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Kyoto’s 21st Century GEISHA

by Lucinda Cowing

To stay relevant in the 21st Century, this world of female Japanese entertainers is changing ways.

We have just taken our seats on the narrow veranda. Above our heads, dozens of paper lanterns bearing the district’s rice dumpling motif suspend from the eaves. It conjures up scenes from a Hayao Miyazaki movie – except instead of robe clad ghouls, the clientele are Japanese salarymen, still in suits and ties. The occasional kimono clad figure shuffles between tables, cracking jokes with customers, serving and nodding eagerly as she sets down mugs of beer.

We are at Kamishichiken Theater, in the most venerable of Kyoto’s kagai (geisha) districts, which would not typically be thought of as an appropriate setting for a beer garden (open from July to first week September with a 2500 yen cover per person with food and alcohol extra). But these days, unconventional venues are offering rare opportunities for ordinary folk to encounter geiko and maiko, the local terms for geisha and their apprentices.

Two geiko soon shuffle to our table. They are wearing light cotton robes for the summer but are without their distinctive makeup; to guess their occupation in any other context would not be easy. While the younger of the two appears lethargic after a long evening of entertaining, the other is keen to engage, pleasantly surprised that we speak Japanese.

The gregarious Umechika talks of making her maiko debut 14 years ago, putting her in her early 30s. She is as curious about us as we are about her, pointing out the irony in my living in a traditional wooden machiya, just like the teahouse with which she is affiliated, while she resides in one of the modern apartments that have come to replace them. But after a few minutes, guests around us prepare to leave and the geiko are ushered away.

Geisha have long captivated Westerners in part because their world is one shrouded in secrecy. To begin with, one needs an introduction for a purely platonic evening of food and conversation in a designated geisha teahouse. (Some tour operators can arrange such an introduction at great expense.) The system, ichigensan, has changed little since the start of the Edo Period 400 years ago when Kyoto was still the capital of Japan – it was the capital from 794 until 1868 when the seat of government moved to Edo or present day Tokyo. The story of geisha began in 15th century Kyoto – when the Shinto shrine Kitano Tenmangu was badly damaged in a fire, and during rebuilding, the old timber was recycled and used to craft a series of seven teahouses to temporarily service shrine worshippers. Young shrine maidens were spurred to profit from the thriving new teahouse business, by serving tea and entertaining through song and dance. Today, many foreigners’ perspectives are influenced by early Hollywood movies’ in which geisha (or women coiffed up like them) are depicted as paid sex workers/prostitutes – that is far from the truth. Or in recent years influenced by Arthur Golden’s 1997 novel, Memoirs of a Geisha, and Hollywood’s 2005 Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi starring movie adaptation. One topic that became a point of contention was Golden’s depiction of mizuage, a coming-of-age ceremony where the apprentice maiko loses her virginity.

Despite changing times, the art and ceremony of geisha has endured and is even experiencing a 21st-century overhaul. Becoming a modern geisha goes far beyond perfecting a tricky dance move. Young women begin their years long training at age 15 or 16. After being accepted into an okiya (geisha house), they live in close quarters, with little privacy and few opportunities to see family. In the first year, they attend to every need of their maiko and geiko sisters and undertake household chores. They dress in kimono daily, a rarity for most Japanese. Following their misedashi induction (coming out party) as maiko, a grueling schedule of music instruments, song, dance and poetry instruction begins and they are gradually introduced to customers. They have to be proficient in the art of conversation with a wide knowledge of history and current events. This is all while getting accustomed to the discomfort of sleeping on a special wooden pillow to preserve their immaculate hairstyle, that is maintained with weekly salon appointments.

For young women sacrificing a high school education, it is a leap into the unknown. But it is equally so for the okami (an okiya’s proprietress, usually a retired geisha), who covers their living and training expenses for the duration of their instruction, five or six years. “Many of the girls first consider becoming a maiko when they come to visit Kyoto on a school trip,” says Naoki Enomoto, of the Ookini Foundation, an organization striving to preserve geisha culture. “After seeing one on the street, they think, She is so pretty. I want to look like that.”

In turn, teahouses today are trying to bring young women’s expectations down to earth (most are from outside Kyoto and tend to be idealistic) by offering internship-like experiences, giving them a taste of the lifestyle and allowing the teahouse to see an aspirant’s potential as an entertainer, dancer, and musician. The Ookini Foundation recruits young women on behalf of the teahouses and also offers money to encourage them to stay in the profession. It helps the newly independent geiko buy kimono, a necessity that is often too expensive for a twenty-something with five years of unsalaried apprentice work. A lack of funds can mean the end of a career.

The overwhelming trend of the geisha districts over the past half century has been one of decline. But numbers of maiko working in Kyoto’s five kagai increased to 66 at the end of 2015, more than double the figure of the mid-’70s. The future of the Geisha profession rests on the shoulders of only some 240 women (the geiko and maiko). Limiting access to this world surely increases its allure, but it is unclear whether teahouses can afford to maintain such strict barriers. In Japan’s lackluster economy, fewer businessmen are springing for ozashiki, or formal geisha receptions, which cost thousands of dollars (and are the okiyas’ main source of income) and have long stood as a symbol of prosperity.

Some houses are now compromising by partnering with travel operators to offer affordable “maiko dinner experiences” – it can still be a thousand-dollar night. While others have pursued new lines of business, like the okami (also okasan / geisha owner) of Kawayoshi Teahouse, who launched her own line of cosmetics. A few establishments faced with the prospect of closure, such as Tomikiku in Gion Higashi, have dropped all barriers completely: Its resident maiko, Tomitsuyu, is known for her impeccable English.

The slow opening of the geisha’s world may warrant concerns that the job will cease to have meaning: How can “outsiders” fully apprehend the art? The words of a friend, born and raised in a teahouse, come to mind: “When one attends an audience with a maiko, it does not matter if you do not fully understand what is happening or that you recognize the songs being played. Because… Anyone can appreciate her.”

“Do not go where the path leads, travel instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”    @wbbrjp / Phone   213 387-4345 / 3407 W 6th Street, Los Angeles CA

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