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

Category: Ceremonies in hanamachi

Maiko at the Plum Blossom Festival

February 25th is a busy day for women in the Kamishichiken hanamachi. Clad in formal kimono, maiko, geiko, and teahouse managers serve tea to numerous guests. All to celebrate the Plum Blossom Festival (Baika-sai) at Kitano Tenmangū Shrine.

How do maiko dress for the event? What’s the meaning behind this festival?   Today’s post takes a look.

The Discover Kyoto website has spectacular photographs and a video of the event.:

Maiko Dance & Greet the Public

Maiko Plum Blossom Festival, 2011.

Plum Blossom Festival, 2011.
Nils R. Barth. Wikimedia Commons.

The image above shows a maiko at the festival wearing the February kanzashi hair ornament. It follows the plum motif, too. A cluster of fabric blossoms in red, white, and pink.  In various photos of the event, I notice some maiko wear kimono with plum blossom patterns.

The photo shows the maiko participating in the festival’s open-air tea ceremony (nodate) at the shrine. It’s been performed annually since 1952.  As the Discover Kyoto clip shows, maiko, geiko, and teahouse managers work together to serve the tea.  Friendly and formal, the women manage to serve hundreds of guests.  Due to pandemic precautions in 2022, however, they will perform a tea ceremony, but not do the public service (Sharing Kyoto).

Kamishichiken maiko Ichimame describes how performing at Baika-sai offers a chance to show how she has progressed in her arts practice. “When we bring the tea, everyone looks truly happy, and that makes us feel pleased, too” (34).

Whom does the festival honor?

Portrait of Sugawara Michizane, Japanese. Muromachi period, 15th century, ink and color on silk, Honolulu Museum of Art. Wikimedia Commons.

The festival takes place on the death anniversary of Sugawara no Michizane (845-903).  The legendary Heian scholar of Chinese literature wrote poetry in Chinese and Japanese.  As a civil servant, he rose to a powerful position at court. Accused of treason by a rival, Michizane found himself banished from court. He was sent to an administrative post in Kyushu where he later died.

But a series of disasters struck only two years after his death. Was this a sign of Michizane’s vengeful spirit?  Efforts to appease his spirit led to restoring his title and recognizing Michizane as the heavenly diety (tenjin) of learning.  The year 947 saw Kitano Tenmangū Shrine erected in his honor.  The Kitano website states, “There are as many as 12,000 shrines that are dedicated to Sugawara no Michizane in Japan, but the Kitano Tenmangu Shrine is the origin and the main shrine.”  Hoping for success in their own exams, students travel to Kitano Tenmangū Shrine with their prayers to this diety of learning.

Sugawara no Michizane, 1886 print. Artist Yoshitoshi, 1839-1892. Lib. of Congress. Wikimedia.

The Baika-sai festival commemorates Michizane’s fondness for plum trees. 

Yoshitoshi’s print (above) captures Michizane, the poet, enthralled with the sight of plum blossoms. The Claremont Colleges Digital Library explains its context.

The plum blossom was Michizane’s favorite flower, and he would often write about its fragile petals and delicate fragrance. Here the artist has depicted the young poet writing on a folded sheet of paper held on a fan. The gnarled plum tree trunk is rendered in strong calligraphic strokes, which suggest the powerful brushwork for which Michizane would become famous.”

Homage to Hideyoshi’s Famous Kitano Grand Tea Ceremony

Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Wikimedia Commons.

The tea ceremony at Baika-sai also pays homage to another famous figure in Japanese history, the warlord Hideyoshi Toyotomi  (1537 – 1598).  He held the Grand Kitano Tea Ceremony  at Kitano Tenmangū Shrine in 1587. Since the teahouses near the shrine served as resting places for Hideyoshi’s spectacular event, this  may be the origins of the Kamishichiken hanamachi.

Plum Blossoms Past and Present

The annual Plum Blossom Festival at Kitano Tenmangū Shrine gives the public a chance to see maiko and geiko.  They bring the past to the present through costume, dance, and tea ceremony.  The festival recalls legends of the past, the blossoms coax one to enjoy the moment.

Next Post: Hello Kitty!Hello Maiko!

Tenugui (hand towel). EIRAKUYA Co. Ltd.

Next week, we celebrate Girls’ Day and the Doll Festival (Hinamatsuri) in Japan.
What do playful icons of maiko and Sanrio’s “Hello Kitty” character have in common?  How about when Kitty-Chan performs in Maiko cosplay?  What’s the difference between these two as dolls of contemporary Japan?

