Have your ever really loved a book or story so much that the words have stuck with you for the rest of your life? Many years ago I read the novel Memoirs of a Geisha, the tale of a young Geisha girl growing up in the Gion District in Kyoto. The book is so beautifully written and the words so powerful that the voice of the narrator feels completely authentic. But rather surprisingly it is written by an American man, Arthur Golden. Memories of the novel and a fascination with their lifestyle, meant that I was keen to meet Geisha during our stay in Kyoto.
Kyoto is the heart of the Geisha tradition and the Gion district has the highest concentration of these elusive ladies. If you’re lucky you may spot a Geisha in the area going to or from an engagement, but this is a rare experience as there are less than 1000 Geisha in Japan with around 250 in Kyoto.
Not wanting to risk not seeing one Mr S and I booked into a special evening performance at Gion Hatanaka, an upscale ryokan in the Geisha district. Our hotel had booked the experience for us and following their strict instructions, we arrived exactly on time. The experience had come highly recommended by the hotel so I was surprised that when entered the performance space there were so many people. I had expected a semi-private experience with around ten other people, but there were at least forty, which also seemed a bit unreasonable given the cost of attendance.
We sat at a shared table and we were presented with a kaiseki dinner; now as I’ve already described a few kaiseki dinners I won’t go through absolutely everything that we had but a few highlights included snapper and salmon sushi…
Grilled scallop with Japanese pepper leaf, grilled duck and octopus and boiled octopus with red beans.
Snapper and tuna rolled in yuba (tofu skin).
And prawn, mushroom and kisu fish tempura. Though it wasn’t as good as some of the food we’d had in Kyoto, it was certainly decent enough and it came accompanied with all you can drink alcohol including the choice of wine, beer, sake and plum liquor.
As we were eating and drinking, the Geisha started her performance.
Known in Kyoto as ‘Geiko’, these beautiful ladies are entertainers, highly trained in various art forms such as dance, classical music, games and the tea ceremony. Though Geishas have their origins in prostitution this is far from the truth now, the word Geisha actually means ‘artist’, with Geiko having a similar translation ‘woman of art.’
We were also introduced to a ‘Maiko,’ a younger Geiko in training. Between the ages of 15 to 20 these girls live in the okiya (Geisha house) to study traditional Japanese arts. The elaborate white make up, ornamental hair style and kimono are all part of the highly elevated and traditional image.
The two actually dress slightly differently so it is quite easy to spot which is which. Maiko have more elaborate hairstyles with pretty bright ornaments, Geiko usually just have a wooden comb. Geiko also wear a less elaborate kimono with a short obi (sash) as opposed to the draped obi of Maiko.
Back in history the Geisha girls were sold into this type of life but now the girls make their own choice to enter the okiya, with their parent’s permission, after training the girls can leave the okiya and live on their own. Generally Geiko remain single but if they choose to marry, they must retire from the profession.
One way Geiko entertain is by playing drinking games, we played a game that involved clapping and tapping the disc in the middle of the table, whoever lost had to down some sake.
Of course, I lost!
Next we had a chance to ask them some questions and I was keen to find out more about the hair and make up. While Geiko wear a wig, Maiko have their own jet black hair elaborately styled at the hair dresser around once a week. The ladies do their make up themselves, and during training Maiko must wear the full face of white make up all the time, after three years of becoming a Geiko, they are allowed to subdue the make up.
Next the ladies taught me one of their traditional dances…
Of course, I was rubbish!
Before moving on, I want to be honest with you about how I felt about the performance. As I mentioned at the beginning, I hadn’t expected to be in such a big group of people which not only took away from the exclusive feel of the performance but it made me feel like the two ladies were very much on show. We were encouraged to take photos, film them and upload to social media, which to me seemed totally at odds with the private world of the Geisha that is so often emphasised. Also the whole thing was in English, which really made it feel very touristy…while it was interesting to meet the Geisha the whole experience felt a little hollow to me. I must stress that I didn’t feel like these ladies were being exploited, I certainly didn’t experience the magic of meeting a Geisha that I expected.
I’m pleased to say I met a Geiko and Maiko, and the evening was certainly fun but please do be aware that if you choose to book the experience it may not live up to expectations. That said it is one of the only guaranteed way of meeting a Geisha in Kyoto, a more inexpensive option is a trip to Gion Corner where you can witness an hour’s performing arts show and a tea ceremony with the ladies.
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Have you read Memoirs of a Geisha? What do you think about experiences like this?