Kimonos in Kyoto

A brief glance through the car window, but I saw her, glistening black hair meticulously styled, a pale white oval face of porcelain skin with a hint of pink on the cheeks, eyes lined with black kohl framed by eyebrows shaped into perfect crescent moons and her lips, small, dainty and painted red.
She was sitting in the back of a black taxi cocooned in luxurious and very expensive hand-woven silk. For the briefest moment I saw a creature of fantasy, a woman of the night paid for her company, often the centre of attention in a group of Japan’s most powerful and wealthy business men.
Her night had just begun but she would be profit many times into the early morning for her services, entertaining clients with the skills she has perfected and been trained for.

But she is not selling her body. Her profession does not include sex nor the showing of flesh. Her skills lay in the arts of dancing, music, singing, a perfect conversationalist to keep you relaxed and comfortable.
She is a Geisha.

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Read More: About when and where you can see Kyotos geishas

For centuries Japan was not a fan of foreigners and self-isolated themselves until the mid 1800’s when American, Commodore Perry arrived on their shores and demanded a trade treaty. Stories flew back to the States of mysteriously painted women who entertained men for money and of course they all presumed this involved sex.
When the Americans overtook Japan at the end of World War II, many young, desperate, Japanese girls looking to make money by any means, took on the persona of a Geisha as a way to market their bodily wares. The Yankee troops lapped it up and the misnomer spread of the wanton women of the east.

The truth is Geishas, or Geiko’s as they are known in Kyoto, grow up in an extremely disciplined household, not with their family, but with the women and girls they will work with and the ‘Mother’ who will help build their career. They attend multiple classes daily to ensure they have perfected their chosen arts and much of the money they earn, and this can be $1000’s a night, will go back into buying only the best in kimonos (that can cost as much as a house deposit), intricate matching fans, black oiled wigs and all the gifts to the people that help them turn into the most gracious and stunning of all party hosts. The Japanese are big on gift-giving.

A few years ago I spent a week in Kyoto, the cultural capital of Japan and in the early evenings I would wander down Shijo-dori, the main street of Gion, a well known historical Geisha area, to see if I could find a Geiko or two flitting between parties in their wooden sandals. A popular area for Geiko-spotting is on Hanami-koji, a cobblestone street lined with Ochaya (teahouses), restaurants and Okiya (Geisha Houses). You can usually see them from around 5 or 6pm onwards and will often see fellow like-minded people with cameras around their neck loitering up and down the street along with the many tourists who come to see Old Kyoto with its narrow wooden houses and lanterns lighting the way.

Soon enough I heard the familiar click-clack of wood on stone and a beautiful Geiko appeared in a lilac silk kimono dropped low at the back to reveal a painted white fork at the nape of the neck, quite an erotic area to the Japanese. She had a blue and gold brocade obi around the waist and carried a bag that actually reminded me more of a tissue box cover, made out of the same material as her kimono. In her oiled coiffure a simple silver ornament held in place a thick loop of hair.
I tried taking some photos. I often faced the internal dilemma of whether or not to use the flash. It was quite dark at this point and without it the photos often came out blurry. I felt like a paparazzo except with some morals. I didn’t want to bother the poor woman, but I’m sure she was used to having her photo taken. Common knowledge within this world was not to bother them while they were working and this involved asking them to stop for a photo.
Fortunately, instead of disappearing into a nearby teahouse she walked up to the main intersection on Shijo-dori. The light from the nearby shops allowed me to capture a great shot of her waiting at the traffic lights (see above).

Sometimes there would be a sudden burst of Geiko’s on the street as they rushed to their next engagement. I soon succumbed to the flash and was able to get a nice photo of two Geiko leaving their Okiya and getting into a waiting taxi.
Taxi’s were key, I would look into the back of each one that drove past to see if there was a Geiko sitting there. If an empty one parked outside a Ochaya or Okiya, I knew one would be coming out shortly.

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One place I did not expect to see them was in broad daylight in a park. I recently visited Kyoto during the famous Cherry Blossom season, where the city is filled with the sight of pink, white and even red cherry blossoms. The Japanese celebrate often with Hanami – a Cherry Blossom viewing picnic.
Some friends and I had wandered up to the Yakaza Shrine and behind it sat Maruyama Park filled with shades of pink and white. Every piece of grass was covered in tarps and blankets as people sat eating their homemade picnic fare or dishes they had bought from the myriad of stalls nearby.

In the middle I spotted two familiar painted faces. At first I thought they must be tourists, a common activity for visitors was to go to a specialised shop and be dressed up as a Geiko, or in this case, a Maiko which is a Geiko in training. Maiko look a lot different to their more subdued, older sisters, wearing brighter kimonos and makeup and often having many colourful decorations in their hair. The other giveaway is the red silk band that lines the neck of the kimono and the dab of red lipstick on their lower lip. Whereas Geikos paint their neck and upper back white, the Maiko’s will have a three-pronged fork of bare skin going down their back.
These two girls turned out to be real Maiko’s, paid to entertain guests while they enjoyed the blossoms above. Their age apparent when one Maiko smiled a big toothy grin showing the glint of metallic braces stained with red lippy.

There are two ways you can see geishas in Japan without stalking them on the streets.
The first is Gion Corner which is a touristy culture show in Gion and has examples of Japanese theatre, music, geisha dance and the tea ceremony.
The other is to check out an Odori, a seasonal dance. There are a few that happen during the year but the most popular is the Miyako Odori at the start of spring. This is a fantastically colourful dance, presented by the geisha of the Gion Kōbu geisha district and held in the famous Kaburenjo Theatre in Gion. The geisha perform many different songs and plays enacting the seasons, culminating in the grand, cherry blossom finale. These dances have been performed yearly since 1872 and are one of the best and most authentic experiences of Japanese culture. Certain tickets also allow you to watch a geisha and maiko (geisha-in-training) perform a tea ceremony in which you get a bowl of green tea, a bean paste confection and a souvenir ceramic plate, before moving through to the grand theatre with its beautifully woven silk screen, to watch the show.

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Miyako Odori finale

Although Geisha numbers are dwindling a handful of young girls are keeping the tradition alive, learning from Geishas of the past that will hopefully continue this most extraordinary of careers with the next generation. As Japan rushes into the future being at the forefront of design and technology, it is hoped their traditional culture will not become just a page on Wikipedia.

Maiko around Gion, Kyoto - 2011


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