FEATURED IMAGE: Lovely photo posted in 2011 by 663highland to Wikimedia Commons. It’s taken at Kitano Tenmangū in northeast Kyoto.


“Baikasai and Nodate Ohchanoyu (Ume plum blossom festival).” Sharing Kyoto.
Feb. 08, 2022.

Kamishichiken Ichimame. 2007. Maiko no osahō (Maiko etiquette). Tokyo: Daiwa Shobō.

Jan Bardsley, “Maiko at the Plum Blossom Festival,”, February 24, 2022.

Out with the Demons! In with Good Fortune!

Setsubun festivities are among the liveliest in Kyoto’s hanamachi. Maiko and geiko take part in public rituals and teahouse party fun.  Today’s blogpost explores the meanings of this February event.  Maiko manga, travel videos, and geiko memoirs record its daytime rituals and evening hilarity.

What is Setsubun?

According to the lunar calendar, Setsubun 節分, literally, the “seasonal division,” marks both the last day of winter and the last day of the year.

“a ritually meaningful moment”

Likening Setsubun to New Year’s Eve, Michael Dylan Foster describes it as “a dividing point between the old year and the new and therefore a ritually meaningful moment of transition.  This is a crack in the flow of time, a potentially dangerous bridge between one period and another, during which both good and bad spirits might enter” (124).

The Mamemaki Ritual of Tossing Beans

The mamemaki ritual of scattering roasted soybeans serves to drive out the evil spirits. I remember doing this in college in Japan. So much fun! We tossed beans out the high windows of our residence hall into a yard out back. We shouted,Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi! — Out with the demons, in with good fortune.”  

As we shall see, maiko and geiko practice the mamemaki ritual and dance at major shrines to the delight of crowds.

How do Maiko and Geiko Take Part?

Aiko Koyama, 2017.

In the afternoons on February 2nd and 3rd, maiko and geiko celebrate Setsubun with artistry.  They offer dances to the deity of the new year at public ceremonies at famous Kyoto shrines. Members of the Kamishichiken hanamachi dance at Kitano-Tenmangū Shrine. Those from the other hanamachi perform at Yasaka Shrine.

Checking online, however, I see that many 2022 Setsubun events in Kyoto appear to have been cancelled, likely due to pandemic precautions.

Manga artist Aiko Koyama imagines maiko dancing, then tossing beans.

Aiko Koyama, 2017.

From the stage, maiko and geiko toss out packets of beans to the raucous crowds hoping to exorcise misfortune and catch their own bit of luck.

Oni, Maiko and Geiko Celebrate Setsubun at Kitano-Tenmangū Shrine.

Here’s a 2015 video clip of the Setsubun Festival at Kitano-Tenmangū Shrine. Originally posted by Discover Kyoto, Niwaka Corporation.

Costume Play in the Evening at Ozashiki Parties

In the evening, the hanamachi comes alive as geiko, and in some cases, even their clients appear as obake. That is, they become mischief-makers “transformed” into oni by playful disguises.

You may see samurai and other Tokugawa-era figures, ballerinas, Peking Opera stars, and characters from famous films, anime and manga. We find geiko in all manner of costumes.

Why Costume for Setsubun?

As Liza Dalby explains, this costuming practice recalls superstitions.  In the past, Japanese practiced “customs of inversion” during Setsubun to ward off oni. They believed the oni threatened to come closer to humans during this precarious juncture. It was a time when “high becomes low, old becomes young, women play men and vice versa” (120). Women and girls fooled the oni by inverting their usual fashion to play at being old or young (120-21).

Geiko–and Sometimes Clients, too– in Carnivalesque Obake Costumes 

Geiko often plan months in advance for this event. Many form pairs or groups of three to decide their theme, devise costumes, and create a short act to perform at the evening’s parties.  Clients gather at teahouses and bars in the hanamachi at Setsubun, waiting for the moment when the obake will appear. Clients give generous tips in thanks for the fun.

Yamato Waki, Crimson Fragrance, 2003-07.

Some clients turn the table by dressing as geiko or maiko themselves, as we see in Yamato Waki’s manga above.  The grotesque sight comically flips the beauty, gender identity, and etiquette of geiko and maiko.

What Kinds of Costumes?

