Monday, July 26, 2010

Gion Geisha Spotting, The Sport of Tourists

27th October 2006 - Well the sun is setting on this, our seventh full day in Kyōto... and we're in one of the most quintessential parts of the city. Gion. Specifically, the wonderful street of Hanamikoji Dori. We had quite a long day... whew... and we were exhausted. TIme to sit down and enjoy a nice treat...

The goofy-looking guy below had a matcha-flavoured parfait....

My gorgeous wife had a "fruits siratama"... but for all of the nice atmosphere, her condition of not being able to taste or smell (a side-effect of being pregnant for her) meant that it was all a little disappointing and frustrating. A very painful experience to lose your taste - especially when there's so much yummy food around.

After we finished our yummy snack, we headed out to enjoy the atmosphere of Gion. One of the many character-filled, and charm-flooded streets of Gion. We're in the heart of old (and very traditional) Gion here. The quiet before the storm. Gion is one of the Hanamachi (flower towns) which are the traditional homes of geisha. There are five such districts in Kyōto: Gion (Gion Kobu and Gion Higashi), Pontochō, Miyagawachō, Kamishichiken, Shimabara. Ok...let's see what we can find. We waited for about 15 mins as the sun slowly set.

Then from out of the shadows... walked a geisha (well - here I have to admit that I can't specifically tell a full geisha from a senior maiko). She certainly carried herself with a grace that we expected from the stories/movies/imagining life back in the colourful pre-Meiji days of Kyōto.

There's a very good website Immortal Geisha the goes into the history and general information... and explains some differences between geisha and their apprentices, maiko. Actually geisha are more correctly called geiko in the Kyōto area.

When I first saw her, I have to admit that I was a little worried by her young stalker - who stuck steadfastly to her footsteps. I had thought originally that she was like a geisha groupie - but I think the reality was a little different however...

I have to admit, geisha (or more correctly maiko) spotting is strangely exciting. It's like combining a visit to the art museum with joining a tv game show.... you're just not entirely sure from which door an amazingly costumed/made-up maiko will appear from next. We waited a little longer. I think T-chan was just as curious as I at this stage (but about 10x more tired).

Then, as we waited, another appeared... from a side alley. This on the other hand is definitely a maiko... maiko are generally aged between 15 and 21 - by the age of 21 you're too old to be a maiko and instead are called a full geisha. The maiko stage (whilst not necessary) is held in high regard by those who know these things.
This was starting to turn into some sort of nocturnal wild-life hunt. and by this time, the street had begun to fill with quite a few tourists (hey... I admit that we were tourists as well) hoping to catch a glimpse - and capture on film - this supposedly elusive of creatures.

Clearly - they're not as elusive as first thought... In actual fact, it turns out Friday night in Gion is a good time to go maiko spotting. Just not the best time to take photos.

There's something oddly bizarre in this photo (at least to me)... the combination of maiko, tourist and ojisan (I hope that wasn't an obasan on the motorbike... it can be hard to tell sometimes). Like little dijoint images thrown randomly together.

Now this maiko had style... and poise.

I have to say however - for me, the maiko or geisha attractiveness is not in the gaudy trappings, or the make up (or even the attractiveness of the women for that matter)... it's the sense of the moment in time that they keep alive by their very presence. As if, for but a short instant in time and space, a hole opened up to another era, through which you could glance something that most probably has no good reason to still exist in this day and age. I'm glad it does exist however.

Here's a slightly blurred capture of the nape makeup from behind. Oops - a little smudged. Must have been in a hurry! You can also see the red fabric around the collar that denotes her as a maiko.

It was a strange time out in Gion that night... and I have to admit that I felt a "gamblers bug" for the first time. There was something alluring about staying that little bit longer... for one more glimpse. What outfit or hair piece would come next? To be honest, some maiko were clearly unhappy with the admittedly over-intense attention of some photographers (I wouldn't of course put myself in that category). Others however clearly enjoyed the attention. They certainly had no doubts who the people were here to see.

