We have just taken our seats on the narrow veranda. Above our heads, dozens of paper lanterns bearing the district’s rice-dumpling motif suspend from the eaves. It conjures up scenes from a Hayao Miyazaki movie—except instead of robe-clad ghouls, the clientele are Japanese salarymen, still in suits and ties. The occasional kimono-clad figure shuffles between tables, cracking jokes with customers and nodding eagerly as she sets down mugs of beer.
We’re at Kamishichiken Theater, in the most venerable of Kyoto’s kagai (geisha) districts, which would not typically be thought of as an appropriate setting for a beer garden. But these days, unconventional venues are offering rare opportunities for ordinary folk to encounter geiko and maiko, the local terms for geisha and their apprentices.
Two geiko soon shuffle to our table. They are wearing light cotton robes for the summer but are without their distinctive makeup; to guess their occupation in any other context would not be easy. While the younger of the two appears lethargic after a long evening of entertaining, the other is keen to engage, pleasantly surprised that we speak Japanese.
The gregarious Umechika talks of making her maiko debut 14 years ago, putting her in her early 30s. She is as curious about us as we are about her, pointing out the irony in my living in a traditional wooden machiya, just like the teahouse with which she is affiliated, while she resides in one of the modern apartments that have come to replace them. But after a few minutes, guests around us prepare to leave and the geiko are ushered away.
Geisha have long captivated Westerners in part because their world is one shrouded in secrecy. To begin with, one needs an introduction for a purely platonic evening of food and conversation in a designated geisha teahouse. (Some tour operators can arrange such an introduction at great expense.) The system, ichigensan, has changed little since the start of the Edo period 400 years ago. The story of geisha began in the 15th century, when the shrine of Kitano Tenmangu was badly damaged in a fire, and during rebuilding, the old timber was used to craft a series of seven teahouses to service worshippers. Young shrine maidens were spurred to profit from the thriving new business, serving tea and entertaining through song and dance. Today, many foreigners’ perspectives are influenced by Arthur Golden’s 1997 novel, Memoirs of a Geisha, and Hollywood’s 2005 movie adaptation. One topic that became a point of contention was Golden’s depiction of mizuage, a coming-of-age ceremony where the apprentice maiko loses her virginity. Despite changing times, the art and ceremony of geisha has endured and is even experiencing a 21st-century overhaul.
Becoming a modern geisha goes far beyond perfecting a tricky dance move. Young women begin their training at 15 or 16. After being accepted into an okiya (geisha house), they live in close quarters, with little privacy and few opportunities to see family. In the first year, they attend to every need of their maiko and geiko sisters and undertake household chores. They dress in kimono daily, a rarity for most Japanese. Following their misedashi induction (coming out party) as maiko, a grueling schedule of music and dance instruction begins and they are gradually introduced to customers. This is all while getting accustomed to the discomfort of sleeping on a special pillow to preserve the immaculate hairstyle, maintained with weekly salon appointments.
For young women sacrificing a high school education, it’s a leap into the unknown. But it’s equally so for the okami (an okiya’s proprietress, usually a retired geisha), who covers their living and training expenses for the duration of their instruction, five or six years. “Many of the girls first consider becoming a maiko when they come to visit Kyoto on a school trip,” says Naoki Enomoto, of the Ookini Foundation, an organization striving to preserve geisha culture. “After seeing one on the street, they think, She is so pretty. I want to look like that.”
In turn, teahouses today are trying to bring young women’s expectations down to earth (most are from outside Kyoto and tend to be idealistic) by offering internship-like experiences, giving them a taste of the lifestyle and allowing the teahouse to see an aspirant’s potential as an entertainer, dancer, and musician. The Ookini Foundation recruits young women on behalf of the teahouses and also offers money to encourage them to stay in the profession. It helps the newly independent geiko buy kimono, a necessity that is often too expensive for a twenty-something with five years of unsalaried work. A lack of funds can mean the end of a career.
The overwhelming trend of the geisha districts over the past half century has been one of decline. But numbers of maiko working in Kyoto’s five kagai increased to 66 at the end of 2015, more than double the figure of the mid-’70s. The future of the profession rests on the shoulders of some 240 women (the geiko and maiko). Limiting access to this world surely increases its allure, but it’s unclear whether teahouses can afford to maintain such strict barriers. In Japan’s lackluster economy, fewer businessmen are springing for ozashiki, or formal geisha receptions, which cost thousands of dollars (and are the okiyas’ main source of income) and have long stood as a symbol of prosperity.
Some houses are compromising by partnering with travel operators to offer affordable “maiko dinner experiences.” (It can still be a thousand-dollar night.) Others have pursued new lines of business, like the okami of Kawayoshi Teahouse, who launched her own line of cosmetics. A few establishments faced with the prospect of closure, such as Tomikiku in Gion Higashi, have dropped all barriers completely: Its resident maiko, Tomitsuyu, is known for her impeccable English.
The slow opening of the geisha’s world may warrant concerns that the job will cease to have meaning: How can “outsiders” fully apprehend the art? The words of a friend, born and raised in a teahouse, come to mind: “When one attends an audience with a maiko, it does not matter if you do not fully understand what is happening or recognize the songs being played. Anyone can appreciate her.”
Gone Golden Too?
Arthur Golden’s 1997 novel, Memoirs of a Geisha, sat atop the best-seller list for two years. Mineko Iwasaki, the famous retired geisha he interviewed, sued him for “stealing her life,” but according to Golden, he never asked her a personal question. (The case was settled out of court.) While this didn’t stop Memoirs from being adapted into a hit movie in 2005, it seemed to have kept Golden from his keyboard; he hasn’t published another book. Golden says he’s never stopped writing. “The novel I’m working on now has a highly specific premise,” he says. “I’m reluctant to say what it is because I know there are other people who could write it faster!” —Rachel Hurn