Exploring hanamachi festivals, Hamasaki Kanako describes some fantastic geiko costumes.  One year, for example, an elaborate act involved two geiko combining elements of Phantom of the Opera with a surprising costume-switch to Hawaiian dance. For this five-minute performance, the women had prepared for months. They took dance lessons, researched make-up options, edited music, and rented special costumes (95).

Maiko Assist Their Costumed Elder Sisters

In her manga Crimson Fragrance, Yamato Waki explains that maiko do not participate in the over-the-top costuming because they need to maintain their maiko hairstyles. Similarly, Aiko Koyama explains that maiko may assist their elder geiko sisters with their costumes and props.

Fond Geiko Memories of Obake Costuming

“we’re allowed to purposely look a mess”
— Geiko Komomo

Geiko Komomo describes going to over 70 lively ozashiki on the night of Setsubun. She finds freedom in the crazy costuming. “We always have to make ourselves beautiful in our everyday life, so obake is the only time we’re allowed to purposely look a mess, so you can imagine there’s a lot of competition for the male roles!” (132).

Former Gion geiko Iwasaki Mineko recalls going to almost 40 ozashiki on Setsubun in 1972. She stayed only a few minutes at each party.  But she earned enough in tips for a vacation to Hawaii. “That night we made over $30,000, enough to travel in style” (255).

For more on oni demons

Noriko T. Reider explains Oni

Oni (variously translated into English as demons, monsters, and mischief-makers) have a long history in Japanese literature and culture. They range from fearsome spirits to playful ones. If you want to know more, see Noriko T. Reider’s book  Japanese Demon Lore: Oni, from Ancient Times to the Present (Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 2010).

Next post:  The Happy Goddess of Setsubun Festivals


Posted by Nissy-KITAQ, 2010. Wikimedia Commons.

A cheerful goddess features in Setsubun Festivals. People commonly call her Okame or Otafuku.  We find her image in many forms all over Japan.  In our next post, we find out about this happy figure.

Featured Image:  This undated image of mamemaki is posted on Yasaka Shrine’s website,


Dalby, Liza. Geisha. Berkeley: University of California Press,1983, 2008.

Foster, Michael Dylan and Kijin Shinonome, The Book of Yokai: Mysterious Creatures of Japanese Folklore.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015, 124.

Hamasaki Kanako, “Annual Events in the Hanamachi” (Hanamachi no nenchū gyōji), In Kyō no kagai: Hito, waza, machi [Kyoto’s hanamachi: People, arts, towns], edited
by Ōta Tōru and Hiratake Kōzō, 92–109. Tokyo: Nippon Hyōronsha, 2009, 95.

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

Komomo and Naoyuki Ogino.  A Geisha’s Journey: My Life as a Kyoto Apprentice. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 2008.

Koyama Aiko.  Maiko-san-chi no Makanai-san. Serialized manga. Volume 4. Page 101. Shōgakukan, 2017. “A Drink To Bring Out Your Best” (Episode 39) of the manga with English translation is available online:
You can see the anime version of Koyama’s Setsubun 3 episodes in Kiyo in Kyoto: From the Maiko House at:

Yamato Waki and Iwasaki Mineko. Kurenai niou [Crimson fragrance]. Serialized manga. 2003–07, rpt Tokyo: Kōdansha, 2009.

Jan Bardsley, “Out with the Demons! In with Good Fortune!,”, February 3, 2022.

The Maiko Gets Back to Work in the New Year

How do you focus your energies to get back to work in the new year?  For Kyoto’s maiko and geiko,  the “Opening Ceremony” inspires resolve.  An annual event, it’s replete with formal clothing, auspicious hair ornaments, awards, and later, rounds of greetings to teahouse managers.

Above, manga artist Aiko Koyama imagines lots of maiko and geiko gathered for the Opening Ceremony in their kuromontsuki kimono.  A photo of the event (below) shows how colorful and happy they are.

Gion Opening Ceremony. Sankei News, 2019.

What are some main features of this annual event? What stands out about it in 2022?  Today’s post explores these questions.

A Local Event Becomes a National One

Gion Kōbu, the largest hanamachi, gets the most publicity. Apparently, it was the only hanamachi to hold an Opening Ceremony in 2022.  Online videos and news articles elevate Gion’s Opening Ceremony to a matter of national cultural significance.  

Maiko Tomitsuyu, 2015. Gion Higashi.

