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!
Oh that looks fabulous. I would have loved every minute of it as well.
It was so fun. I had no idea this was the precursor to Kabuki? I`m sure you did!
Of course I did. 😉 Before Kabuki went all male, the performers were often connected with Geishas and/or prostitutes, but then the rules got stricter so only geishas were allowed to perform. The elite, I guess. I studied some Japanese dance like that, but was not very good. Could never quite manage the fan.
The fans….A lot of the women here study the fan dance. I`ve got enough troubles.
I don’t do well keeping up with fashion here at home. Doubt I could manage the sartorial ins-and-outs of being a Geisha. It would be fashion disaster, for sure!
I`m still having a hard time with the bald spot. And dancing in a kimono – a truly torturous endeavor.
I never knew it was called simply that… the fan dance. Interesting.
Well – hmmmm- that’s what everyone calls it but that might not be what it’s really called… Of I find out differently I’ll get back to you!
Anyone else know for sure?
That’s a great post ! I have been following your blog for the last year and found your insights really interesting. I was over in Kyoto last week saw a few Maiko, including one who had just ‘graduated’ and was being paraded through the Gion district led but her sponsor. Sadly I missed the cherry blossom.
You can see my first impressions of Japan on my “grumblesmiles” blog over the next few weeks.
Many thanks and keep posting.
Thanks John! That must have been quite a site! You were very lucky. Let me know when you get up and running. I checked your site but looks like nothing is up yet?
I am amazed at the height of those flip flops, yes, they’re just fancy flip flops to me 😉
Great make up, but hate the wigs, I’d not make a very good Geisha, hate the clothes lol
Oh but you would love the cos play and other goth Geisha in Harajuku- very cool! Of course they`re costumes but they are so interesting! I hope to get pics some time.
goth Geishas! That sounds cool. Hope you get some photos 🙂
My skin is already pasty white enough. I doubt I’d even need to powder my face like the geisha.
I remembered this article from a few years back. Fiona Graham is Japan’s first “Western” geisha.
Loved the post! Fascinating!
Ahh- the famous Fiona Graham- the first Western Geisha. She got fired about 4 or 5 years for failure to show respect. Or that`s the story anyway. There was another one who became a geisha getting her start as a shimasen player.Those are the only 2 I`ve heard of. I`m still wondering how you carry on witty conversation with all your clients. I`d like the handbook.
I’m not good at small talk in English. Can’t imagine trying to do it in another language. Amazing she lasted 5 years!
Sayuki is workinig as a geisha still in Tokyo. See http://www.sayuki.net. The papers get it wrong again.
I`d read about her. Thanks for sending along the link!
Sayuki did not “get fired”. There is no evidence anywhere of that. Asakusa geisha are allowed to have their own geisha houses after four years but Sayuki wasn’t because she is a foreigner. The Australian newspaper reported on it and is the only newspaper that actually interviewed Sayuki. Sayuki has her own independent geisha house in Yanaka and a number of trainee geisha. There is a lot of current media on http://www.sayuki.net.
Amazing, and holy cow, how can they walk (shuffle?) in those super-high platform sandals, let alone dance? That really is an art. The dance is interesting, I wonder what the song is about?
They actually don`t wear those type very often. Speaking of fashion- are you drinking wine and eating cheese in your trench and scarves with your sister in Paris? I read the article you posted on your FB page about what to wear to Paris. Hope ya`ll are having fun!
Great, blog, you are very well informed! Although, I’d also like to add salt to the wound with regards to Memoirs of a Geisha: the style with which they wore the kimonos, hairstyle included, was actually fit for a funeral…gotta love Hollywood. I too ran into a Geisha and her Maiko in Kyoto once in the Ponto Chou district at night. It was pretty surreal to finally see something that before only existed in picture books and movies. Glad to hear you are enjoying Japan, I am too!
WoW! Joe- thanks for the killer info! I read that they had one of the first of two Western geisha as advisers on the set of the movie and then ignored everything she told them! Thanks for stopping in!
I have a hard enough time walking in very slight heels– I can’t imagine walking in those geisha platforms! (Those are like rock star boots x 1 million!)
