‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ by Arthur Golden piqued the interest of countless bookworms and it was later immortalized on celluloid in 2005. There were rave reviews and it caught my attention as well and I pondered about the lives of Geishas and their positions in modern society. I have always been fascinated with the Japanese culture and their way of life. Growing up I used to be crazy about all things Nippon; irresistibly cute stationery, fashion, J-Pop, teen idols, Japanese sweets and cuisine. Even studied the language for two years after my first visit to Japan because I was frustrated at not being able to communicate or read any of their signs.
Kyoto’s Geisha district is located at Gion, near the Yasaka Shrine in the east and Kamo River in the west. Here, Geiko (Kyoto dialect for Geisha) and Maiko ( geiko apprentices) entertain clients at the many shops, cafes, restaurants and ochaya (teahouses).
Many have had misconceptions about the Geisha and oftentimes associate them with vice and prostitution. In reality the Geisha culture had its roots in Kyoto when the imperial court moved their new capital there. The Geisha community was a beauty obsessed elite who trained hard to act as hostesses with skills in performing various Japanese arts like classical music, dance, games and the tea ceremony. It was at the turn of the 18th century that the term Geisha emerged and they were recognised as professional entertainers who did not sell sexual services unlike the ladies at the pleasure quarters.
Hanami-koji which runs from Shijo Avenue to Kenninji Temple is a nice and upmarket place to dine. Many of the michaya houses have now been converted to restaurants and shops and if you would like to taste Kyoto style kaiseki-ryori (haute cuisine), then you are in the right place.
Gion has the highest concentration of well-preserved traditional Machiya houses which line Hanami-koji Street and its side alleys. They may have narrow frontages of 5-6metres but they can stretch up to 20metres in length because at the time when these houses were built, taxes were calculated based upon the street frontage.
Gion Corner is a unique theatre that presents one-hour shows that displays 7 of Kyoto’s professional performing arts; Kyogen~classical comedy, Kyomai dance, gagaku~imperial court music, koto harp, bunraku~puppet theatre , tea ceremony and ikebana~flower arrangement.
I was hoping to catch glimpses of Geiko or Maiko on their way to or from an engagement at an ochaya in the evening or out and about running errands during the day and though not sorely disappointed I was hoping for more sightings. They are pretty elusive as there have been complaints about annoying paparazzi-like tourists who come gawking and stopping them to snap photos of them and with them. Not wanting to offend their sensibilities, I would quickly run ahead of them and wait till they are about to walk pass me before I aim and shoot.I got a bit luckier, on my way to Kiyomizu Temple.
The traditional makeup of an apprentice geisha features a thick white base of rice powder with red lipstick and red and black accents around the eyes or eyebrows. This is a difficult and time-consuming process where the white makeup covers the face, neck and chest and sometimes with a W-shaped unwhitened area left on the nape to accentuate this traditionally erotic area and also a line of bare skin around the hairline to create the illusion of wearing a mask.
The older geiko would wear kimonos of more subdued patterns and colours and would often have their obi tied in a simpler ‘drum knot’ which is also utilized by married women. A beautiful kimono can take 2-3 years to complete because of the detailed painting and embroidery process.
This rather young Maiko looks like she is bearly 15 which is the allowable age in Kyoto. In modern Japanese labour laws, it is legal to become geisha apprentices only at the age of 18. It used to be that girls as young as 11 or 12 would be taken in as apprentices for training, as perfection was what they aimed for in order to please their paying guests.
The elaborate hairdo of the geisha entails hours spent at the hairdressers every week and they sleep on special holed-pillows to keep their hair intact and neat. After going through many different stages of training, a maiko will eventually debut as a geiko around the ages of 20-22. The life of a geisha is one totally dedicated to beauty, the arts, culture and absolute discipline and I am in full admiration of them as not just about anyone can become an accomplished one.