Pre-pandemic, every January, each of Kyoto’s five hanamachi held its own Opening Ceremony (shigyō-shiki 始業式).  Guidebooks do not mention when this practice began. They do explain that four hanamachi (Gion Kōbu, Miyagawa-chō, Ponto-chō, and Gion Higashi) hold the ceremony on January 7th, and Kamishichiken, on January 9th.  But that was before the pandemic.  In 2020 and 2021 all districts cancelled.

The pandemic has been hard on the hanamachi.  Public dances and most parties were cancelled.


With little way to earn income,  many geiko have had to rely on savings. Trainees had to postpone their maiko debut.  By last March, the total number of maiko had dropped from 81 to 68 (Onuki).

Celebrating Safely: Masks in 2022 

This JIJI PRESS video shows the joyous  2022 Gion Opening Ceremony. Everyone is masked and the event is reportedly shorter than usual.

About 100 people attended this event. It was held in the building where maiko and geiko take arts lessons, Yasaka Nyokoba Gakuen.

The Gion Kōbu Pledge

At one point in Gion’s Opening Ceremony, all the maiko, geiko, arts teachers, and teahouse proprietors stand to read a short pledge of resolve in unison. Here’s how the pledge opens:


We shall always conduct ourselves beautifully,
with gentleness and kindness.

Gion maiko and geiko pledge their resolve. Gion Shopping Street Promotion Associates.

They also pledge to take pride in Gion traditions, strive to cultivate their hearts and minds (kokoro), and to exert themselves in their arts training. Remaining aware of Kyoto’s global status, they will endeavor to seek new knowledge and broaden their vision, while fostering fine customs and winning favor with all.

Recognition at the Opening Ceremony

Generally, at the Opening Ceremony, each hanamachi recognizes its top-earning teahouse manager, geiko, and maiko of the past year.  However, this year, Gion did not recognize earnings — an acknowledgement of the problems caused by the pandemic.

It’s not hard, however, to understand an emphasis on earnings in most years. After all, the hanamachi must earn income to stay alive. Thus, the Opening Ceremony underscores the importance of artistic and business success to the vitality of the hanamachi.  No wonder leaders reward teahouses that attract the most customers and the geiko and maiko that receive the most requests to appear at ozashiki parties.

Earning Hanamachi Awards Takes Ambition and Effort

Komomo and Naoyuki Ogino.  Kodansha International, 2008.

Artistic merit also earns recognition at the Opening Ceremony. It is not easy to achieve this honor and few manage to earn highest ranking in consecutive years.  In Geisha, A Life, Iwasaki Mineko describes the sheer ambition and physical exertion obtaining this award required (187).  In A Geisha’s Journey, Komomo explains her excitement and surprise at winning two awards in her second year as a maiko. One recognized her for “being one of the ten most successful maiko” in her district and the other for “working so hard in my dance and music lessons” (40).


Photographers like to capture maiko and geiko at the event in their formal costumes.  Our next post explores the significance of the small, bright golden ear of rice the maiko and geiko wear.

FEATURED IMAGE: This comes from Aiko Koyama’s bestselling serialized manga Maiko-san-chi no Makanai-san. Serialized manga. Volume 3. Shōgakukan, 2017. p.117. For the animated version, See Chapters 23 and 24 on NHK World.  Available until September 23, 2022.

2015 photos here of maiko in the Gion Higashi district posted online at


Iwasaki Mineko and Rande Brown. Geisha: A Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2002.

Komomo and Naoyuki Ogino. A Geisha’s Journey: My Life as a Kyoto Apprentice. Translated by Gearoid Reidy and Philip Price. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 2008.

Koyama Aiko. Maiko-san-chi no Makanai-san. Serialized manga. Volume 3. Shōgakukan, 2017.

Onuki Satoko. “20 Maiko and Geiko Leave Hanamachi, Annual Income Drops Sharply, the Predicament for Kyoto’s Hanamachi.” (In Japanese). Asahi Shinbun Digital. May 28, 2021.
Access January 11, 2022.

Jan Bardsley, “The Maiko Gets Back to Work in the New Year,”, January 18, 2022.

Kotohajime 2021: Maiko Prepare for the New Year

On December 13th, Kyoto’s hanamachi bustle with activity. It’s Kotohajime 事始め, the annual event marking the “beginning of preparations” for the new year.  What kind of rituals take place today? What is their purpose? On Kotohajime 2021, we explore this custom.