The maiko would suddenly appear from out of one of the doors of the tea houses (ochaya), and then walk along the streets and alleyways of Gion briefly before disappearing behind yet another door. Closed to our eyes.

Hmmm... we're outside one of the larger teahouses houses on Hanamikoji Dori.... known as the Ichikiri Ochaya and suddenly a car pulls up - the driver sitting expectantly but patiently. The tourists gather.. waiting... wondering... who will come out. The excitement by this stage had reached a palpable level. Seriously - I wouldn't have thought there could be such extreme interest in this before I had experienced it myself. Oh,,, and that young lady looks a little familiar... stalker-like familiar. It was at this time that I realised that she actually worked with the geisha. I wondered if this is the sort of work you do to become a maiko?... There is a term called shikomi, which is a servant to the geisha... typically a young girl wishing to become a maiko.... so here I guess is a future geisha in the making... or was she really just a stalker?

The one myth I can lay to rest... the idea that geisha don't smile or laugh is definitely no true. There was much laughter and smiles all around. The maiko in the front seat is quite junior given the amount of skin showing around her hairline (which is her natural hair) and also the fact that only her lower lip is painted.

These women were having a good time... and maybe that's because of (or inspite of) all of the attention now focussed on them by I would imaging 20-30 tourists (including Japanese) who were waiting patiently at the door step of the teahouse.

This is my favourite shot of the whole night.

And here we get to see the stark differences between geisha (left) and maiko (right). It's not the most comfortable of footwear. I imagine that's part of the training - to learn how to be elegant walking in shoewear (the thick soled shoes are called okobo) like that must be quite demanding. We can see here the overall lack of ornamentation worn by the geisha (both in terms of hair pieces and fabric pattern). The shorter sleeves on the kimono is another give away (maiko's kimono sleeves typically go to their ankles). And of course - the privilege of seniority is apparently you get to wear more comfortable shoes (geta rather than okobo).

From the back you can see other differences - most notably the difference in neck line. The maiko has a distinctive gap in her alabaster white make-up around the nape of her neck. Her hair is tied much higher, and here her obi is quite a lot longer and more flashy. And then... before you know it... they've gone, into one of the many exclusive establishments in Gion... not for the likes of you or me.

Well - that was an adventure. T-chan eventually gave me that look as to say, "ok - you've had your fun for the evening... now get me some food!" Hmmm... I think T-chan's enthusiasm for geisha-spotting had started to wain. We found a nice little restaurant and had a simple dinner. We were both famished. Ok... it was not the most up-market of restaurants... but within our modest budget it was a nice meal. Especially for Gion.

That night, foot-sore and exhausted I started to set down the day in my diary. It was a fun day today - very busy, but full of different experiences. Thank you T-chan for being such a thoughtful, loving and very indulging wife, partner and friend.
Posted by Picasa


  1. With all my fascination with Japanese culture I never actually knew much about geishas. I'm off to read up ^_^ starting with immortal geisha

  2. Paparazzi! They must be used to it by now eh?

    I do find them very alluring. You're right about their poise and how they carry themselves. It's really amazing seeing how their tradition and history is kept alive.

  3. Hi Jenny - there's beauty in all things, and Geisha accentuate one form of it. Like a great painting, they can be marvelled at from a distance, but few of us would ever have the chance to know them up close. I prefer to let the mystery (like the Mona Lisa) remain alive, for us to wonder at.

    I suppose that the tradition will always continue (in one form or another), at least I hope so. There are few things that really distinguish ourselves in this global community... and it's nice to cherish those things that do, even if they may seem slightly anachronistic.

  4. Kyoudai... as well as Immortal Geisha, I'd just dive into the internet (I have to say that Wikipedia is generally a good resource, and starting point). Of course, there's a number of good books... but there's also a lot of rubbish out there (hopefully I haven't added to that list).