Geishas have long held popular attention for being beautiful and enigmatic. I joined a walking tour in Kyoto to explore this facet of Japanese culture.
Many cities come alive at night, with neon lights and frenzied party goers. Gion too comes alive at night, but in a more measured and cultured way. As the sun sets, little red lanterns light the streets of the district, passing by small storied wooden houses. Music can sometimes be heard wafting from these houses, intermingled with the sounds of singing and laughter. And if you look quite closely, you just might get an elusive glimpse of a Geisha in white makeup and elaborate costume, flitting about on the streets.
I’m in Gion, Kyoto’s storied Geisha district, joining a night walking tour of the area. Arthur Golden’s 1998 novel Memoirs of a Geisha and the movie that followed revived interest in world of Geisha’s for the general world outside of Japan. The popularity of that book and movie have made walking tours of Gion quite popular with tourists, looking for something a little off the beaten track.
I reach Shijo street, looking for Kitaza, the meeting point of the walking tour. There is an odd bunch of tourists already gathered there and this looks like it. Our guide for the evening, Mie, greets me and it looks like I have found the right place. The tour is conducted by WaRaiDo, a local tour guide.
After waiting for the rest of the guests to arrive, we begin our walk. The walk meanders along the river with Mie, slowly introducing us to the world of the Geisha. The path passes by what were the first “Tea Houses” where Geisha entertainment first become popular among the elite. Along the way we learn interesting bits of trivia about the Geisha, like their preference for “Green Clover” brand of taxi’s for travel. Now every time a Green Clover taxi passes by, we crane our necks hoping for a glimpse of a Geisha. The excitement is infectious.
Mie explains how young girls volunteer to become Geishas, who are considered the equivalent of popular movie stars in some quarters of Japan. The process of becoming a Geisha or Geiko is fairly long drawn. The training in etiquette, poise and musical arts can last several years. During this time the expenses for the trainee Geisha or Maiko are borne by the Geisha boarding house or okiya. The expenses are considerable and include food, lodging, training and expensive clothes including the fabulous kimonos and obi belts that the Geisha’s wear. So the would be Geisha’s are expected to pay off the expenses borne by working for the okasan (boarding house mother). The okasan works almost like a Hollywood agent, getting good publicity and bookings for her charges. Once the debt is paid off, the Geisha is free to work independently and many go on to establish their own okiyas.
Mie also gives us a little history lesson. One of the more famous Geishas was Yuki Kato. George Morgan, the nephew of J.P. Morgan was so enamored by her that he courted her for over two years. Finally, he paid off her debt to her okiya, a princely sum of $20,000 and married Yuki in 1904. But Yuki’s elation at having moved to a foreign land with George was short lived as he died in 1915. Yuki then returned to Tokyo where she spent the rest of her days in solitude.
After this slightly melancholy tale we proceed on to other areas of Gion. Quite soon we passed one of our first “tea houses”. Tea houses are where geishas traditionally entertain guests by acting as hostesses and providing entertainment for the wealthy guests. These “geisha parties” typically involve song, dance, traditional music and party and parlour games – all organized by the Geishas. The entire atmosphere of these parties is supposed to be other worldly, allowing the guests to forget the world outside the tea house. Its also why the rules for interaction are quite strict for Geishas, since they must maintain that facade of the fantastic at all times.
We stroll down the street to a nondescript notice board. Here we learn that the class schedule for the training of geishas is put up and quite often maikos come by to check the time of their next class. Mie also explains that most of the maikos today are instructed by their okasans to stop for no one on the streets, while going to class or moving from one tea house to the other. Of late, it seems that due to the high number of tourists trying to click photos, often maikos find themselves encircled by paparazzi like tourists, something that delays them when off to an important tea party. So if you hear the clip-clop of wooden sandals accompanied by the gentle tinkle of bells, you should definitely look out because a maiko may be hurrying by.
We walk towards the rear of the Gion Minami-za Kabuki Theatre, hoping to see our first glimpse of an actual Geisha. Mie explains that our chances would be good, since a Geisha stage performance would be ending and the Maikos usually exit via the rear entrance. The group waits with bated breath, when suddenly we hear the clip-clop of sandals followed by the tinkle of bells. There gliding by gracefully, like an otherworldly creature, a maiko gracefully walks by on her way back to her okiya.
The group is ecstatic and we all pose for a group photograph before we disperse. Our two hour sojourn into the world of the geishas is finally over and we disperse into the reality of the night. Not content with this glimpse into the geisha life of Gion, I return the next day. Passing by a street, I can hear music and laughter from floors ahead. A geisha party seems to be underway. And there just by the traffic signal, I spot a maiko who graciously allows me to click a photograph. And with this my trip into the world of Gion comes to an end.
Gion is located located around Shijo Avenue between Yasaka Shrine in the east and the river in the west. You can either take the Keihan main line and get off at Gion Shijo station or take the Hankyu-Kyoto line and get off at Kawaramachi station. If you get off at Kawaramachi, you will need to walk for maybe 10-15 minutes across the bridge to get to Gion.
The Gion Night Walking Tour is a two hour tour (Cost: ¥1000) conducted by WaRaiDo Guide Networks. It is conducted every Monday, Wednesday and Friday starting at about 17:00 or 18:00 depending on the time of the year. Do check their website for any changes.