Cancelled for the most part last year due to the pandemic, Kotohajime rituals resumed this year–wisely, with masks.

On Dec. 13th, geiko, maiko, and shikomi trainees visit their arts teachers and the teahouse managers. They express their gratitude and request the favor of their guidance in the new year. Clad in lovely kimono, the women start their rounds at 10am.  Amateur photographers record the sight to post on Flickr. Onlookers crowd the area to see the event, too. News team broadcast reports for audiences in Japan and abroad.

NHK News posted this video and article of today’s event in Gion, the largest hanamachi.

A Sight of The Old Capital

Kawabata, 1968. Wikimedia.

Colorful Kotohajime activity in the hanamachi figures in famed author Kawabata Yasunari’s 1962 novel set in Kyoto, The Old Capital, translated by J. Martin Holman.  Kawabata found Kotohajime most closely observed in the Gion hanamachi:

“On this day, this ‘early new year,’ the striking dress of the maiko and the geisha as they came and went enlivened the atmosphere around Gion more than on any other day” (160).



Greeting Inoue Yachiyo V in Gion on Kotohajime

Today, the news brings viewers right to the center of this activity.

This 2019 Kyodo News broadcast shows the Kotohajime rituals taking place at the residence of the head (iemoto) of the Inoue School of Kyoto Dance, Inoue Yachiyo V.  The large room normally used for dance practice displays colorful rice cakes on a tiered stand. These kagami mochi are “offerings to the deities” from the maiko and geiko.

Inoue Yachiyo V greets geiko and maiko, 2019. The Sankei News.

Sankei News shows the geiko and maiko seated in a line before Inoue Yachiyo V. Each patiently waits her turn to offer the New Year’s greeting, “Congratulations, teacher.” In response, Inoue encourages her students, presenting each a folding fan to use in her dance practice in the new year.


Maiko Momohana Reflects on her Year of Dance Training

Momohana. Koyama Aiko, 2020.

Manga artist Koyama Aiko picks up on the ritual as a time for reflection, too.  She imagines her star maiko Momohana interviewed by a TV news team. The reporter asks, “Today, on Kotohajime, may I ask how you reflect on the past year?” Momohana responds modestly, “I’m painfully aware of missing the mark this year and I will concentrate more than ever next year.”  Her answer mirrors the responses we hear given by actual maiko on news videos!  Catching the interview, her friend Kenta remembers how even as a child, Momohana had terrific resolve. In the next frame, Koyama depicts little Sumire in pigtails standing tall, fierce with determination.

Kotohajime: The Busiest Time of the Hanamachi Year

Anthropologist Liza Dalby, who did fieldwork in the Pontochō hanamachi in the mid-1970s, remembers Kotohajime as “one of the busiest times of the year” (250).  “Not only are all the clients making plans for end-of-the-year parties, the geisha have more than the usual responsibilities and ceremonial duties vis-à-vis one another and the ex-geisha who run the teahouses” (160).

The Beginning of the New Year at the End of the Old Year?

“Although the year has not ended,” writes Kyoko Aihara, “this is the day that new year preparations begin in the hanamachi. This day marks the start of the new year” (215).

Kokimi Cover

Bare-faced Geiko, 2007.

“Kotohajime, you say? Why does all this talk about the new year happen at the end of year?” Gion geiko Kokimi imagines her readers may find it strange that this new year event takes place on December 13th.  When she first came to the hanamachi, she, too, was surprised to hear all the congratulatory new year greetings mid-December (116). But Kotohajime was once more commonly practiced in Japan.


According to Japan Reference, December 13th used to be more widely observed as the day to begin preparations for the new year’s holiday, the most important in Japan. It was time to give the house a thorough cleaning and display seasonal decorations. These days Japanese tend to do this at the end of December. But the hanamachi follows the old custom.

Reading almanacs led Liza Dalby to discover that, “for most people in agricultural Japan o-koto hajime meant something quite different than it did for geisha. ‘The beginning of things’ referred to the chores of the farming season, which started in earnest just after the lunar new year. Farmers also observed ‘the finishing of things’ (o-koto osame) around the first week of December, leaving a six-week interval of relatively quiet time. Interestingly, I never heard of o-koto osame in the geisha world. For geisha, some times are busier than others, but things are never finished” (251).

