They were the most beautiful things I had seen – though to label the two girls as ‘things’ seemed rude – with their perfectly combed hair and painted faces they were more akin to an Ando doll than human. We were enthralled; thrown into an ancient Japanese world, a world of karyūkai – the flower and willow world – the reality where the Geisha permanently reside.
Of all thing, it is the powdered face and painted lips of a Geisha that has always been the image I associate most closely with Japan; the red circular lips on white face reminiscent of the countries flag and the Geisha culture part of the rich cultural background that the country possesses. So to be in a room with these mythical creatures I was immediately placed under their spell.
Each movement was slow and precise, each angular hand placement practiced for years before they could perform for an audience with the title of Maiko – apprentice Geisha. Rolling back the sleeve of their kimono they exposed just enough wrist skin to flirt with the audience, smiling at us, playfully the Maiko continued their dance whilst the Geiko sat in the corner diligently playing the shamisen, a three-stringed guitar-like instrument.
In Kyoto, the countries former capital and now the cultural capital of Japan, the term geisha is a title not fit for these artisans and instead preferring to be called ‘Geiko‘ – Kyoto-style Geisha – as the hanamachi – the name of the geisha districts – within Kyoto are considered the most prestigious to train in and are frequented by wealthier clients. Tonight we were visiting Gion Hatanaka to take part in a dinner of Kyoto Cuisine and Maiko experience.
Throughout the Maiko’s performance we were encouraged to open and eat our bento box. Inside was a beautifully presented meal sectioned into three different serves of kaiseki food – traditional Kyoto-styled food.
Despite admiring the beautiful presentation of the Japanese food, having not grown up eating seafood – a staple of the Japanese diet – I spent the evening not truly appreciating the taste and the time spent preparing each of our delicate meals; however, I can tell you that warm sake is somewhat potent on an empty stomach!
The primary role of a Geiko is to be a hostess and so we were delighted when they joined us at our table to pour drinks and answer our probing questions on what life was like within a hanamachi, what did their family think of their profession, and of course who their favourite musician? – it seems that Lady Gaga has managed to permeate into Maiko culture, and was the favourite of both girls.
The girls spoke very little English so a translator came to our aid to help us communicate. To be a Geiko is akin to becoming a celebrity – if they are good they become well-known and revered amongst the community, and can also ask for top dollar for their hostess services. To reach this title the girls are trained in poetry, literature, tea ceremony, dancing, conversation and musical instruments – just to name a few.
Perhaps my favourite aspect of the evening was the drinking games and not for the reasons you’re thinking. Another part of training to be a Geiko involves learning games to play with their customers for entertainment. Our group spent the evening playing two games with the girls in hope of winning a small prize if we beat them, or a shot of beer if we lost!
The first game was called Konpir, a test of rhythm, memory and reflexes.
The second game we played was Tora Tora Tora! (Tiger, Tiger, Tiger!) It was a fun game to play because it made us all let down our hair and have fun being ‘old women’, ‘tigers’ or ‘samurai’.
The world of the Maiko and Geiko is different to what the Western world promotes and believes, our perceptions coming from movies such as ‘Memoirs of Geisha’, and with the economy not doing well as well as a decline in the Japanese people’s interest in culture, the future of my dinner dates may become just a memory in Japanese history sooner rather than later.
Would you like to have a dinner date with a Maiko or Geiko?
Japanese Restaurant & Ryokan – Gion Hatanaka
505 Gionmachi Minamigawa,
Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto City
Website: Kyoto Cuisine and Maiko Evening
We took part in the Kyoto Cuisine and Maiko Evening which is prices at ¥18,000 (AU$200) – reservations are essential!