A mini bus commandeered by Andretti-san and packed with invading Clampitts from Oregon squirmed ominously awaiting our departure toward downtown Kyoto as I faced the motley crowd to pose this thought-provoking question-
“Geisha- who are these masked white beauties of traditional Japan?”
“Are we stopping at Starbucks”
“You`re pronouncing it wrong”
All teenaged hands grappled with white ear buds to plug out my lecture as I climbed upon the lectern. Andretti-san had to drive but has the mastered the ability to feign interest while my sister-in-law actually listened. Spouse pulled up Wikipedia to double-check my facts. My brother-in-law requested my delivery in historical fiction format. With pictures.
Kyoto is famed for the Geisha and Maiko (Apprentice Geisha) who have entertained rich, male clientele for centuries. After 18 months in Japan and several trips to Kyoto, the closest I`d come to seeing one was a drawing in Starbucks.
In order to optimize our chances of “running into ” a Geisha, we stayed in the Gion district which houses the elite of the Geisha community. One thing I knew from experience, 9 of us peeking in the windows was not a viable option.
But I had a plan for seeing Geisha which did not involve walkie talkies and bungee chord. A plan sure to be so unpopular, so guaranteed to produce screams of protest, I had not informed the covey of its imminence. I laughed on the inside just thinking about it.
We were going to see real Geisha- not the fake ones like those in the movie “Memoir of a Geisha” who in addition to being Chinese only resembled Geisha by wearing a kimono.
So, really, who are they?
“Gei” in Japanese means art and “sha” means doer or person who does. Maiko, the apprentice, literally means “Mai” -dance and “ko” -child. Geisha are artisans who entertain clients with dance, music, witty conversation, drama and poetry. The Maiko go to school at the age of 15 to begin training as Geisha. I`m not sure I`d like to play the shamisen but a class in witty conversation would be valuable for many High School freshman and a pre-requisite for the annual company holiday party.
Pronounced “Gay-shah” and “My-ko.”
All have a Geisha mentor called an onee-san-or older sister, who helps teach the Maiko tea ceremony and navigation of the Japanese social networks. (This practice was adopted by sorority houses in the US as pledges learned from big sisters the art of ceremoniously pouring beer from a keg without creating a foam head.) As Maiko they are associated with an okiya-Geisha house- which is run by an okaa-san. This proprietress pays all expenses for training and clothing the Maiko which is eventually repaid. They become full Geisha at the age of 20. It is considered more prestigious to have been a Maiko prior to becoming a Geisha.
Maiko wear a kimono with a red collar and have stripes painted on the nape of the neck. The nape is considered a very sensual area. Five different hair styles mark a Maiko`s progression toward becoming a Geisha.
Beauty is pain. The tugging of the hair leaves these ladies with a bald spot. Quite a work hazard or perhaps I`m just scarred from all the hair my mother snatched off the top of my head at that age. If that isn`t enough, to preserve the salon doo, the girls sleep on a takamakura surrounded by rice. (We were such babies to whine about sleeping in rollers and coke cans back in the day) The rice sticks to the hair in the event of midnight cheating.
Geisha wear wigs. A perk of the promotion.
And then there are the dress shoes….
Geisha are hired by wealthy men or highly placed business men, owners of companies, and politicians as entertainment during dinners where business is conducted in the traditional Japanese style. The Geisha earn about $1200/hour while the accompanying Maiko earn about half that. Typically the Geisha will go to 4 to 6 engagements an evening and work 6 days a week.
And to answer the big question-
Geisha are not prostitutes.
After World War II, GIs ran through the streets of Kyoto yelling, “Geesha Girls!” Many women painted their faces white and wore kimonos to oblige the GIs however, they were not Geisha. Since then, the Western world has been confused as to the true nature of the Geisha.
Finally, not just any yeehaw and yutz can hire a Geisha or visit a tea room where they entertain. A connection to the okiya going back a generation or two must exist and specific types of introductions must be made. Very few Japanese people have attended a dinner with Geisha. Surprising, but the Clampitts don`t have those connections.
So how did this yutz and yeehaw with a stained sweatshirt manage this?
The annual kyo odori. During April, the Maiko perform for a short period of time. About an hour prior to show time, I informed the crowd of curtain time. I then plugged my ears with white ear buds to drown the screams of protest, attempts to negotiate a way out, and claims of sudden onset diarrhea.
“Andretti-san- we`re the only foreigners here.” I thought we`d be knees to knuckles with other tourists.
To which he said, “It`s too boring for them.”
The top of the gallery held the sensei (teachers) while the main area held the audience many of whom were family of the Maiko. Several junior level Maiko sat in the audience. Here I mastered the art of staring to the side while my head was facing fully forward.
What followed was an hour and half of a play most of the group couldn`t understand and a half hour of dancing. My sister-in-law and I loved every minute. This was certainly the easiest route to gawking at Geisha versus the others which involved stalking.
Please enjoy the following pictures I took of my brochure.
Two Geisha performed a fan dance.
The Maiko performed a dance with umbrellas.
And finally- a Maiko and Geisha dance while a musician plays the shimasen. Enjoy!