Geishas in Gion

June 5, 2015

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One of the most exciting things about going to Kyoto was that it’s the home of the Geisha. This intriguing tradition is something I have been very interested in for a while, having written an essay on Japanese dress, including the elaborate Maiko and geisha kimono, during my degree and being slightly enamoured with the ‘Memoirs of A geisha’ film. Watch it if you haven’t seen it.

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The word geisha actually means performing artist. Gei means ‘art’ and sha means ‘person who does’ or ‘to be employed in’. They create a fantasy world of perfection and beauty for their clients and are booked to sing, dance, play instruments, play games and conduct tea ceremonies. The training is intensive and they have to live a very different kind of life shrouded in mystery, even today. In their heyday, before WWII, there were up to 80,000 geisha in Japan. Now it is estimated that there are around 1000, mainly in Kyoto in a traditional area of the city called Gion.

Naturally we were really hoping that during our week stay in the city we would at least get a glimpse of one. Maiko, apprentice geisha, are easiest to spot as they are most embellished with extravagant kimonos, extensive hair jewellery and Snow White faces with red lips. They are the image that people associate with geisha, but even if you see someone dressed like this you can never be sure if they are authentic or just a copycat.

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That is, unless you go to a geisha dance. These dances happen twice a year, in spring and autumn – the most auspicious and beautiful times in the Japanese countryside. As geisha inhabit the ‘flower and willow’ world it is only right that they celebrate the changing of the seasons with a performance. The autumn performances only last for a matter of days but in spring there are various stages of the shows, which start with the cherry blossom in April and run until late May. We arrived in Kyoto late on May 22nd and as we were looking into things to do in the city on the 23rd I discovered that the final geisha dance of the season was on the 24th. Arghh. I was adamant that it would be fully booked, but Pete suggested we go to the theatre in the morning, just to enquire. Amazingly there was still availability for the final show that afternoon. I couldn’t believe it – thanks Pete!

We were so so excited and it really was like bring immersed in a different world. They really were absolutely mesmerising in a completely different way to anything we have in the west. Obviously we couldn’t understand the language but it didn’t really matter; we were given the basic plot in English and were able to follow the story.

You weren’t allowed to take any pictures of the performance but we managed one illegal shot.

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The sets and the theatre curtain were beautiful too.

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Other than that we did have a few very lucky sightings on our way round town. A couple of times we saw geisha entertaining at the posh stilted restaurants along the river.

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Pete came across some Maiko being papped, so joined in too!

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