Entering the world of the geisha

Michio is just 19 years of age but already she has spent four years learning the art of a geiko - or geisha - in the Japanese city of Kyoto.

(Locals prefer the word 'geiko' instead of 'geisha' because it is, they say, more chic.)

In modern Japan, geiko (geisha) and maiko, the trainees, are now a rare sight outside the geisha districts of cities - victims of a modern, fast-paced world.

In the 1920s, there were an estimated 80,000 geisha in Japan. Today there are far fewer - maybe no more than 2000.

The 'geisha' you see in the street is more likely to be a tourist who, for a fee, has dressed up as a geisha.

Kyoto claims to have the only formal schools in Japan for geikos but is finding it hard to recruit in Kyoto city itself and has had to go further afield.

Young women are not keen to take on the nun-like career of a geiko, preferring instead the freedoms most 21st-century young men and women enjoy.

Nor do families feel compelled any longer to sell their daughters to become a geiko.

And contrary to popular opinion, geikos are not prostitutes. They are part of an elegant, high-culture world peculiar to Japan.

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Geikos are much in demand to entertain in a range of performing arts - from conversation to singing, dancing and playing musical instruments.

They enjoy high prestige in Japan.

Michio is from a village outside Kyoto and in a highly structured, traditional geiko system, as an apprentice, she is known as a maiko. Why did she seek to become a geiko?

"I like the kimonos they wear," said the shy maiko-san (or 'dance child').

Apprentice Michio now spends several hours a day at classes where she learns traditional Japanese arts, such as dancing, singing, a musical instrument, flower arranging, serving tea, calligraphy and the art of conversation.

She also has to learn the elegant Kyoto dialect of Japanese, a language based on the old royal court language.

At night, after spending one to two hours dressing in her elaborate, 11kgs kimono and putting on the distinctive white (for purity) face makeup and hair, she will go to work serving and entertaining guests in a local teahouse.

The seniority of a maiko or geiko is signalled by the hair style (a geiko may have shorter hair), distinctive face makeup and kimono.

The traditional makeup of an apprentice geiko features a thick white base, made of rice powder, with red lipstick and red and black accents around the eyes and eyebrows.

The kimono can be as many as 12 to 15 layers thick for a maiko. They can be hugely expensive and the apprentice will choose a highly colourful kimono with an extravagant obi (or waistband).

A wealthy geiko may wear a kimono only once. Even the clogs are different as a maiko gains seniority.

Michio's special talent is for dancing, says her okaa-san ('house mother').

How long will she study? For a lifetime, says okaa-san who has five geikos and maikos living in her Kyoto home.

We are in the Gion geiko district of Kyoto and privileged to meet Michio and her okaa-san. She performs, with a senior geiko, a traditional slow, formal and elegant dance from the classical age of Japanese culture.

Maiko and geiko command big money to attend to guests. They are hired to attend parties and gatherings, at teahouses or traditional Japanese restaurants.

Their time is measured by the time it takes an incense stick to burn. It is called 'incense stick fee'. In Kyoto, the term 'flower fees' is preferred.

The only way for a visitor to Japan to experience the world of the geiko is to join a tour. Even the Japanese, I'm told, have to have a friend who knows a friend to be invited to a teahouse to be waited upon and entertained by a geisha.

Michio hopes one day she might fall in love and marry. When that time comes she must retire as a geiko.

The writer travelled as a guest of Costa Cruises

GETTING THERE

Kyoto is conveniently accessible from both Tokyo and Osaka. From Osaka's Kansai International Airport, JR Rapid trains and airport limousines provide quick and easy transportation.

From Tokyo's Narita Airport it's simple to connect to the Shinkansen bullet train, which will whisk you straight to Kyoto. Once you're in Kyoto, getting around should be no problem.

The public transportation system in Japan is arguably the world's best. Railways provide access to virtually all areas of the country, and trains running behind schedule are almost unheard of. Kyoto is no exception, and it is covered by an extensive network of buses, subways, and private railways.

If you plan on visiting regions of Japan apart from Kansai (Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe, Nara, and Wakayama) it's recommended that you buy a Japan Rail pass before coming to Japan. It will allow you unlimited travel for one, two, or three weeks on all trains operated by Japan Rail, with the single exception of the Nozomi Shinkansen.

AAP

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