Geisha Fantasies in Japan’s City of Temples and Teahouses
By Teressa Rerras
Published in the April, 2004 Issue of Canadian World Traveller
Text and Photos Courtesy of Japan National Tourist Organization www.jnto.go.jp
Having read Memoirs of a Geisha, by Arthur Golden, I was suddenly enchanted with everything Japanese, from the fragrant, soft pink petals of the Japanese cherry blossoms, right down to the wooden shoes worn by the geisha and their apprentices, maiko. Soon I was planning a trip. What better time to go than spring, when the cherry blossoms are in their full glory! In bed at night, visions of geisha began to dance in my head. I began visualizing myself in Japan, photographing them.
The Art of Geisha
Geisha are not necessarily prostitutes, as some may think. They are highly trained entertainers who perform for the rich and famous. Training as early as the tender age of five, geisha are well versed in the performing arts, from playing the three-stringed shamisen; to ikebana, the art of flower arranging; to ceremonial tea serving and dancing. A maiko may charge as much as $1000 for an evening’s entertainment. Geisha have dwindled over the years, and it is said that there are probably only around 20 actual geisha in Kyoto today. With this fact in mind, I felt an urgency to go and see for myself before they actually become extinct.
Immersing myself in Japan travel guides such as Fodor’s Japan, Lonely Planet Kyoto, and Jodi Cobb’s book, Geisha, I tried to acquire as much knowledge as possible to familiarize myself with the city of Kyoto. I searched the internet for hours, studying maps of the geisha districts and teahouses. A famous philosopher from the 1700’s once wrote, “A traveler without knowledge is like a bird without wings.” I’ve literally known how true this statement can be. After traveling to over 25 countries, most of these alone, I’ve come to realize that having some knowledge of the area and its culture is just as important as a sense of adventure.
Breakfast in Osaka
I began this trip on Japan Airlines, on a direct flight from Chicago to Osaka. Upon arriving at Kansai Airport, I opted for public transportation. A cab would have cost over $100 US. Unable to acquire a room in Kyoto, I stayed in Osaka and commuted by train daily. This was the high season for tourists, and there were literally hoards of people there.
For 1300 Yen (about $12 US), I could take a hotel bus directly to the Miyako Osaka Hotel. The next morning I was hungry for a large breakfast, but soon found out that it would be out of the question, financially speaking that is. Hot coffee at the hotel would have been $7.00 US, an expensive breakfast considering it didn’t include food. I elected to stay in my room, wearing my complimentary cotton kimono, drinking complimentary green tea, and munching on the gummy bears I had brought for the adorable Japanese children I hoped to photograph. Oh, well. At least green tea is supposed to remove toxins from one’s body.
With map in hand, I headed toward the train station, which remarkably was located underneath the hotel. For $8.00 US I could travel to Kyoto with one transfer. Immediately a young Japanese businessman approached me and inquired where I was going. He escorted me to my final destination, Kyoto. Unbelievably, it was not his destination; he just had a genuine wish to assist me. I would soon find out just how hospitable the Japanese really are. Never before had I experienced such generosity. For every time I stepped on a bus, every time I took the subway, every time I took the train, a Japanese woman or man would insist on escorting me. I’m not sure if the reason behind this was because I was alone; I only know it happened on a regular basis.
Once arriving at Kyoto station I visited the Kyoto City Tourist Information Center for maps and general information. The guide had great difficulty understanding me and I them. Across the street in the Kyoto Tower Building, I visited the Japanese Tourist Information Center. Here sat an elderly Japanese citizen who took his time in answering all my questions. (This office also offers the “good will program,” where a Japanese student will spend the day with you at no charge as an interpreter. You just have to provide lunch and any expenses.)
Gion Teahouse District
When I told the old man that I had been photographing women of exotic cultures all over the world and that I hoped to photograph a geisha woman, he exclaimed that it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to find the elusive geisha. My heart began to sink. I asked if perhaps the cherry blossom trees in Maruyama-koen Park were in bloom? He explained that the cherry blossoms were late this year because of the severe winter Kyoto had suffered.
I asked for directions to a famous coffee house, Inoda, in the District of Gion. He politely informed me that it had burned down last year. Seeing my despair this sweet, elderly man took me by the arm and escorted me to a fabulous coffee house in the basement of Kyoto Train Station. After my caffeine fix, I took bus number 206 to the District of Gion, otherwise known for its famous teahouses and geisha sightings.
Glimpse of a geisha
Slowly and watchfully walking down the street, I thought I caught a glimpse of a geisha in the corner of my eye. Was this my imagination? I ran ahead for half a block, set up my camera and composed myself. False alarm. Walking for hours, pacing back and forth through the streets, checking all adjoining alleys, and still I had seen no geisha. My disappointment and jet lag caught up with me. I was overcome by the thought that for the first time in my life, I might not be able to photograph what I had traveled so far to see.
Stopping on the corner, I walked into a restaurant and ordered a Coke. A woman from London was sitting next to me and started up a conversation. She said she had just seen a geisha three blocks from here. Immediately I paid the $5.00 for my Coke and took off.
The day so far had been a gloomy, cloudy one. I proceeded up the next three streets. Taking a left turn, I finally spotted my geisha. There she was, standing next to the canal, a cherry blossom tree in full bloom behind her. The clouds began to part and golden rays of light began to shine down. Something magical was about to happen. This was the moment.
