The Flower and the Willow: Geishas of Kyoto
by CAROLYN ALI
The woman stepped out of an ancient wooden building and slid the lattice door behind her.
Smoothing her chartreuse silk kimono, she then straightened the wide, ornate obi belt which bound the fabric to her slim body. Touching her jet-black hair, arranged in an elaborate twist and accented with ornaments, she flashed her white-painted face in my direction for just a second before she bowed her head, walked a few steps, and disappeared around the corner.
"Did you see her?" I said excitedly to my friend. "I can't believe I finally saw a real live geisha!"
Ever since reading Arthur Golden's best selling novel, Memoirs of a Geisha, I've been fascinated with the exotic, secluded world in which these women live. Dating back nearly 400 years, the tradition of graceful entertaining for which geisha (or "beauty people") are famous includes witty conversation, accomplished musical and dancing skills, and discreet flirtation.
Though I was hoping to see a geisha in Japan, I knew that sightings were few and fleeting. Although the country has a long tradition of the artisans, there are relatively few that still practice (1,000 compared to 80,000 in 1901), and their pricey performances are largely confined to the inner sanctums of privileged Japanese. However, with a bit of luck, perseverance and knowledge, it is possible to glimpse their vanishing world.
I had come to the Gion district of Kyoto for this very purpose. Set just off the banks of the Kamogawa River behind the modern city center, Gion has long been home to the geisha tradition and its famed teahouses. Its narrow, cobblestoned streets are lined with low-slung wooden houses, some hosting tiny antique shops and restaurants.
In the past, a casual visitor to Gion may have seen pairs of geisha hastening to a performance, their kimonos glistening in the moonlight, or heard the harmonious notes of the three-stringed shamisen drifting from a lantern-lit courtyard.
Today, random sightings are very rare. As I strolled through the area, I tried in vain to peer inside the 17th-century teahouses where for centuries geisha have greeted their patrons, but it was no use - the elegant wooden sliding doors were firmly closed, white paper shoji screens lined the windows, and indigo hangings wafted in the breeze over the entrance. I realized how fortunate I had earlier been to see a geisha en route to her evening appointment.
Because geisha remain so elusive to foreign visitors, many still don't know exactly what these special women do. They're not prostitutes, as some believe; rather, highly skilled entertainers who have perfected refined arts such as playing traditional instruments like the shamisen, pouring tea, dancing court dances. They perform only for people with the proper connections, mainly rich businessmen who pay thousands of dollars to spend the evening in their presence. Geisha flirt lightly with guests, pour drinks, massage egos, and generally ensure the smooth flow of conversation.
Although visitors find it difficult to see an actual geisha in Japan, the gentle arts and beauty that typify their world are always evident in Kyoto. Our Japanese guide, Akiko, took us to the serene Ryoan-ji temple, boasting one of the most famous zen gardens in Japan. This 15th - century, dry landscape garden features fifteen rocks resting on a manicured expanse of tiny pebbles. As I sat on the temple veranda, contemplating the peaceful beauty of the garden, I imagined what teahouse courtyards might look like as geisha strolled with their patrons.
"Wake up!" Akiko's voice interrupted my thoughts. "If you want to see geisha, you must keep eyes open," she teased. The calm beauty of the place had almost lulled me to sleep.
Akiko brought us to a teahouse to experience a tea ceremony, one of the fine arts that take geisha years to master. A smiling young woman in a simple cotton yukata (summer kimono) presided over our tea ceremony with quiet ritual and reflection. As our group knelt on cool tatami reed mats with our legs tucked under us in the traditional seiza pose, our hostess whisked hot water into ceramic bowls of green tea and served each of us in turn. While I waited for my steaming bowl, I nibbled on a bean paste confection and admired the outdoor carp ponds through open paper doors.
Our next stop was Toji temple market, a sharp contrast to the serenity of the zen garden and the tea ceremony. Held once a month around the historic Toji temple, the busy market has taken place for more than 700 years. Hundreds of jumbled booths lined the temple grounds, hawking everything from old pots to new socks to traditional wood block prints.
Squeezing my way through the crowds, I was fascinated by unusual sights. One booth held a large tub of goldfish, and small children crowded around scooping them out with paper nets. Another sold sizzling okonomiyaki pancakes, a savory snack filled with pork and shredded cabbage covered in a special sauce. A man on my left bellowed and gestured at the Japanese pop band t-shirts he was selling. And the woman on the right...the woman on the right had boxes and boxes of used kimono for sale!
"This is a very good place to buy kimono," Akiko said approvingly as I bent over the cardboard boxes and rooted through the heaps of richly colored silks. "Japanese people, they do not like used things, so they sell them very cheap. For marriage, Japanese women receive many kimono. They cannot wear them, so they sell." I was all too happy to pick up their cast-offs and took home my little bit of geisha fantasy.
The next day while touring the magnificent Kiyomizu-dera temple, I was thrilled to come face-to-face with not one, but two geisha strolling together. They looked exactly like the woman I had seen in Gion decked out in elaborate costumes with chalk-white faces and wooden geta slippers. These geisha, however, didn't seem to be in a hurry to go anywhere and didn't seem the least bit shy. They posed for pictures amongst admiring tourists and seemed to be quite enjoying themselves.
Akiko came over to me after I finished snapping their photos. "They are not geisha," she revealed gently. "They are just normal Japanese." She explained how visitors to Kyoto can visit photography studios where they are transformed into geisha for a day. These studios do their hair and make-up and dress them up just like geisha. Then the women take a short walk around the temples to display their finery and return home with a souvenir photo of their experience. "Many Japanese think geisha are fascinating too," Akiko confessed.
Akiko must have sensed my disappointment that my long-awaited close encounter with a geisha turned out to be less than authentic. That night, however, I finally got what I came for.
"Several times every year, the geisha of Kyoto dance for everyone, not just rich people," Akiko told us. "Now, it is time for Miyako Odori, spring cherry blossom dance." Akiko had gotten us very reasonably priced tickets to the annual performance of the geisha and maiko (apprentice geisha) of Gion.
"This is the real thing," Akiko whispered as we sat on a tatami mat in a darkened theater and watched geisha glide on and off the stage in their magnificent costumes. They played the koto (Japanese harp), sang, and danced a tribute to the spring season.
My journey was complete. I had finally gained entrance into the mysterious world of the Japanese geisha.
Geisha and maiko perform the Miyako Odori cherry blossom dance for the public every year throughout the month of April at the Gion Kaburenjo theater, as well as at the Kamogawa Odori which takes place April-May and October-November.
For details, contact the Kyoto City Tourist Information Office (011-81-075-343-6655).
Focus on Kyoto
· Geisha were outlawed entirely during World War II. At that time, many geisha were forced into factory labor.
· The unpainted nape of a geisha's neck is considered to be the most sensuous part of her body. The more neck exposed, the more risqué the geisha's kimono.
· The first geisha were men who entertained guests at banquets. However, by the 18th century, women came to dominate the trade.