Maiko are apprentice geisha as young as about 16, who dance, sing, and play musical instruments. Those who maintain venerable traditions are highly valued in Kyoto. Even though maiko and the older geiko are part of an exclusive high society, there are not enough new recruits anymore. Their job is laborious, sometimes frightening as tourists overreact to spotting them, so their supervisors are protective of them. In the renowned Gion area they dart out of taxis into teahouses at twilight, so there is little chance to stop them for a photo. This article therefore introduces the Kamishichiken Kabukai maiko troupe, near the celebrated Kitano Temmangu Shrine, providing an uncrowded alternative to Gion, north of the bustling central city in a charming area little known to tourists.
The author in summer festival Jimbei in front of the Kitano Temmangu Shrine.
Kitano Temmangu is a famous Shinto shrine with various seasonal attractions such as cherry blossoms. The Kamishichiken district features authentic kimono goods along a traditional street running southeast from the eastern entrance of the shrine. About 100 meters south of that entrance is the Kamishichiken Kabukai maiko troupe and its inexpensive beer garden where each group of customers can meet and chat with up to five maiko. It would cost roughly 100 times more to have the same girls entertain at a party for the evening, which does regularly happen. These maiko also perform in free festivals or special indoor events if you can check an event calendar or their website (after the transit directions below).
Maiko teenager chatting with beer garden customers.
Kimono Cosplay in Kyoto
Everyone enjoys masquerade, and the many festivals and events in Kyoto provide opportunities to do or see cosplay as well as traditional costumes. Kimono rental stores have proliferated, attracting both foreigners and Japanese who usually do not wear traditional clothing. Summer yukata or men’s jimbei for festivals are not expensive to buy in kimono stores as an alternative. At rental shops there are full kimonos that are still cold for women in the winter, lighter summer wear, men’s traditional wear, and a maiko course that costs more and includes white powder covering the face and neck. As a result, a common game has become more complex, spotting real maiko from cosplayers, or distinguishing Japanese from other Asians.
Candid camera inside the changing room of a kimono rental shop.
For further effect, some couples and others in traditional costumes ride the jinrikisha (rickshaws) that are also proliferating in the tourist areas such as Arashiyama in the southwest corner of Kyoto City. In the eastern mountain area of Higashiyama, the paths, traditional shops, and stone stairs to the World Heritage temple Kiyomizudera provide a photogenic backdrop for kimono cosplayers.
Japanese couple in traditional attire riding a rickshaw in Arashiyama.
How to Find the Kamishichiken Maiko District
Buses run from Kyoto Station or around the tourist mecca Shijo Kawaramachi to Kamishichiken (上七軒) and nearby Kitano Temmangu (北野天満宮). There is a Kamishichiken bus stop on City Bus lines 10, 50, 51, 52, 55, and 203, from which one can walk northwest, through the traditional street featuring kimono goods, to the Kitano Temmangu Shrine, which has a busier bus stop including other bus companies. It is not far from the central city to take a taxi or ride a rented bicycle instead.
Dr. Ahneez Abdul Hameed, a Malaysian of Indian heritage, in a rented kimono at Kiyomizu Temple.
If you guessed these were maiko or Japanese women, you need to improve your geisha spotting skills: they are Chinese tourists in Arashiyama who got the maiko course at a kimono rental shop.
The author is indebted to Doshisha University teacher Mayuko Ryobe for introducing the author to the world described in this article, and for providing some of the photos.