to Gion, The Geisha District of Kyoto
The novel "Memoirs of a Geisha," Puccini's tragic opera "Madame Butterfly" and countless movie references have provided the curious West with various views of what life of a Geisha is like. But for those interested in getting beyond the fictional images, it is necessary to walk the streets of the Geisha district of Gion in the ancient city of Kyoto, as I did recently.
strolling the cobbled lanes and alleyways of Gion would miss the hidden
clues and overlook the subtle hints that reveal this extraordinary way
of life without an informative and enthusiastic guide.
Peters' understanding and respect for this fascinating world is based not just on history books and research, but his time spent as both friend and confidante of these unique women.
This knowledge pours forth as Peter leads his small groups of visitors through the streets of Gion and in turn through the shrouded past and modern present of life as a Geisha.
As we pause to view the Geisha name plaques adorning the entrance to a
traditional ochaya (teahouse), an inconspicuous man whirls past on a bicycle.
"Oh" explains Peter; "he's a Kimono Dresser".
As we stroll pass the elegant paneled Okiya (boardinghouses) where the Geisha's reside, two doll-like creatures float past in their colorful Kimono's. Not Geisha's but the apprentice Maiko's, we learn from Peter can be distinguished by the style of their hair, the ornaments adorning their hair and the color of the cloth on the collar of their dress.
In turn these can also denote the year of the Maiko's apprenticeship, one that lasts 5 years with additional "post-apprentice year" before a Geisha starts to earn an income. The apprenticeship starts usually when the girls are 15 years old after they have graduated from Junior High School.
Tucked in behind each of the boardinghouses, a simple non-descript storage building is pointed out by our enthusiastic guide. In these buildings, purposely kept removed from the main home away from threat of fire, are the tools of the Geisha's living, their Kimonos.
Custom dictates that a Geisha wear a different Kimono each month of the year, usually in a style and design that reflects the season, with additional ones required for specials performances and ceremonies as they graduate from being a Meiko to a Geisha.
The large number required and the sheer expense of each Kimono prohibits the Geisha's directly owning them, that usually rests with the mistress of the boardinghouse. In addition to the collection of Kimono's the mistress is responsible for the training and preparation of the Meiko's during their apprenticeship. This includes not only their living expenses but their lessons in dance, shamisen (Japanese harp) and singing that they complete at the nearby Academy. The estimated cost for the five-year apprenticeship, $500,000 per year U.S.
This may explain that the number of registered Geisha's in Kyoto is now just 223, less than a fifth of the numbers during the peak of area in the early 1900's.
Fascination with Geishas
As we near the end of Peter's tour I found myself struggling to find any connection with these women. There lives, their customs and attitude seemed so removed to those of both modern Japanese and western women. But there is an element of "businesswoman savvy" lurking under their mask like makeup.
As we stopped at a small shrine, we were surprised by the volume of stickers, printed in Japanese characters, adorning the lamp and walls of the shrine. No, not some strange type of offering to the shrine, but the Geisha's "business cards". This in turn prompted Peter to open his wallet and display a similar selection covering the inside covers.
friends had encouraged him to place them there to bring him good luck
and good fortune. Well maybe the Japanese guys may fall for this one,
but our convivial guide laughed, knowing this was his friend's subtle
reminder to call and reserve another evening of entertainment.
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