Can you tell a real geisha from a fake?

Maybe you don’t know it but most probably none of the geisha you saw around Kyoto were actually real geisha. Especially if they were happy to have you take pictures of them and they were even striking a pose for you in touristy areas.

A geisha is essentially an artist, a person who works in the field of art and tradition so you would probably find her rushing from a customer to the other in tea houses and restaurants and for sure she does not have the time to stop for you to take pictures and she avoids touristy areas.

How to tell a real geisha from a dressed up tourist? There are details to look for to recognize a real geisha. Read on and I will tell you.

First of all let’s distinguish between a geisha (actually better to say geiko if we are in Kyoto) and an apprentice geiko, called maiko. Once you will know how an authentic maiko and an authentic geiko should look like it will be very easy to tell if the girl you are looking at is actually what she looks like.

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A beautiful geiko performing tea ceremony. Look at her hands, pure elegance.

At the end of this article you will have all the information to tell if the girls in the pictures you or your friends took in Japan were real geisha or if they were just dressed up tourists.

Hairstyle

Maiko wear different types of hairstyles depending both on the occasion and the phase of their apprenticeship.

If we exclude special hairstyles for holidays and events such as Spring dances or New Year, we can say that a maiko styles her hair in three different ways.

The apprenticeship of a maiko lasts five years, during the first year, at the age of 15, she begins to live in the house of the geisha, the okiya, and she attends music classes, singing classes and dancing classes but she does not entertain customers, during this first year she can wear her hair as she likes as long as she does not cut it. After the first year of classes she becomes a maiko after a ceremony called misedashi. For the first year after misedashi she is a junior maiko, a minarai, and she learns by observing the senior maiko and geiko of her okiya. She meets customers only together with a geiko or a senior maiko.

Maiko_wareshinobu
Wareshinobu hairstyle. This hairstyle is used by maiko during their first year of apprenticeship.

The hairstyle that a maiko wears for her first year of apprenticeship is called wareshinobu, it is characterized by a sort of bun on the nape adorned with red cloth and a precious brooch in the center.

Maiko_Ofuku
Ofuku hairstyle. This hairstyle is used by more senior maiko.

Ofuku hairstyle is characterized by a piece of cloth folded into a triangle on the nape and it is worn by maiko starting from the end of the first year of apprenticeship and thus it indicates a certain level of professional maturity. It was once worn after the ritual of the loss of virginity but today it coincides with the period towards the eighteenth birthday.

Maiko_sakko
Sakko hairstyle, used by maiko a couple of months before their graduation to geiko.

It is very rare to see a maiko with this type of hairstyle called sakko, because it is worn only during the last two months of apprenticeship. The lock of hair on the back is cut during the graduation ceremony, called eri-kae, by the people who had been important during the years of apprenticeship of the maiko, such as her music teachers, dance teachers or the geiko who mentored her.

The most important detail of all these hairstyles is that they are made with the real hair of the maiko. If you saw a girl wearing a wig styled in this way than she wasn’t a real maiko.

Maiko_geiko_hairstyle
Geiko in the middle, senior maiko on the left and junior maiko on the right.

Geiko instead do not use their real hair, partly because years and years of hairstyling often cause hair loss on the top of the head. The wig of a geiko is coiffed in the shimada style characterized by a curve of hair that hides a little the nape whereas a maiko has the nape always in plain sight.

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Maiko with the white paint designed in the “two mountains” style. This style is used during particular ceremonies or important occasions.

Another difference, always linked to the hair, regards hair ornaments. In general the more elaborate hair ornaments are the more the girl is at the beginning of her apprenticeship. A professional geiko wears only simple wooden combs while maiko adorn their hairstyles with elaborate combs, called kanzashi, and dangle waterfalls of silk flowers.

minarai_maiko
Young minarai with dangling silk flowers, red collar and only the lower lip painted red.

A careful eye can easily recognize the authenticity of a maiko only by looking at the kanzashi she is wearing. The different types of flowers and leaves are in fact linked to the season or to traditional festivities, in spring all the maiko use ornaments with cherry blossoms but they would never wear such ornaments in the middle of October. If you see a maiko with cherry blossoms in her hair during fall or winter you know thatshe is not an authentic maiko but just a tourist. In addition, more elaborate kanzashi and dangling kanzashi are used only by maiko during the first year of apprenticeship. A no more novice maiko uses simplest combs and combs with metal strips dangling called bira bira kanzashi.

bira bira kanzashi
Bira bira kanzashi, often they are made of silver and they have the crest of the okiya.

Here you can find a beautiful calendar showing month by month the kanzashi used by a maiko.

Makeup

Carefully looking at the makeup you can understand, not only if you are in front of a geiko or a maiko, but also, if she is a maiko, what phase she has reached in her journey to become a geiko.

Both maiko and geiko paint their face and part of the shoulders and neck with white. The eyebrows of a maiko are fully painted with red while a geiko uses only a hint of color, and the same goes for eyes makeup. More red for maiko and just a hint of color for geiko.

Maiko make up
A beatiful maiko with red makeup on her eyes and eyebrows and lipstick on her lower lip only.

The most distinguishing feature is the mouth. During their first year of apprenticeship maiko put red lipstick only on the lower lip. For the rest of the apprenticeship they paint the lower lip and the upper lip. Professional geiko fully paint their lips. If you saw a girl with the typical dangling kanzashi used during the first year of apprenticeship and completely painted lips now you know that she was a tourist.

Kimono

There are 3 things to look at to verify if the girl you are looking at is a geiko, a maiko, or if she is just a dressed up tourist.