Learning from the Kotohajime Custom

It’s reassuring to see the hanamachi returning to life this year.  Reading about Kotohajime past and present, I take a moment to feel gratitude to my teachers, family, and friends. And there’s plenty for me to do, too, to get ready for the new year.


*Note that the event is also romanized as two words, sometime hyphenated: koto hajime; koto-hajime. It’s also translated as “the beginning of things” and “things to do for the New Year.”

The featured image today is found on Yasuhiro  It shows Gion maiko visiting iemoto Inoue Yachiyo. Imamiya’s blog has many beautiful photos of Kyoto events:

Aihara Kyoko. Kyoto maiko to geiko no okuzashiki [The salon of Kyoto maiko and geiko]. Tokyo: Bungei Shunjū, 2001.

Dalby, Liza Crihfield. East Wind Melts the Ice: A Memoir Through the Seasons. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007.

Kawabata, Yasunari, and J. Martin Holman, translator. The Old Capital. Berkeley: COUNTERPOINT, 2006.

Koyama Aiko. Maiko-san-chi no Makanai-san. Serialized manga. Volume 15. Episode 161, Shōgakukan, 2020.  For its new online anime adaptation, NHK World translates the manga title as Kiyo in Kyoto: From the Maiko House.

Yamaguchi Kimijo. Suppin geiko: Kyoto Gion no ukkari nikki [Bare-faced geiko: My haphazard diary of Gion, Kyoto]. Tokyo: LOCUS, 2007

Online News Articles:
Kyodo News, “Maiko-san-ra mo shōgatsu-jitaku Kyōto no hanamachi `kotohajime'”
Dec. 13, 2019, Accessed Dec. 12, 2021.

NHK News Web, “‘Beginning of things’ at Kyoto Gion Geisha and Maiko New Year’s greetings. Dec. 13, 2021, Accessed Dec. 13, 2021.

The Sankei News, “Kyoto, Gion de Kotohajime, Gei-maiko ga aisatsu”
Dec. 13, 2019, Accessed Dec. 12, 2021.

Jan Bardsley, “Kotohajime: Maiko Prepare for the New Year,” December 13, 2021

Mokuroku celebrate cast of Lady Maiko.

A wall full of bright mokuroku posters! Typically, they mark the debut of a new maiko or geiko. But these posters cleverly celebrate the upcoming premiere of a maiko movie.  It’s the 2014 musical, Lady Maiko, loosely based on My Fair Lady.

What’s the story of actual mokuroku? How do we read their signs?  We explore these questions in today’s blogpost, returning to read this maiko movie poster, too.

What is the mokuroku?

On the day of her debut, the maiko sits before mokuroku sent in her honor. Sankei West 2015.12.11

Photos of debuting maiko and geiko often show them sitting in front of large, red-rimmed, gaily colored posters (mokuroku目録).  The abundance of bright color and good wishes celebrates their career milestone. Although books on the hanamachi frequently show these vivid posters, few explain them.

Who commissions mokuroku?

Supporters of the new maiko or geiko—regular teahouse clients, elder sister geiko, Kabuki actors, and others associated with her hanamachi—have mokuroku made and sent to her okiya. There, they will be hung on the walls in the entrance and outside the okiya, too.  They will be up for a short period, from a few days before the event to a few days after. My sources report that it’s unclear when this practice started.

How large are mokuroku? What materials are used?

Mokuroku are roughly 100 x 80 centimeters (40 x 32 inches). The paper is hōshogami (奉書紙), defined by Jim Breen as a “variant of traditional white Japanese paper, made from high-quality mulberry wood.”

In the past artists used natural mineral pigments for color, but today they use acrylic paints. They also use black ink.  It appears that mokuroku cost about 7,000 yen (roughly US$70) apiece.

How do women remember the mokuroku gifted them?  One former maiko-geiko describes her reaction.

“I was lucky to have many mokuroku displayed…My goodness, what a festive sight it was.”

Arai Mameji. 2015. Gion Mameji: Chotto mukashi no Gion machi
(Mameji of the Gion: The Gion of Recent Past).
Tokyo: Asahi Shimbun Publications, Inc.

In her 2015 memoir, Gion leader Arai Mameji, who debuted as a maiko in 1969, recalls the many mokuroku brought to her okiya by the dresser on the day before her misedashi (debut).  Each one bore the name of the supporter who had gifted it.

