Do you know your maiko from your oiran? Learn more about these traditional roles and the beautiful kimono worn by the women who performed them.
If you see a woman with elaborate hair and white makeup, dressed in a kimono, the word ‘geisha’ springs immediately to mind, of course. But in fact there are several styles of kimono and several names for the historical wearers of these elegant traditional outfits, and they vary according to rank and by region.
Maiko (舞妓) are apprentice geiko (very similar to geisha) from Kyoto. Traditionally, maiko perform songs and dances, and play the shamisen or the koto (traditional Japanese instruments) for visitors during feasts. Maiko are usually aged fifteen to twenty and become geiko once they have learnt how to perform the traditional kyomai dances, play the shamisen and speak Kyō-kotoba (Kyoto’s dialect). Maiko wear their kimono tied at the back.
Tayuu (太夫) is a rank of geiko dating from the beginning of the Edo era. Originally, great kabuki actresses were known as tayuu. But, gradually, their jobs began to overlap with those of the geiko, and eventually, the highest-ranking geiko came to be known as tayuu.
Oiran (花魁) has a similar meaning to tayuu but refers to women who worked in one specific area of Tokyo. Yoshiwara Yukaku was a red-light district permitted by the Edo government, originally located in Nihonbashi Ningyo-cho, but moved to Nihonzutsumi, Taito-ku because of a tragic fire in 1657. Tayuu were still active in other areas, but in Yoshiwara, tayuu began to be known as oiran. These days, the word oiran is generally used to refer to those who worked as ‘women of pleasure’, or prostitutes, rather than just entertainers. The kimono that oiran wear are tied at the front, with a lower neckline than that of the maiko.
These days, tourists from all over the world visit Japan, and some of them try wearing the traditional kimono and taking pictures as part of their Japanese experience. There are schools where you can learn how to wear a kimono all over Japan, including in the Kansai area.
Oiran-style kimono (printed woodcut, 1896).
Image: Wikimedia Commons.
Oiran-style kimono (photograph, 1900). Wikimedia Commons.
Studio Nadeshiko in Osaka is one such kimono school that provides services for people who want to have a kimono-wearing experience. For example, recently the company gave a demonstration of how to wear a kimono to three hundred Singaporean visitors in a hotel. The participants videoed the demonstration, then attempted to put the kimono on by themselves in their hotel rooms for the kimono party that followed.
‘Nadeshiko-san’ is the term that Studio Nadeshiko uses to refer to kimono wearers in Osaka, to make sure they are clearly differentiated from maiko and the maiko experience tourists can have in Kyoto.
In Japan, women of today’s older generation learned how to wear kimono in school, so they are able to dress themselves for weddings and funerals. But nowadays, schools don’t often teach kimono wearing, or they just have classes on how to fold kimono or how to wear kimono using washi paper, rather than a real kimono. So the younger generation aren’t able to dress themselves in a kimono without assistance. Often, though, young women want to learn how to wear kimono, perhaps once they’ve graduated from school or reached their thirties or forties, and the kimono classes they attend often have international participants. How about jazzing up your weekend by learning how to dress yourself in a kimono and wearing it out and about?
Shinsaibashi Kinsho bldg. 2F, 1-2-2, Shinsaibashisuji, Chuo-ku, Osaka
By Life in Kansai