Kiyo in Kyoto: From the Maiko House – Episode 1

By: Chiaki Hirai February 25, 20210 Comments
A hodgepodge of scenes showing two young girls. One ponders over strawberries on sale at the market, another stands in a kimono.

What’s it about? Kiyo is a 16-year-old live-in cook at a Maiko House. Since moving down to the old capital from Aomori prefecture with her best friend Sumire, she has dedicated herself to cooking up delicious meals for Sumire and the other maiko-in-training.

Let me first get this out of my system: I love Kyoto. It’s my favorite city in Japan. It’s got a good vibe. It’s where I spent my summers. My family, we’re just humble milk farmers who sold milk in the heart of the old capital. IT’S A GOOD CITY FULL OF NICE PEOPLE. Y’ALL, PLEASE VISIT KYOTO, IT’S A STRAIGHT SHOT FROM KANSAI INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT BY EITHER TRAIN OR BUS AND HAS VERY EXTENSIVE PUBLIC TRANSIT OPTIONS FOR BOTH DAY TRIPS IN AND OUT OF THE CITY. NO, THE JNTO DIDN’T PAY ME TO SAY THIS BUT THEY SHOULD.

Anyway, anime. Right.

Classically trained Japanese entertainers, especially those choosing to live life as maiko, are becoming rarer than anything. The practice, as the show depicts, requires a young woman to leave home and begin training at a very early stage in life. Not many children would elect for themselves to dedicate their life to a craft so readily. But the tradition persists and Vogue estimates about 73 maiko practice in Kyoto as of 2017.

However out of fashion it might be for young women to take on becoming a maiko, their popularity remains strong as one might consider the stereotypical depiction of the Japanese woman in Western media, and NHK had likely thought this was a perfect educational moment for audiences both at home and abroad.

A closeup of a smiling maiko girl's face

Kiyo in Kyoto does a good job depicting not only Kiyo, but Sumire and the other girls in training as down to earth people. Like the idols in Love Live, Kiyo in Kyoto invites viewers into the private and more human spaces of professional entertainers and somewhat demystifies them from appearing as otherworldly beings. 

What’s more, the show also does a good job humanizing even the older authority figures in Kiyo’s life. While a Maiko House mother might at first glance come off as strict — and she has to be as the authority figure training a bunch of classically trained entertainers — the show often reveals lighter moments that show her as more firm than mean. She even shows concern for Sumire, who spends much of the first episode pushing herself far too hard to be the best Maiko she can be.

The show appears to be flagging Sumire’s sense of commitment to the craft as a central conflict for the show. She’s skipping meals, not sleeping, and even shown as dazed while walking through the city. While Kiyo has succeeded in getting her to sit down and eat throughout the first three chapters, I wouldn’t be surprised if the show started exploring the consequences of burnout for the rising star.

A maiko urges another girl by holding her shoulders. Subtitle: You'll forget to eat again!

In the meantime, the show instead focuses on the titular character and her work as a live-in cook. For being a show about food, Kiyo in Kyoto does not go into as much detail about how the sausage is made like in Today’s Menu for the Emiya Family or Food Wars. Instead, the show focuses on broader contemplations of why a cook might prepare certain foods. While Kiyo is cooking for the whole house, she appears especially dedicated to making sure Sumire is well-fed, in light of her unhealthy habits of not eating or sleeping.

Kiyo’s dedication to Sumire’s wellbeing inspires somewhat sapphic associations throughout the episode. Being two girls far from home, Kiyo and Sumire’s camaraderie might be something specially forged by their passion to make it in Kyoto, but at the same time you can’t help but ask: is this gay?

Kiyo and Sumire hug in the kitchen

Maybe they are really good gal pals. I can’t really say at this point. My guess is it’s not, but hey, Kiyo is really dedicated to Sumire, so maybe?

Split into three short chapters, half the show focuses on the story leading up to the dish of the day while the second half of the chapter has Kiyo and Sumire discussing the meal at the end of the day. The conversation is light, but also interesting enough as far as food trivia goes.

The show even takes the time to introduce fried squid mince, a dish totally coming out of left field since it’s a Aomori Prefecture specialty not often seen in the Kansai or Kanto region (honestly this is the first time I’ve heard of it). The veritable love letter this show writes for squid mince is wholesome and made me want to try it out some time.

A squid mince, glowing and floating in the sky. Subtitle: Aomori has countless squid mince recipes!

The show, taking place in Kyoto, also lovingly presents the city’s most picturesque corners. Whether it’s the Shijo bridge or the traditional streets of the Gion quarter, the show sprinkles in a lot of nods to the storied city. With it, the Maiko and the Kyoto natives speak in authentic “Kyokotoba” the Kyoto dialect of Japanese and it appears they had even hired an expert to advise on the accents for the show.

Despite the strange mid-season start for the show, Kiyo in Kyoto seems to be a lovingly crafted and easygoing show meant to get people hungry for Japan. Check it out if you want to just chill out for half an hour each hump day.

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