Arai exclaims, “I was lucky to have many mokuroku displayed. Naturally, they were hung on the walls, but even on the ceiling, too. My goodness, what a festive sight it was” (26).

She credits her resourceful elder geiko sister for using her own network to encourage this support.  Since a new maiko has no clients, Arai writes, she must depend on the active support of her elder sister. Arai reports that the mokuroku custom began in Gion, finding favor in other hanamachi, too.

Let’s take a closer look at one mokuroku to learn the conventions.

This dynamic mokuroku was created by the current head of Eirakuya, the fourteenth Hosotsuji Ihee. Eirakuya is the legendary textile firm in Kyoto. Hosotsuji Ihee displays this mokuroku on his blog:

Who does this mokuroku honor?

You will find the new maiko or geiko’s name in large script to the left.

  1. (Left): The maiko’s name here is Mamechiho 豆ちほ
  2. (Lower left): Literally, “to [Mamechiho] san.” さん江

is an ateji, a character used for its sound.
The usual kana would be , used to indicate to whom something is directed.

Who is congratulating her? Eirakuya Hosotsuji Ihee

You will find the well-wisher’s name in large script in the lower right/lower center. Eirakuya  永楽屋  the firm’s name, (to the right) is written vertically here and read top-to-bottom.

Hosotsuji Ihee 細辻伊兵衛  has written his name diagonally. Read this right-to-left. He is also the artist of this mokuroku.

The red strip below the artist’s name is a decorative element commonly used in congratulatory greetings and, as thin strips of paper, on gifts: noshi 熨斗. This one signifies that the name above is that of the donor.

What is  in the middle? Good luck symbols

You will find large, multicolored good luck symbols, engimono 縁起物 in the center of every maiko mokuroku.

This mokuroku has a cluster of good luck symbols. We see the “lucky bamboo grass” (fukuzasa 福笹) with lucky charms attached.

The charms: Ebisu (left), the sea bream and god of good luck, 恵比寿; Daikokuten (right), a god of prosperity 大黒天; and round “gold” coins, koban 小判. These “lucky grass” arrangements are also associated with the January celebrations at Ebisu Shrines in the Kansai area.

JAPAN INFO has good explanations of several engimono:    Here’s another example of Lucky Grass with charms attached:

Lucky Grass. Garden Plus.

What is written at the top of mokuroku?
Hopes for good fortune

The mokuroku artist chooses among several fixed celebratory phrases to pen at the top of the poster in sumi ink.  Here are some common ones.  I give the ones that appear in this mokuroku in red:

Ichihigara:  一日柄:Better every day

Hibi ni kagayaku:  日々輝く:  Every day may you shine even more

Hibi ni noboru:  日々昇:  Every day may you ascend even higher

Hibi ni nigiwai:日々賑わい: Every day do a thriving business

Takusan  たくさん:Much [success]

Daininki 大人気:Great popularity [Note the abbreviation of the old form of 氣 as 米]

What is in the top right hand corner?  More noshi

Want to see many more maiko mokuroku? 

Try using the kanji for “maiko mokuroku” 舞妓目録 in the search engine. (If you only put mokuroku目録, you will find the envelopes and certificates used for other celebratory events in Japan).

You’ll notice that the basic layout of the poster remains the same, but the lucky charms in the middle, and of course, the names of the donor/recipient change.

What about the mokuroku movie poster?

How does our new knowledge of mokuroku conventions let us in on the humor of the movie poster with which we began?

Mokuroku celebrate cast of Lady Maiko.

We see the same congratulatory messages at the top and good luck charms at center. But the “maiko” name? It’s that of the film’s “maiko” actress, Ms. Mone Kamishiraishi 上白石 萌音   She’s pictured here wearing a red skirt and white blouse.  The lovely umbrellas, also associated with maiko, celebrate the movie, too.  On the left, the movie’s Japanese title, and to the right, “Great hit! Great hit!”  A smart way to use hanamachi custom to promote this maiko musical.

Wishing you much success this week!


Ōta Tōru and Hiratake Kōzō, eds. Kyō no kagai: Hito, waza, machi [Kyoto’s hanamachi: People, arts, towns]. Tokyo: Nippon Hyōronsha, 2009.

Suo Masayuki, dir. Maiko wa redī [Lady Maiko]. Tokyo: Toho, 2014.

Jan Bardsley, “The Artful Debut, Congratulatory Mokuroku Posters,” April 5, 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.

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