I’m glad you were able to gawk at geisha without resorting to stalking… though I’m sure a stalker post would have been a fun read, too. 🙂
I would`ve stalked if necessary. i could`ve seen Gene Simmons of Kiss wearing those glam zoris….
They reminded me of KISS boots, too. 🙂
The hairstyles! Ahh! I might need to revise the bloggy beehive to include a few twist ties 🙂 Also? ALSO! I got the coolest package in the PO Box yesterday. If I have Yoku Moku crumbs all over my face on wedding day, you’ll know what’s up 🙂 We are going to set those little delicious suckers out on the desserts table!
Your writing is too funny as usual. If I had one tenth of your writing skills I’d be giving writing tips to Tom Clancy in my spare time. I was lucky enough to work as an interpreter/apron on a very formal geisha + maiko dinner in kyoto once, many years ago. I managed to slip in a exchanges with the 25 year old geisha between the formal dances and it was great fun. I was struck mostly by how quickly they adapted to their customers (a bunch of foreign VIPs) and how professional they were. The maiko didn’t speak much but then again she was only 15 I think.
Thank you TB- I appreciate that.
Now- You can`t leave me hanging! WHAT did you talk about? Was she funny? Did ya`ll play games? Details- I need details…..
I am reminded of all the weight and trouble of the kimono you doned earlier. And these women dance in them? Amazing. I wrote a poem touching on geisha not too long ago. Not too certain how accurate it is, but I thought you might like to read it. http://tasmith1122.wordpress.com/2012/03/13/monday-melting-poetry-prompt/
donned, donned…hate spelling errors
Hey there, I just happened across your blog and had to say your imagery of relating geisha training to sorority girls learning to pour beer without foam was hilarious! Thanks for the laugh!
Hey Grace- thanks for reading and subscribing! Glad you made our way over. I know! I just couldn`t help but think about all the skills my big sister at the sorority taught me. Mine had a unique skill no other could duplicate however, sticking her entire fist in her mouth. Also able to put an egg in there, close up and not break the egg. Now that`s entertainment.
Impressive! I have to say, no sister of mine could compete with a skill like that! My own sister (from the “genetically related” variety;), can do an excellent lizard face and shockingly realistic impression of a cat. Ahh sisters and their abilities we lack:) I look forward to reading about your Japanese adventures!
Love your blog…just kept me reading from the first post…slowing going down to the next and the other next.
I’ve met an apprentice maiko when I visited Kyoto. She is so cute! It seems that it’s a trend nowadays that parents who can send their children for maiko training are somewhat very proud. More and more people or even youngsters voluntarily want to become a geisha. It has became a respectable job. Maiko training is very tough and scary. Ordinary people couldn’t live up to it.
Regarding the super high platform sandals….they are usually for the Oiran. The highest ranked prostitute in the whole red-light district in the past. They will hold a road show for the Oiran when she is so called “crown” as the highest ranked and she will wear that scandal to “walk” and show off her status. Err…the walking is an art!! I would probably trip and fall the minute i lift my leg~
Introduce you to some interesting movies. Although it’s pop-culture, but some facts in it are true about geisha and oiran. It’s very interesting movie and I love it very much.
The first one is “Sakuran” originally from Manga written by Moyoco Anno. Later adapted into film, directed by Ninagawa Mika (she is super awesome photographer!) and cast by Tsuchiya Anna (love her act and her sexy voice!). Basically talks about the life and story about Oiran (courtesan/prostitute). This film is filled with extravagant designs and colours with erotic references too.
The second one is “Maiko Haaaan!!! “. Super comical musical film. Cast by Sadao Abe (he is super comical actor! I love all his movies), and Ranka Rea (ex-takarazuka member, pretty and powerful singing voice). This is mostly about the story as maiko and geisha (professional entertainers). All the kyotoben and osakaben are flying around the film. Comical expression, dancing and singing throughout the whole film.
Opps! I wrote too much…too long comment….Sorry~~~ (⌒-⌒; )
Thanks so much for your comments! It must have been so exciting to meet a Miako! The shoes- I wondered about that. Interesting that the main character in “Memoir of a Geisha” wore them in her premier dance! Thanks for the movie tips. Always looking for good ones! I`ll have to track those down. I always love an informative response! Keep them coming! I`m so glad you came along! Thanks.
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