Going to Gion, The Geisha District

Going to Gion, The Geisha District of Kyoto

By Susan Miles

Girls playing geishas dress up in Japan. photo: Sally Maud
Girls playing geishas dress up in Japan. photo: Sally Maud

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.

A visitor 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.

Meet Peter MacIntosh

Luckily for English speaking visitors to Kyoto, Peter MacIntosh, a knowledgeable historian and a Kyoto resident for 6 years has recently started walking lecturers of Gion titled “Geisha, Past, Present and Future.”

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”.

A trusted position, passed down through the generations from father to son. Clipped to his key chain are approximately 20 house keys of his Geisha clients that he visits daily to help dress in their elaborate kimonos. These skilled dressers can fold, tuck and tie the miles of embroidered silk into a glorious vision in less than 6 minutes. This is an impressive feat considering my own Kimono wearing exploits took 3 accomplished women more than 20 minutes to complete.

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.

My girls, giggling?

As a teacher in a Japanese Junior High School, it was hard to imagine my own giggling, energetic third year students as such demure, poised young women. As their teacher, I think I would be happier if they were content to play “dress up”. At various salons in Gion, young Japanese girls can enjoy being clothed in the beautiful Kimono’s, have their hair and make-up done in the Geisha style before hitting the streets to enjoy being photographed and gazed upon by curious visitors who mistake these girls for the real thing.

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.

Continued Fascination with Geishas

The commentary that fascinated me most on our walking tour was not the past of Gion but the continued fascination with Geisha’s in modern Japanese society. The intricate process that was required to receive the appropriate introductions to a teahouse (the agents for the Geisha’s), the exorbitant expense with payments being made to the various layers of the Geisha hierarchy in return for a simple evening’s entertainment of drinking, music and conversation, seemed out of step with the instant and ready access to entertainment that modern Japanese have come to expect.

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.

His Geisha 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.

Everyone is in marketing it seems, even in ancient Kyoto!

Like this article? Share it with your friends!