Published on November 10, 2007
Still wearing their veils of white facial makeup with crimson lips, the apprentice geisha of "The Legend of Maiko" shared their inner thoughts with The Nation last weekend during their visit to Bangkok - an unprecedented venture outside their homeland.
The young women from Kyoto were at Siam Paragon to help celebrate His Majesty the King's 80th birthday and 120 years of diplomatic relations between Thailand and Japan.
They are the most renowned maiko in their home city - Kimika, who is 20, Miyoharu, 19, Fukuhina, 18, Fumihana, 17, and Toshifumi 16. And here they were performing for the first time outside Japan, for Her Royal Highness Princess Srirasmi.
They danced exquisitely, fans folding, unfolding and fluttering in their hands, some playing the delicate stringed shamisen, others singing songs of good cheer.
The performance was sponsored by the Japanese Embassy, Bangkok Shuho, the Ministry of Tourism and Sports, the Tourism Authority of Thailand, the Mainichi Academic Group, Thai Airways International and Siam Paragon.
Maiko practise the elite arts to a highly refined degree. Their skills, as well as their beauty, have been legendary for more than 400 years.
They are admired most, said Hiro Corp chief executive Hiroshi Yoshimoto, who promotes their appearances, for their shamisen playing, singing and dancing. They also play the koto harp and taiko drum, perform the tea ceremony and are expert in ikebana - the art of flower arranging.
Fewer than 100 maiko remain. Decades ago tradition called for them to begin their training at about age 12. Today it usually starts at 15, once compulsory education is completed. After they turn 20 they can become geiko - full-fledged geisha, to use the better-known term.
Komai Fumie and Komai Mayuko of the traditional teahouse Komaya in Kyoto, which presented "The Legend of Maiko" in Bangkok, say more teenagers these days are interested in becoming maiko, but few can meet the high standards set for acceptance.
Maiko need extraordinary patience in their training, and must display both faultless manners and a love of everything classical in Japanese culture.
It takes two hours to dress, including the application of facial makeup with the stunning red lips, and arranging the hairline at the back in a "W" shape, which accentuates the neck.
The colour, pattern and style of their expensive kimonos depend on the season and the occasion. You'll see them in black for special events
including New Year celebrations, in pink with floral prints for summer, in an orange-maple print for spring and in green for winter.
Kimika, the eldest among the maiko visiting Thailand, said she loves applying the makeup and being able to wear such exquisite kimonos. They symbolise the fulfilment of a dream for her, born of an appreciation for the culture and history of the tradition.
Tradition is essential, she said, but the maiko are open-minded about change, especially in terms of business, having incorporated some aspects from that sphere.
"The business side can be modified," Fukuhina explained, "but the old customs must be strictly preserved. The relationship between the older geiko and the younger maiko has to remain as it is, as well as the tough training."
Are they surrendering the things of youth? The girls admit that, like any young women, they love to shop and have fun in their free time. Fumihana enjoys shopping for fashionable clothes and accessories, Kimika likes to get a massage, Toshifumi heads to the cinema, and they all hold dear the two days a month they sometimes have "off" - if they get any at all.
"My days off are precious," Miyoharu said. "Sometimes I like to go out food shopping and taste the latest ice-cream flavours like other teenagers. But I also find it hard to keep up with the fashions because I have to maintain this hairstyle."
The style is unwavering - long, ebony black hair, pulled up on top.
Asked whether they have any beauty secrets, the maiko insist there's nothing in particular.
But then they are still mostly teenagers - they're naturally