The Twilight of Geisha and Maiko?

The geisha Yukako and Makiko of Gion Kobu dance at a teahouse
The geisha Yukako and Makiko of Gion Kobu dance at a teahouse

I was going to write a post about Yukako and Makiko, the two geisha pictured here, but as I was preparing the photo I started thinking.

It's 2015. How many geiko are there now who were maiko at the same time as Yukako and Makiko? Off the top of my head, I couldn't think of any in Gion Kobu. In Miyagawa-cho, I thought of Yasuha. In Kamishichiken, I know Katsuya is still active. These are the only women who came to mind.

Could there only be four geiko in all of Kyoto who were maiko just ten years ago? Are their numbers dwindling so rapidly?

I went to my bookcase and took out the book Kyoto Hanamachi by the photographer Hiroshi Mizobuchi. I have the second edition, which was published in March 2005, literally ten years ago next week. I just checked at Amazon.co.jp, and the book seems to be out of print.

Mizobuchi-san's book has photographs of the maiko who were active in January 2005. In Gion Kobu, there were 24 maiko at the time. As of June 2014, there were 23 maiko in Gion Kobu, so the overall number is almost exactly the same.

However, only 2 of the 24 maiko in 2005 are geiko today that I know of, Mihoko and Yukako. Makiko must have been a shikomi in 2005, because her photo is not in the book. Interestingly, all three of these women are from the same okiya, Nishimura in Gion Kobu.

There might be a few others who are geiko today (Terukoma, Mao, and Maori), but I'm not sure if they are around or not. Even if all these women are still active, only about 25% of the maiko in 2005 have had careers of ten years or more.

The numbers are similar in Miyagawa-cho. In Kyoto Hanamachi, there are photos of 28 maiko from Miyagawa-cho in 2005. In June 2014, there were 19 active maiko in Miyagawa-cho.

Kosen, Yashuha, and Miehina were all maiko then, and they are all geiko now. There are several others who are probably still geiko, like several women in the Kiku- and Kimi- lines, but I'm not sure. I still believe that only 25% or less of the maiko in 2005 have had long careers as geiko in Miyagawa-cho.

I don't know enough about Kamishichiken, Ponto-cho, and Gion Higashi to write about them. I know all three districts had less than 10 maiko each in 2005, and all have less than 10 now. It seems to me that women in Kamishichiken become geiko and stay longer than women in other districts, but that's just my impression.

The hanamachi themselves are also changing. When I was a street photographer back in 2002 - 2006, almost no restaurants in Gion Kobu had signs in English, and I had the distinct impression that most did not want foreign customers. Today, many restaurants in Gion have "We have English menus" signs in their windows.

And in the last few years, several traditional shops and restaurants in Gion Kobu have closed, but the establishments that have replaced them (a Leica camera store, a chocolatier, a cake shop, an Italian restaurant, etc.), have absolutely nothing to do with traditional Japanese culture.

Will Gion still be Gion if there are fewer and fewer geiko and traditional Japanese shops and there are more and more tourists and luxury goods shops?

I'm not sure if these changes are just part of a cycle or part of a larger trend. I do believe that if I write another post like this ten years from now in 2025, I doubt these trends will have disappeared.

Only time will tell!