know Daruma’s eye painting. I have the impression that birds destroy rice paddies, so the combination of the ear of rice and doves was a surprise to me.

    Reply
    1. Janice Bardsley Post author

      Interesting! The anime Kiyo’s World brings out lots of these bits of maiko lore. I’ll be curious how they handle this in the live-action version that’s coming from Netflix this ear.

      Reply

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