Yuka Interview : A Life of Maiko
“Being in the presence of a Maiko is supposed to be similar to a fantasy, we were trained to not talk about real daily life. We try to bring customers to a different dreamworld.”
At % Arabica, we have the privilege of having Yuka, an ex-maiko, work with us. Many may confuse this with “geisha” but that is a term used only in Tokyo and in Kyoto, we call them maiko and geiko. A maiko is an apprentice for a five-year period on their way to becoming a geiko. They stay in one house (okiya) with the mother, are fed with room and board, receive daily lessons in art, dance, music and tea ceremony, and don’t actually own anything.
In Kyoto, there are 20 to 30 okiya’s that are mainly spread across five areas, Miyagawa-cho, Gion, Pontoncho, Kamishichiken, and Gion-higashi. In 2009, there were only 90 maiko in Kyoto, as the process to be accepted is highly competitive. A maiko’s duties include performing songs, dances, and playing the Japanese guitar (shamisen) for clients during dinner events at a teahouse (ochaya). Around the age of 20 or 21, she will then become a geiko if she chooses to. From that point on, she is allowed to save her own money. Below we have Yuka-chan share with us her experiences during the days she was a maiko.
How did you become a maiko?
I grew up in Ibaraki prefecture and when I was in junior high school, we went to Kyoto for a field trip. During that trip, the most memorable part was seeing a maiko on the street. From that point on, I knew I wanted to become one. After junior high school, I saw an advertisement for maiko recruitment and then I immediately applied and went to Kyoto for the interview. After passing a one week probation period, the mother of the ochaya asked me to join them. I was 15 years old then.
How was life like in the okiya?
A typical okiya has two to three girls, but my okiya was a larger one with six to seven girls. The rules at okiya were very strict; we weren’t allowed to have cell phones, laptops, the internet, and of course no boy friends. Day off is only once in every three months. No salary is given. Every night we receive tips from clients, but we pass them all to the mother. We always trusted mother and didn’t question how much we earned. If we wanted to buy something, we went to the mother for money. We had to keep our hair styled for 1 week so we could only wash our hair once a week. The okiya follows a strict hierarchal relationship, and when we first join an okiya, we are assigned to an older sister by the mother, and the sister teaches us all the rules and manners. We also inherit our maiko name from the sister. For example, my sister’s name was Toshi-hana and my name was Toshi-chika.
Day in the Life
A typical day starts at 9am, and then go to practice at 10am — practice ranges from 30 min to 3 hours depending on the schedule that day. At 4pm, I will apply make-up and get dressed. Afterwards I will meet my first client at the ochaya and start my work. Usually I have two dinner appointments per night. In order to ensure our safety, there is a system called ichigen okotowari (no first timer policy), so that the new clients must be introduced by existing clients. During an engagement, it will either be done in a group or one on one. My main goal is to make the client(s) feel comfortable and happy by providing entertainment via conversation, musical performance, and dance. Being in the presence of a maiko is supposed to be similar to a fantasy; we were trained to not talk about real daily life. I tried my best to bring customers to a different dreamworld. When clients go to the toilet, I will wait right outside the toilet, so that their mental state will keep being with me and would not go back to their actual lives. It’s a whole different reality.
What was your favorite part of being a maiko?
My favorite part was learning how to wear the kimono (Yuka-chan will teach us how to wear a kimono at the end of this post)! I also had the opportunity to meet important people regularly, and learning the social skills was a great experience.
What was the most difficult part?
There are many things to learn and sometimes it was a little overwhelming. I had to learn Kyoto dialect, how to sit properly and move with grace, maiko/geiko hospitality customs, traditional dance (odori), Japanese guitar (shamisen), Japanese drum (tsuzumi), singing, calligraphy, and tea ceremony. The lessons and work itself was not physically straining but it did take a toll on my mental well-being.
Most embarrassing moment?
One time, I was supposed to perform at a dancing event and each maiko was supposed to put a signed handkerchief inside their kimono and throw it to the audience. When the handkerchief is folded correctly, it flies beautifully like a paper airplane. I was running really late so I had to quickly stuff it inside my kimono. At the finale, I threw my handkerchief into the audience but it went down without flying and landed right next to me, which looked really stupid. Later, I got scolded very badly by the mother (laughs).