Maiko_red_collar_2
Maiko with a red collar

First of all look at the collar. A maiko only wears red collars or collars decorated with strong tones of red if she is towards the end of her apprenticeship. Geiko wear only white collars. Collars with other colors or collars missing any hint of red are not used by maiko. This detail is very important, the ceremony of the changing of the collar from red to white, called eri-kae, represents the moment of transition from being a maiko to becoming a professional geiko marking the end of the apprenticeship.

Maiko - okobo
The lower part of a maiko obi with the crest of her okiya

The belt that closes the kimono, called obi, clearly marks the status of a geisha. Maiko keep the obi very high on the breast and tied back with very long tails with the crest, called kamon, of their geisha house embroidered in the lower part. This kind of obi is called darari obi and often it is the key to tell a tourist from a maiko because tourists’ obi often do not have any crest. Geiko instead keep the obi lower and tied back in a simpler way, without tails and without too much clutter in a style called taiko.

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An elegant geiko elegantly holding her kimono.

The kimono itself will help you understand if you are looking at a maiko or a geiko. In general, maiko wear flashy kimono with more vibrant colors, richer decorations and above all maiko kimono have long sleeves, called furisode. The kimono worn by geiko have rather more neutral colors and have short sleeves, called kosode.

Shoes

Finally eyes on the shoes they wear. Maiko wear very high sandals, called okobo, often okobo are shorter than the foot so that a part of the heel is out of the sandal making it pretty difficult to walk wearing them, with the exception of trained maiko who look elegant and flawless in every situation. Geiko wear instead flat sandals, called zori. Even the most determined tourist would struggle to walk all day with high maiko sandals so they are an important detail to look at.

Maiko sandals called okobo.

The only exceptions are the morning classes or ceremonies including parades or processions. When they go out from their house to go to lessons also maiko wear lower sandals and simple kimono with the obi tied in taiko style, even in this case you can recognize a real maiko by observing her hairstyle. During parades or ceremonies, when they need to walk for long, also maiko wear zori but there are no other exceptions.

Age

One last trick is the age. It is not easy to guess the age of Japanese women and Asian women in general (lucky them!) but considered that the apprenticeship of a maiko starts when she is 16 and lasts 4 years if a girl shows more than twenty years of age and she is dressed like a maiko she is definitely not authentic.

Last curiosities

All the elements I described above shall be combined together; all characteristics shall be observed to ensure you have met a real geisha. It is also said, but I cannot say whether it is true or not, that the parlors that offer the opportunity to dress up as a geisha for a day observe a code of respect towards the true geisha and they purposely commit some mistakes when dressing the tourists. The type of obi, makeup, hairstyle, some details that contrast with the rest and make it clear, to a trained eye, that the girl is not a true geisha.

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Maiko and Geiko during Hassaku, an event held every August 1 in Gion Kobu in Kyoto. Geiko and maiko, wearing a formal black kimono, make their rounds of all the ochaya (teahouses) in the district to thank the owners for their patronage during the year.

In Kyoto, there are less than two thousand apprentices and only a few hundred geiko so you can imagine yourself that it is not easy to meet one of them. In the morning they study and practice, in the afternoon they are busy with make-up and kimono for the evening so it is almost impossible to see them before 5 pm fully dressed, coiffed and with their make-up done unless they have to attend some ceremony or event. Often you encounter them in a hurry and around sunset when they leave their houses to go to entertain customers in restaurants and teahouses. Do not chase them and if they have the time to stop with you do not take advantage of their time and do not touch their kimono or their hair.

Would you like it to have somebody following you with a camera or even touching your clothes while you are off to work? Just enjoy the moment and admire the piece of living art that moves in front of you.

Test your knowledge

Have you learned how to tell a real geisha from a dressed up tourist? Yes? Let’s practice! Below you will find some pictures, try to guess if they are authentic maiko/geiko or not. Below the picture you will find the answer to check if you guessed right.

fake_maiko_9
Do you notice something missing? Look at the obi. Yes, no crest. Pretty tourists but not real maiko
fake_maiko_7
This one is easy. Can you see the wig? Do maiko wear wigs? No, they don’t, so these are dressed up tourists. The obi is also tied too low and the lips are too red for a young maiko

 

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This one is difficult but notice the kanzashi, one girl wears pink flowers and the other one yellow leaves. One of them has the wrong kanzashi for the season so it makes me think they are not authentic.
Beautiful, but is she authentic? Well, not. Dangling silk flowers in the hair cannot go with those red lips. Not an authentic maiko.
Maiko are taught to be able to hold their kimono gracefully when they walk so they don’t need to tie it up unless they are performing a particular dance. In the picture you can see that the kimono is tied up to allow these beautiful tourists to walk around easily.
fake_maiko_3
This one is easy. Dangling silk kanzashi, full red lips and not even a hint of red in the collar. Not an authentic maiko.

One extra test

Many Japanese were quite disappointed when the movie Memoirs of a Geisha came out in Japan because the  costumes designer and the make up artist deliberately made some mistakes to give the protagonist a more western appealing look. Can you find the mistakes in the scenes below?

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Sayuri at the spring festival – In this scene of the movie the main character wears the typical apprentice kanzashi but her mouth is completely painted like a professional geiko.
Memoirs_of_a_geisha_2
The meeting in the tea house – In this scene you can see very well the different styles of the kimono worn by the maiko apprentice and the two professional geiko but you’ll also notice the make-up mistakes, starting with the fact that the skin is not painted white as it should. Moreover, none of the three women wear a geisha hairstyle.

Congratulations! You have arrived at the end of the article. It was a long article and I apologize but there are many things to say about geisha and it is such an interesting topic! Let me underline that I am not an expert, I made lots of research and learned a lot from people who know about geisha but I am not an expert myself so if you have something to add please let me know in the comments, comments are very welcome!

All the pictures are taken from Pinterest and they are not mine, no copyright infringement intended.

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