It all began last March, when 21-year-old Kaori Takagi ran away from a geisha house in the Gion district, famous for geisha for more than 200 years.
An honored Japanese tradition, maiko are well respected entertainers who sing, dance, play the three-string instrument called a shamisen and make pleasant conversation. Fleeing the harsh five-year training in those arts to become a geisha is not in itself unusual. But Ms. Takagi took her rebellion further and sued her boss for $110,000, claiming tips and presents were unjustly withheld from her.
Normally maiko, who live in one house and are not prostitutes, are given pocket money up to $500 a month along with room and board. By contrast, a full-fledged geisha can earn an average monthly income of $3,000.
Ms. Takagi joined with three other defectors and Susumu Yamaji, manager of a kimono shop for geisha, to go into business for themselves. In November, they founded the first geisha cooperative, called the House of Maiko.
Now "the maiko enjoy their freedom and share the profits in a cooperative," said Mr. Yamaji, who manages the enterprise.
Traditionally patronized by the rich, maiko at establishment houses charge $400 to $600 an hour depending on the services rendered. But the House of Maiko charges 20% to 25% less, Mr. Yamaji said. He added that his house provides a full hour of entertainment as compared to the 40-minute average for other houses that include transportation time in their hourly fee.
Furthermore, the renegade maiko entertain guests on the first floor of the maiko's house, unheard of among geisha who always entertain in public places. In another new development, the complicated introductions to a geisha are waived at House of Maiko.
Commonly, a customer must be introduced to one geisha by another; instead, a simple telephone call will do to book services at the House of Maiko.
Mr. Yamaji said revenues for the first two months of operation have been about $25,000, netting each maiko about $1,300 a month plus food and housing.
To market the maiko, Mr. Yamaji is distributing a brochure through travel agencies, hotels and restaurants. The circular, created in-house, includes photos and rates.
The group also hasn't been shy about using free publicity. The group has given interviews with more than 60 news organizations and also will pose with tourists visiting Kyoto. They charge a mere $3 for the photos, but they amount to invaluable PR.
The house needs all the good publicity it can get. Mr. Yamaji says their enterprise is scorned by traditional geisha and boycotted by wealthy businessmen.
Moreover, they are not welcome in expensive hotels and restaurants, which won't accept their brochure. As a result, the group has resorted to smaller restaurants, hotels and private parties.
Despite a rocky startup, the business is already expanding. Three new apprentices, ages 14 to 15, have been recruited, and they will undergo a "boot camp" lasting only six months.
Normally a maiko's training requires six years of earning as much as $350,000 annually for the house. Then to become a geisha, the maiko must scout out a patron.