Has anyone ever fallen in love with their clients?
The clients are typically much older than us so we look at them like a father figure, but there were times when the clients brought their sons, and the sons fell in love with us.
Why didn’t you become a geiko and became a barista instead?
After 5 years of being a maiko, I felt that I wanted to see a different world. Since I spent most of my teenage years being a maiko, I felt ready to move on. On my day off during my maiko years, I loved going to cafes, and seeing the process of making latte art was such a magical experience for me. After retiring from being a maiko, I went back to my hometown and started working for a cafe. But because I missed Kyoto so much, I moved back and worked at another cafe. One day, I participated in a latte art class at % Arabica and Junichi asked if I was interested in working for % Arabica, so I gladly accepted the offer!
How to Wear a Kimono the Traditional Way
1. Put on a slip called the juban, a slip dress to wear under the kimono.
2. Making sure the back seam is centered, put on the kimono. The right side should be overlapping the left side.
3. Adjust the kimono length according to your height, and tie the koshi himo belt below the excess material. Cross the belt in the back and tie it in a knot in the front. Straighten out the excess material and bring some down to cover the belt. The key is to make sure everything is straightened and there are no excess fabric showing.
4. Put the obi board on your back and wrap the obi. Tie both ends of the obi together, folding it in across your waist and tightening it at the center.
5. Take the datejime belt and wrap it around the obi belt and tuck the ends of the datejime inside the obi. Make sure no excess fabric is showing.
And voila! You have successfully worn a kimono the traditional way.
See the World Through Coffee Travelogue:
30 Days in Kuwait with Yedi
What were your thoughts / expectations on coming to Kuwait?
Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect. I’ve traveled a fair amount of the world but never to the Middle East. It was the unknown to me. A little scared of what could happen out here. I don’t know if I would be accepted or rejected because of who I am. Dying for some reason was a fear of mine, or receiving bodily harm so I lose an arm and can never play an instrument again. Dismemberment. Iraq is close to Kuwait, so I didn’t know how safe Kuwait is. Typically I’m very afraid of pain because it tends to hurt my body.
Where else have you been to?
I lived in Paraguay for a year in ‘06 and visited Bazil and Argentina. Visited France, Slovokia, Austria, and Switerland maybe ‘11? Made a friend playing on-line video games and went to Quebec one year to hang out with all my Quebequa video game friends. Korea, and Hong Kong working for Arabica!
What were your first impressions of Kuwait?
Well, that the food is great and that the people are nice. It reminds me a lot of Mexico in a way, which makes me feel more comfortable about being here. The food is really good. You have to have a car to get around anywhere here in town. I haven’t seen anyone on a bike here. Once again, the food makes me very happy here.
Could you name us some of the typical / your favourite Kuwaiti dishes?
What spices, herbs and flavours do people prefer in Kuwait?
Honestly, I only really eat Indian food here because they have this killer indian restaurant near my accommodation, and I haven’t had such good indian food since ‘06 when I lived a few blocks down from all these Indian men who were trying to sneak into the U.K, U.S.A, or Spain. We made friends with them and they used to cook us the most killer Indian food for us. This is second best to what I’ve had in my life and I am very happy with it.
In what ways has Kuwait taken you by surprise?
It is much more conservative than I would have imagined, but at the same time not at all. Also how warm people are to each other here. There was an instance where I was working the coffee shop, and a very big and strong man came up to another man grabbing the back of his neck, and pushed his face towards him until their noses touch each other. It was the way some Middle Eastern men say hello. It was the sweetest thing to see and it really let me know that people are people anywhere. People want to just love each other in a way.
In what ways are people conservative?
You never see men hang out with women in public unless they are married. There is always a table with women and a table with men. There are certain cultural things that are exclusive to men such as smoking shisha, going to a traditional tea cafe, and “New News” gatherings, where traditionally a man would host a dinner where all the men would get together and exchange news. Some of the best Kuwaiti food is home made food, so it’s hard to get into these types of events. The Men and women not hanging out in public thing seems really conservative to me. In public schools, boys and girls are separated, and sometimes the only real relationship a woman ever has with a man is with whomever she marries.
As a Jew, did you have a hard time living in the Arab community?
I’m a bit confused on how to answer this because I pretty much just don’t tell people anything. Most people just speak to me in Arabic and they think I’m a local, which is pretty cool. So I guess the answer is I don’t have a hard time because people think I’m Arab!
