Geisha and Maiko are often confused aspects of Japanese culture. They are both some of the most long-standing examples of Japanese tradition and culture. Both are still practiced arts today, unlike the once-contemporary samurai.

Geisha/Geiko are icons of Japan. These beautiful, well-dressed women are entertainers, dancing, playing games, pouring drinks, and conversing with guests.  They have done this for centuries. You can find these refined women today in places such as Gion in Kyoto.

A geisha in Kyoto making tea for guests. Photo Credit: Jody McIntyre at Flickr.

Maikos are apprentice geishas. This young women (sometimes very young) are still learning the art and their services come at half price, as they are less familiar with the duties and expectations of a geisha. There are a number of ways you can tell the difference. Some of the easiest and most important ones are:

1. Geishas and Maikos are most recognizable by their elaborate kimonos and this can be the easiest way to distinguish older Maikos from Geishas.

Geishas will usually wear more subtly colored kimonos with shorter sleeves. Maikos often wear more colorful patterns and their kimonos have long sleeves. Maikos will also have a red inner kimono as well, while geisha’s wear a pink one with white patterns.

A Makio. Photo Credit: kyoto flowertourism at Flickr.

2. In the past, a maiko used to start her training at a very young age of 5 or 7. But now, their training starts between 15 and 20. Maikos who are over the age of 20 years are allowed to become a geiko/geisha and there is no age limit on the geishas. They will lose the status of geisha whenever she gets married.

3. The obi, the cloth worn around the middle, is also different. Maikos wear a unique obi called a darari. These are very extravagant and are 19.69 feet long, covering the whole chest. They are usually gold or silver around the stomach. Geisha’s wear a shorter obi.

4. A maiko wears a red collar with heavy white embroidery, whereas a geisha wears a full white collar with no ornamentation.

5. Also, expect Maikos to have their real hair in an elaborate style, while Geishas are wearing wigs. This can be a difficult distinction to identify. Maikos often also have more elaborate hair styles, fitting with their more extravagant and colorful look. Kanzashi, beautiful flower hair ornaments are usually used by Maikos, whereas geishas Kanzashi are simpler. Pink blushed around the cheek of a maiko is common makeup, while it’s uncommon for a geisha.

Geisha and Maiko together! Photo Credit: Jody McIntyre at Flickr.

6. Their shoes are also different. Maiko wear very high platforms (wooden sandals known as Okobo) that can make it difficult to walk but prevent their kimono from touching the ground while Geishas wear more sensible shoes or sandals called Zori.

7. Both lips of a geisha are pained in red, while for junior maikos will only have their lower lips pained in red. As they become senior maikos gaining more skills and experiences, both their lips will be painted but only in a thin line.

Keeping these differences in mind will not only help you know what to expect from a woman’s performance. It can also help you identify real trained Geishas and Maikos from the more common street performers who dress up to take pictures with tourists for money.

This fascinating, long-lived aspect of Japanese culture is worth studying and learning more about. It is steeped in ritual and the differences between Geisha and Maiko is only one!