Dining with Geishas in Kyoto
What instantly comes to your mind when you think about Kyoto, and Japan in general? Samurai and geishas most likely.
A geisha has long been Japan’s icon, and spending one rainy evening in the company of two lovely maikos (apprentice geishas) with their traditional elaborate hairstyles, white-painted doll-like faces and flamboyant silk kimonos was certainly a highlight during my visit to Kyoto.
Throughout my teenage years, now and again I would re-read Arthur Golden’s historical novel Memoirs of a Geisha, always finding the whole geisha culture utterly exotic, almost fairy-tale like, and at times even somewhat brutal.
Japan’s former capital, Kyoto, is where the geisha tradition is strongest in this day and age, so finding a way to meet one or two of these arresting human beings who capture your imagination with ethereal beauty was a top priority whilst sojourning in Kyoto.
And for the place to do so turned out to be a ryokan, Gion Hatanaka, one of the very few places in Japan where a limited amount of “tourists” are allowed to spend a memorable evening in the company of geishas.
So who are geishas (and maikos) exactly?
The literal translation of geisha is a “performing artist” or an “artisan”; in Kyoto they are also often referred to as geiko. Maiko, who we got the chance to meet and talk to, is literally translated as “dance child”, is an apprentice geisha between the ages of 15 and 20. In fact, the striking, colourful image of a geisha, as you and I know it, is that of a maiko: the complex hairstyle ornamented with an array of pretty hair pins; the white make-up with a slight touch of colour on their lips and eyes; elaborate colourful silk kimonos tied together with with an obi belt of contrasting colours. Older geishas tend to dress more simply, although always attired in beautiful kimonos, and only wear the full elaborate make-up and hair when performing special dances and ceremonies.
The profession of a geisha as a pure entertainer in high-class social gathering, whose extensive repertoire consisted of dancing, singing and performing music, emerged in Japan in the early 18th century. Prior to that, such innocent entertainment was intermingled with prostitution in specially-built pleasure quarters.
Traditionally, geishas started their training early in their childhood – sometimes as early as four years old! However, nowadays the legal age for a girl to become a maiko is 15 in Kyoto and 18 in Tokyo. Since a maiko is an apprentice, she is bound under a strict contract to her geisha house, okiya, that supplies her with food, accommodation, clothing as well other tools needed for her trade. Since her training is very expensive, her debt to the geisha house must be gradually repaid with the earnings she makes first as a maiko, then as a fully fledged geisha. Only when she has repaid all her debts, she is permitted to move out of the geisha house and work independently.
Maikos start their training by observing other geishas at work, gaining insight into their work, as well as seeking out potential future clients. In order to do so, she must find herself an older sister. There are three major elements of a maiko’s training: formal arts training in special geisha schools, the entertainment training which the maiko learns at various teahouses and parties by observing her older sister, and finally the social skill of navigating the complex social web of geisha districts.
Geishas are usually hired to attend parties and gatherings, traditionally at tea houses or at traditional Japanese restaurants. Usually, the customer makes arrangements through the geisha union office, where each geisha’s schedule is kept are her appointments for entertaining and training are made.
A woman-centric society…
The world of geisha is a very women-centric society, and geishas are some of the most successful business women in Japan. To succeed, a geisha needs to have great entrepreneurial skills: running a tea house, managing a complex network of clients, training other geishas-to-be, keeping track of their finances and so on. Historically, becoming a geisha was a means for a woman to support herself without becoming a wife.
The dying art…
The ancient city of Kyoto is invariably imbued with allure and mysteries of geishas. Unfortunately, the number of geishas has been dwindling since the end of the second world war – the number of fully-trained geikos and apprentice maikos in the whole of Japan is unknown, but estimated to be in lower triple digits – so spotting them whilst roaming the winding streets of Kyoto is somewhat challenging. There are various reasons for the decline of a geisha culture: a lesser interest in traditional arts, sluggish economy and the expense of being entertained by a geisha, as well as the whole exclusiveness of the geisha world. You will often come across young Japanese girls in full flamboyant maiko attire, but they are not the same as the genuine trained entertainers.
So how did I get the opportunity to spend an evening with these two lovely young ladies, as well as a geisha rather advanced in years (the lady you can see playing a musical instrument in the photo above).
On our last night in Kyoto, we set our foot across the threshold of Gion Hatanaka, Kyoto’s well-known ryokan (traditional guest house) offering somewhat easy (albeit rather expensive) access to genuine maikos.The evening consisted of traditional Kyoto cuisine, a seven-course kaiseki dinner, unlimited sake and entertainment from the two finely trained maikos. The performed traditional dance, mesmerising us with their unusual, flowing movements, sang songs, and to round off the evening they played a fun array of drinking games (I managed to win when it was my turn to face a maiko!). We also got to chat to one of the maikos through an interpreter – learning English is not a requirement for becoming a geisha – who was merely 16 years old and had just started her training in Kyoto. She told us the reason she picked the challenging career of a geisha because she had always been fascinated by the exuberant geisha culture and wanted to immerse herself this age-old beautiful tradition – nowadays a very rare choice of a career path for a Japanese teenager!