But why aren’t you telling anyone anything? Is this a taboo in Kuwait?
The fews times I’ve told a Kuwaiti my name is entirely super jewish, they would whisper the word “Jew” to me, so I’m taking their whispering a certain people group in public as my que I probably shouldn’t go around telling everyone here I love singing Heberw songs and one day hope to move to Israel and learn hebrew at some point in my life. Plus economically, Kuwaitis will be punished if they do business with Israelis. So just observing their law that they can not do business with an Israeli company says a lot to me, although it’s not a reflection of the entire people, and maybe more of an economic move.
Have you experienced any cultural shocks?
Yes, the culture shock that comes with not knowing a language and being completely surrounded by writing and spoken words you don’t understand. It’s the good kind of culture shock. Also, people are much more vocal here about things. There’s more yelling here then in Japan! Also, women can’t smoke shisha in public either, so that was a bit strange. Women shouldn’t do certain things that men do here, so that was a bit strange. Another thing is that the mosques pray early in the morning over loud speakers. The first night I slept there, the prayers woke me up at 4am or so and I was so scarred! That was definitely a “Culture Shock”! Shocked me awake. And it continued to shock me awake the 30 days I was there.
Biggest “takeaway” of this trip?
People are people anywhere. For a while I was scared of the people in Kuwait, but it turns out they are just people just like I’ve experienced in every country. They laugh, hug, kiss, have personal values, and love coffee! I didn’t know what to expect, but Kuwaities were so kind to me. So very very gentle and kind to me. I was so surprised to be accepted so fast and with such warmth. Honestly, a great people.
What have you learnt about yourself?
I think that I am in love with Japan more then I realized. It was so good to experience the middle east, but the land of the rising sun is my home now, and it made me so happy to come back again.
2015 Year in Review
Time files, and here at % Arabica we had an amazing year full of growth accompanied with great coffee. Here are our top 10 highlights throughout the year:
1. A Caffeine-fuelled New Year’s Eve
To celebrate the start of 2015, our very loving head barista Junichi kicked off the year with 24-hour operation, serving our customers around the clock.
2. Tokyo Gift Show
We had so much fun serving coffee non-stop at the annual Tokyo International Gift Show in February. Junichi and Crystalline pulled over 700 cups a day for three consecutive days!
3. Where Coffee Meets Art
From March to May, we had the pleasure of exhibiting our cute greenhouse kiosk at Parasophia, Kyoto’s International Festival of Contemporary Culture and pairing the aromatic sensation with visual pleasures.
4. From Art to Fashion
After Parasophia, our Kiosk relocated to Fujii Daimaru, one of the most popular lifestyle and fashion department store in the center of Kyoto.
5. Coffee with a View
Surrounded by the beautiful Togetsu Bridge, Katsura river, and the iconic Bamboo Forest, we gave birth to our second store, Arabica Kyoto Arashiyama in July. With the lush mountains and the river as our backdrop, the location is truly breathtaking.
6. Encore at Fujii Daimaru
With its great success at the department store, our Kiosk returned to Fuji Daimaru for two more months in autumn, continued to cater our coffee and fashion lovers.
7. Hallo, Berlin!
In October, we flew to Berlin and found the perfect spot for our up-and-coming European flagship, scheduled to be opened in early 2016! We’re coming for you, Europe!
8. Landing in Kuwait
In November, our first foreign franchise store was opened in Kuwait City. It was extremely rewarding to see our slogan, ”See The World Through Coffee”, come to fruition.
9. Dubai Here We Come!
After the Kuwait opening, we received an overflowing amount of franchise requests from the GCC countries, and in December, we finally selected a great partner to launch % Arabica UAE, with Dubai and Abu Dhabi stores expecting to open in 2016.
10. More Things Brewing Up in Kyoto
In 2016, we’ll open our third permanent location in Kyoto at Fujii Daimaru, the luxury department store. As our roasting volume goes up, it’s also time for us to start a large centralized roastery. In December, we have found this amazing property in northern Kyoto. Staying true to our aesthetics and heritage, we will preserve its classic fashion and transform it into % Arabica Kyoto Roastery.
…And that’s it for 2015! Happy holidays from all of us at % Arabica!