A Photographer’s Dream
For forty-five minutes she allowed me to photograph her from every angle. I will never know why this maiko or apprentice was so accommodating, but I did realize how fortunate I was, especially since this was my first day here. I found myself returning to this enchanting area over and over again.
The Golden Temple
Day two in Kyoto, I had my usual escort to Kyoto station and proceeded to take bus number 50 to Kinnkaku-ji Temple, otherwise known as the Golden Temple. Here I met Leo, an English teacher from the United States traveling with his parents. He had been living in Kobe for seven months teaching English and was astonished when I shared with him my experience from the previous day. We discussed safety in Japan, which is one of the safest countries in the world to travel in, especially for a woman traveling alone.
Leo explained that if someone were to lose his wallet in Japan, it would probably have more money in it if it were found, for the person who found the wallet feels pity for the poor soul who lost it.
Some Enchanted Evening
In the evening I returned to the District of Gion, this time sitting on the corner outside a popular teahouse and again, hoping against hope. Suddenly a geisha, not an apprentice, but a real live geisha darted out of the teahouse and headed down the street. In hot pursuit, I wondered, “How do they manage to walk so fast in those high wooden shoes?”
I was able to photograph her from behind. The makeup detail on the back of her neck told me that she was a geisha, not an apprentice. Quickly she disappeared into the crowd. As I stood on the corner she reappeared and crossed the street right in front of me. I could now photograph her facing me.
Returning to the enchanting area where I had first spotted my maiko, I found that evening brought silhouettes of geisha entertaining in the teahouses above me, the soft breezes of spring carrying their infectious laughter into the streets. Suddenly one stepped out on the veranda and waved to me as I gazed up above.
An Unusual Assignment
Now that I had accomplished what I set out to do, there was one more self assignment I had given myself: To experience what it would be like to be a geisha. At the Kyoto City Tourist office, I had tried to explain this to one of their staff. A young Japanese woman gave me a paper with Japanese addresses on it. From there I returned to the District of Gion, searching up and down the main streets, down the alleys, stopping from time to time asking questions.
Finally I found a small office on the third floor of a building down a narrow dark alley. Three beautiful young Japanese ladies tried to communicate by sign language and a few words of mixed English and Japanese. Money exchanged hands. How much, I cannot say, for I would like to continue to be happily married.
I soon found myself standing naked in a tiny room. I had been stripped of everything, even my wedding ring. All valuables had been locked away. I was beginning to ask myself some serious questions. What am I doing here, and have I completely lost my mind?
I was given cotton bloomers and a camisole. This was authentic geisha underwear? My hair was then put in a net, and I was escorted to the mirror where a makeup artist applied white diagonal patterns to the back of my neck. I was being made up as a maiko. Another assistant took long strips of fabric and unfolded them. Then the makeup artist applied sensual red eyeliner, ruby red lipstick and pink eye shadow. Creamy white thick makeup was smeared over my entire face.
After each layer of clothing was added, I was bounded with these strips of cloth. As each strip of binding was added I become very claustrophobic and found my breathing labored. I wished I had eaten dinner.
Finally I stepped into the tall wooden shoes with red velvet straps and white stocking feet. The entire process takes about an hour. I no longer recognized myself. Pictures were taken and I was advised they would be sent to me by air mail. I had fulfilled my geisha fantasy.
Kyoto’s Traditional Sights
My final day in Japan I tried to take things at a slower pace and drink in my surroundings. On my way to the Ryoan-ji, a famous dry-landscaped rock garden, I met Zosa, a young 23-year-old Japanese woman who loved to sightsee and insisted on spending the rest of the day with me, even inviting me to her home.
Kyoto is jam packed with sights to see from temples, shrines, castles, and parks with cherry blossoms, to of course, the elusive geisha. Kyoto was one of the few cities spared by the World War II bombings.
Perhaps that is why it reminds one of old Japan. With a newfound appreciation for tea ceremonies, flower arranging and the Japanese culture, I hope to return one day to see more of what this magnificent city has to offer.
Trains are extremely efficient and there is always someone nearby to assist if you have any questions. Have the concierge at your hotel write down the directions for you. Carry a card with your hotel address in case you get lost, but that is half the fun.
The subway and bus systems are an even more cost efficient way of traveling. A taxi may be more convenient for getting from point A to point B, but could be quite costly.
There are many organized tours. I found the (JNTO) Japan National Tourist Organization to be quite helpful with a variety of tours. The Japanese Tourist Information Center located on the ground floor of the Kyoto Tower Building offers the good will program where a university student will volunteer to assist you in exchange for lunch and all expenses paid.
Miyako Osaka Hotel is very conveniently located next to the train station. Depending on the season, this hotel can run anywhere from $100 to $200 US. There are several women only accommodations in Kyoto. The Rokuo in Temple is for women only and can run around 4500 Yen. The Toji-An Guest House is located about 10 minutes from the Kyoto Train Station. This is a dorm which runs around 2060 Yen. I heard rave reviews from other travelers about this place. Supposedly there is always a fresh pot of coffee here along with chocolates!
About the Author
This article by Teressa Rerras can be found at www.bootsnall.com and is reproduced with the kind permission of bootsnall.com, the Ultimate Resource for the Independent Traveller.
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