Kyoto: A Welshman’s Memoir of a Geisha
One very notable aspect of Japanese culture has to be it’s Geishas. Although they can be found throughout Japan, the roots of Geisha culture began right here in the city of Kyoto. This is where it began and where it holds strong to this day, remaining as the best place throughout Japan to be able to experience this extraordinary phenomenon. They’re role in society has changed along with the tides of history. Today they remain as a living embodiment of the fascinating Japanese cultural past. I was determined that I’d get to see one.
Being in the birth-place of Geisha culture, it was the most appropriate location to try to find one. It also happens to be where you’ll find the highest concentration of them. Surely any decent must-do list of Kyoto has to include seeing a real Geisha. I’d already become sick of the sight of these fake little bitches dressed in rented kimonos. Dragging around their boyfriends, commanding them to take the 10,000th shot of them looking candid into the distance, pretending to be one of them. I wanted the real thing.
Within the region of Gion to the east of the city is where the Geisha culture lives in its full stride. Its known above all else for its quaint paved streets and interconnected alleyways lined with endless rows of traditional Japanese restaurants. Streets which have been the home of performing Geishas for centuries, and ensures that the tradition survives forever more. Within these restaurants is where Geishas would perform for paying guests. A true piece of Japanese culture.
However, being in the right place doesn’t guarantee a sighting. Geishas are elusive mysterious creatures. There is an air of mystery about them, their true purpose and the interaction they have with their clients. This has caused much speculation as to what exactly do they do. Here’s a very brief explanation.
Many incorrectly believing they are essentially a high-class prostitute. That isn’t the case, however it is based on some past truths. The predecessors to modern Geishas during the 16th century worked in a combination of prostitution and entertainment in the “pleasure quarters” of Japanese Shoguns. By the 18th century a new form of pure entertainers appeared that called themselves Geishas, who initially were all men. Slowly the more popular female Geishas replaced the males. Post-WWII gave the prostitution myth more credence. Ladies of the night along the streets of Japan would refer to themselves as Geisha-girls in attempts to seduce stationed soldiers.
Hopping in and out of taxis, walking at a speedy pace to get to their appointment, it’s hard to catch a glimpse of them. Taking a picture of one is even harder. Made even harder by the fact that these days its illegal to take photographs along the streets of Gion, which could result in heavy fines. Of course that didn’t stop anyone, why would it? If there was a ban on taking pictures at the pyramids, the Eiffel Tower or the Great Wall, would that really stop you? Particularly if everyone is doing it anyway, how can you control it. There is a just reason for the ban, as hordes of pushy tourists wanting photos cause the Geishas to be late for their appointments. If there’s one thing the Japanese despise, its lateness.
They were so elusive that on my first attempt walking through the streets for near 3 hours resulted in zero sightings. The very tight window of opportunity you have to see them makes it a challenge. They’re only really seen between 5:30-6pm, and rarely outside of that. That’s typically when they make their way to their appointments for the night and the best chance you have to see them hot-footing their way to their restaurant for the night.
Luckily I was rewarded for my efforts on my second attempt. At this point I had morphed into the creepy rat form of a paparazzi, my eyes darting in every direction and pacing up and down the streets hoping to god I would see one pass. I finally found the perfect spot and as 5:30 approached they began popping out in force. My jaw-dropped in fascination and open-eyed glares as they scampered passed, dampening my photography skills. I couldn’t help but stare in total fascination of finally seeing one with my very own eyes. The powdered-white face, the vibrant red lips, the graceful kimonos, they were the real deal.
As always, other tourists set out to annoy me. I had found the perfect spot; an intersection in the road where 3 points of entry met, a hot-bed of Geisha activity. I stood nonchalantly against a light-pole waiting for my moment, that perfect shot. Two tourists spotted me creeping and figured I must have been waiting there for a reason, and thus stood beside me. Another three came to the same conclusion and joined, then more and more and more. Eventually a crowd of 30 people had gathered. By the time an entire taxi full of Geishas rolled by, the horde which formed around me turned into a mob of flashing lights practically mounting the approaching taxi. Completely in the way of the perfect shot I had waited near an hour for, BASTARDS!
Meeting an Apprentice
I was disgruntled not to get a decent shot following my short lived taste of the scum-bag paparazzi life. I was afraid that I’d missed my moment, my one chance to get an everlasting memory of this spectacular aspect of Japanese culture, something I was so fortunate to be able to set eyes upon. But no matter, fate answered my prayers. Forget photographing a Geisha, what about the opportunity to get to meet one?
Well…strictly speaking, who I would come to meet was not a Geisha, not yet anyway. We’d be meeting a Maiko, a young girl whom following 3-4 years training would eventually earn the coveted title. Though not exactly the real deal its as close as you could get. To meet a Geisha would have been highly unrealistic as services of such women are incredibly expensive. A genuine Geisha could cost you £150-£250 for an evening, a little outside of my budget if we’re honest.
The owner of the hostel also happened to own a restaurant in Gion which housed regular Maiko and Geisha shows. He had kindly arranged for the guests and the staff to attend a brief Maiko show. Truly the experience was awe-inspiring. Cold shivers shot down my spine and my hair stood on end as I watched the Maiko tread carefully into room before kneeling down gently before the jaw-dropped crowd. I felt the incredible privilege that I was able to see one. To see a real piece of living, breathing Japanese culture, one that had been kept alive for centuries. To see only what emperors and royalty had for the longest time, here I was seeing it for myself.
The show began with an explanation of the attire and make-up the Maiko wore as well as what they represented. Each detail of the refined performer revealed everything about the girls profession and her experience. The amount of lipstick, the colour of her hairband and how much of it was on show, the shape of the kimono, every detail meant something significant. Each detail signifies how experienced the individual is and whether she’s a fully trained Geisha. Our Maiko for instance only had lipstick on her bottom lip and a visible red hairband, signifying that she’d been training for a year.
Next we’d be treated to the truly captivating display, having a short song and dance performed before us. Dancing is in-fact the Maiko’s forte, being what they primarily would perform for guests. The more experiences Geisha would have the slightly more difficult tasks of singing and playing of instruments. Graceful yet hypnotic motions as she silently and effortlessly glided between gestures, echoing her peers from centuries past.
Pulsating shivers raced through my spine to the chorus of traditionally sung melodies as I lost myself in an Imperial Palace, watching the spectacle presented to me by the royal Japanese shogun. A truly mystical experience, one that I never had even hoped I’d have been lucky enough to witness.