8 Jun 2010

Keepers of a Vanishing World

I'm not the only person to fall in love with Sayuri. Despite being surrounded by controversy, Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha spent two years on The New York Times bestseller list. It sold more than four million copies in English and was translated into thirty-two languages around the world before being made into an Academy award winning film in 2005. It is one of my favourite books of all time.

Sayuri spawned a lifelong love of geishas for me. To me the geisha represents the magic of Edo Japan. She is the keeper of a vanishing world of beauty, grace, style, and custom. She is the embodiment of all that it is to be Japanese. To me, the geisha is the Kyoto that used to be.

Japanese actress Tanaka Yuko, says of geisha:
Geisha remain the last bastion of traditional accomplishments including shamisen playing, the singing of traditional songs and narratives, Japanese classical dance, the taiko drum, the Japanese flute, formal etiquette and deportment, the art of donning a kimono and more.

Kyoto: A Cultural History by John Dougill p195
Kyoto Gokagai is the heartland of the geisha. Divided into Five Hanamachi 花街 or 'flower districts' , Gokagai is where you can still find the magic of Edo Japan on the streets of 21st century Kyoto. Though considerably smaller now than in their heyday of the 1920s, here you still find geiko (the kyoto word for geisha) and their more beautiful trainee sisters the maiko, the ochaya teahouses and okiya boarding houses and the kaburenjo theatres. This is the home of the geisha.

The Gion of Memoirs of a Geisha is the largest of the flower districts. in 1886 it was split into two, Gion Kobu and Gion Higashi. Located close by are second largest, Pontocho in the lively nightlife passageway situated along the Kamo river, and Miyagawa-cho. Kamishichiken in the north of the city is the fifth.

Sadly an inside look into the flower and willow world karyūkai 花柳界 of the geisha remains a reality for a privilaged wealthy few. A private party with a geiko and maiko for a couple of hours may cost up to several thousand dollars. The customers are still there, but alas we are not amongst their number, and our geisha experience until now has been limited to rare and often tourist filled chance sightings along the hanamachi streets.

The best tourist experiences are often the most unplanned, and for us this was no exception when our time in Kyoto overlapped with the final day of the Pontocho district annual dance performance, the 173rd Kamogawa Odori. The Kamo River Dance was first performed back in 1872 as part of a campaign along with a performance of Gion's Miyako Odori, or Dance of the Capital, to promote Kyoto and provide entertainment for the influx of spring tourists. Later the other three hanamachi followed suit.

The dances are great occasions in their districts. Each is staged in its own Kaburenjo theatre and has its own distinctive style.
The classically styled Miyako Odori performed by the Gion geisha is the most prestigious. The Kamogawa Odori is much more relaxed and dare I say it, fun.

It is presented in two parts. The first half is a theatrical piece in many scenes, with emphasis on the acting skills of the geisha, while the second half is reserved for showcasing various independent dances performed as a picture scroll, one after the other. This year, the geiko of Pontocho, presented us with a wonderful history lesson in their performance of Women in the Last Days of the Tokugawa Shogunate.

The revue begins with a clashing of swords and the sound of angry men. It seems that the proimperial samurai are chasing somebody who is proshogunate. (I am not this clever - it is lucky I had the programme to help me here!) The young man is injured, but when a geiko called Hagino comes out of the door of her ochaya, he captures her and takes her captive, shutting himself inside with her.

Inside, the geiko are rehursing their dance. Suddenly Hagino and her captor, Saburo, break into the room. At first they are afraid, but they quickly discover that he is a fainthearted rookie and then suddenly their positions are reversed. I must say, I don't blame him for being a little afraid of okaa-san お母さんhouse mother - she was pretty tough!

Most women in Kyoto are proimperial. Saburo is, therefore, their great enemy! He is now their hostage, and all is finished. He considers an honourable death by seppuku or harikiri, but suddenly their is a commotion outside. A maid runs in to inform them that the proimperial searchers have come to search the house. The maid looks at the young man. "Saburu!" she cries.

To cut a long and entertaining story short, The maid, Omitsu, is Saburu's childhood sweetheart. Although they were engaged, Saburu ran away to prove himself worthy, and Omitsu came to Kyoto looking for him. She throws herself (decorously) on Saburu and declares her undying love toward him.

All young women melt at a love story, and the watching geiko are no exception. They help the young lovers escape into the night, entertaining and delaying the pursuers with their beautiful dance.

The late moon has risen and casts its beauty over the river Kamo.

The curtain falls.

Sigh...such exquisite beauty.

Tickets to the Kamogawa Odori include green tea served by a maiko.

We were seated in full view of the room in the front row. I hate to imagine how many of the strict rules of tea etiquette we broke during those few minutes as we ate our sugary sweet and drank our green frothy matcha tea, but I can tell you that I was kinda blown away when the beautiful maiko ceremonially presented her freshly whisked bowl of matcha served in an exquisitely decorated bowl to me before bowing to the floor at my feet! All eyes were on me, the big gawky gaijin foreigner. I supported my bowl in my left hand, turned it twice clockwise 90 degrees so that the best side of the beautiful bowl faced the maiko and then drank. Once, twice, three times. Everybody laughed. So did I. The maiko lowered her eyes and turned away.


  1. How fascinating! I loved Memoirs of A Geisha & have reread it several times. Liddy tried it & was horrified but it was such a wonderful glimpse into a vanishing world. Thank you for sharing! ☺

  2. Applause to you on such a wonderful retelling and a big hug for taking me to Edo Japan - if only for a few moments.

  3. Very beautiful post, Jeanne. I almost got teary for this adopted home of mine!

    Your description of drinking tea at the end make me smile, and took me back to the time my darling fiance took me to the tea house at Meiji Shrine so that I could practice drinking properly, and practice sitting seiza (on my knees) before going to Kyushu to meet my future mother-in-law.

  4. Wow...fascinating!
    You gawky foreigner, you!

  5. Wow, what an amazing thing to get to see. I briefly considered trying to see a performance in Gion last year but thought I'd be pushing our luck with our boys along.
    We did stumble on an interesting coffee table book about gaiko while we were in Kyoto. The woman featured in the book was from a Japanese expat family and had grown up in Mexico. She enrolled as a maiko in order to connect with her Japanese background and the book is a very detailed look at her experience. Unfortunately, I can't recall the exact title. But it is one to keep an eye out for. Because she hadn't grown up in Japan, she had to learn (and then spells out for the reader) some of the assumptions about Japanese culture.


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