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

Tag: maiko; manners; Kyoto signs; Kyoto tourism

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.

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.

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