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July 15, 2011

Kyoto Files: Geisha

Together with sakura (cherry blossoms) and Mt. Fuji, there is nothing more typically Japanese than the geisha. Despite this, the institute is surprisingly young: the first geisha (in fact called geiko, 'art person') operated in Tokyo (then Edo) in 1761. In contrast to what is sometimes thought in the West, a geisha is not a prostitute, but a professional entertainer at parties. It is her task to keep parties going, by witty talk and jokes, party games, song, dance and music. Those parties were originally held in the licensed quarters (yukaku), such as the Yoshiwara in Edo/Tokyo and Shimabara in Kyoto (but the prostitutes working in those quarters were called yujo and not geisha!).

[Geisha dance at Miyako Odori]

Geisha do, however, often have a danna, a rich patron, with whom they have an economic and emotional tie. In principle, modern geisha can live from their salary. (In the past they were often sold by poor parents to the geisha house, which then took care of their education. When they started working, the geisha first had to pay back these considerable debts).

The houses where the geisha live are called okiya. In the past, a geisha would start here at a very young age as a shikomi, or maid servant; between 12 and 18 she would become apprentice geisha (called maiko in Kyoto) and spend much of her time learning dance and music, while being trained how to entertain together with an accomplished geisha (her 'Elder Sister') in the evening. Maiko have the most colorful kimono, recognizable by their long sleeves, high clogs or okobo and butterfly-like obi. There are not many maiko left nowadays (the number of geisha has also dwindled to a few thousand for the whole of Japan). The place where the geisha entertains her customers is a special restaurant, called ochaya in Kyoto and ryotei in Tokyo. The most famous of these is the Ichiriki on Shijo Ave. in Kyoto.

A geisha can make her work a lifelong career if she so wishes, she only has to leave the profession when she marries; but when she gets older, she may set up her own okiya or restaurant, often with the help of her danna.

Unless invited by a Japanese business relation, a geisha party is above the means of most foreign visitors or residents. On top of that, one would not be able to enter, as chance customers are not welcome - one has to be invited by one of the steady customers of the teahouse. There is little reason to regret this: if you don't speak fluent Japanese, the conversation and jokes of the geisha are lost on you, and what remains are the rather silly party games. And beware if you are the main guest at a geisha party: their is no age limit to geisha and as in Japanese politics and business, the older the person, the higher the rank.

[House in Gion during Miyako Odori]

Here are some tips for seeing geisha or visit the areas where they live and work:
In the first place, there is the 'Geisha spotting', usually in the Gion area in the late afternoon. This is the time the geisha leave their okiya to go to the ochaya for their work of the evening. A good street is the part of Gion that starts at the Ichiriki restaurant and runs towards the Gion Kobu Kaburenjo (called Hanamikoji). It is full of people carrying cameras at that time of the day. The geisha and maiko are not really charmed by this attention, so they move very fast in their beautiful clothes, or quickly jump into a waiting taxi.

It is interesting to walk around Shimbashi, the part of Gion on the opposite side of Shijodori Ave., where okiya line a canal with drooping willow trees. This can be done in the morning, too. You may hear the sound of shamisen practice from the houses...

Pontocho, the second geisha area of Kyoto is an extremely narrow street running parallel to the River Kamo and also fun to walk in the early evening. There are many high-class ryotei and it is possible to catch a glimpse of maiko here, too.

Pontocho lies on the west bank of the Kamo river and forms a small area of between Sanjo and Shijo avenues, bisected by a narrow lane. This is a lovely little street, only a few feet wide, with its freshly cleaned stone pavement, soft lights and old style houses. In 1670 the riverbank was reinforced with stonework; the name Pontocho may have been derived from the Portuguese word ponto, point, because of the sandbar reclaimed along the west bank. From about the early 18th c., geisha houses, restaurants and tea shops began appearing here. The district reached the peak of its popularity in the late 19th c. - in recent years the number of establishments has declined.

Best days for geisha spotting are the times when there is some event in Gion: August 1 (Hassoku: geisha and maiko visit people who have helped them); November 8; December 13 (Koto-hajime); December 31 (Shigoto-osame).

Finally, the very best chance to see the geisha and their art of song and dance are the dance performances in spring and autumn:

Miyako Odori. In Gion Kobu Kaburenjo. Dance revue by the Gion maiko and Geisha. There is a tea ceremony before the show starts, where famous geisha prepare tea in front of guests. Date: April 1-30. The Gion dances are classical, based on Noh.

[Geisha perform a tea ceremony during Miyako Odori]

Kamogawa Odori. In Pontocho Kaburenjo. Spring and fall dances by the geisha and maiko of the Pontocho district. Date: May 1 - 24 & Oct. 15 - Nov. 7. In contrast to Gion, the Pontocho performances are more innovative. (Here is a recent account of the Kamogawa Odori dances plus photos).

As regards the yukaku or kuruwa, the real licensed quarters, of these the Yoshiwara in Tokyo is most famous. War, quake and fires have, however, wiped it off the face of the earth. Where it once stood is now a somewhat sleazy downtown area with so-called soaplands and pimps hanging around, but nothing is left to call the old quarter to mind. It has been beautifully evocated in the short novels of Higuchi Ichiyo (1872-1896), the first woman author of Japan's modern age, who lived at the edge of the Yoshiwara, then still in full operation.

Shimabara in Kyoto, just north of Nishi-Honganji Temple, has fared somewhat better. It was set up at its present location in 1641, then a 40,000 sq. m. area, enclosed by walls and a 3 meter wide moat to prevent the prostitutes from escaping. There were only two gates giving access to the whole district (a vestige of the Omon Gate still stands at the end of the Shimabara shopping street. In its heyday, it was packed with brothels. Some buildings in the area still recall the former atmosphere with their lattice work windows. Among these, two are of special interest. The Wachigaiya (marked by a lamp with two interlocked red rings above the entrance) was an okiya, a house where the oiran or high level courtesans lived. From here they would walk to evening appointments decked out in a heavy kimono and carrying a load of dangling ornaments in their coiffure. A characteristic of oiran was that the obi was tied in front (for obvious reasons). The houses where they entertained customers were called ageya. The Sumiya (1787) still stands of this type of building and is even an important cultural asset, thanks to the gorgeous decorations inside. It has a beautiful lattice work front as well. Recently, it has been converted into a museum and the gorgeous rooms inside can now be visited.