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Travel Guide: The Geisha experience in Kyoto, Japan

12th Oct 2011 1:53am | By Editor

Often misunderstood by the west, the geisha is a Japanese icon. ELISE RANA delves deeper into a world where womanhood is an art form.

As we enter the city, our guide Haruko leans in with a confession. The way they speak and act here is very feminine," she says. "Tokyo girls like me get a cultural complex when we come here." In a country in which most of the female population make your average Western gal feel like a galumphing elephant, it's almost comforting to know that even Japanese women feel the same at times. This is where being a woman becomes an art form.

Kyoto is the cradle of Japanese civilisation, Haruko tells us, imperial residence and centre for politics, economy and culture for over a thousand years. Still seen as the country's cultural capital, Kyoto is filled with temples, shrines and historic sites, but what really sets the cameras clicking is as mysterious and beautiful as any of them.

Kyoto is the prime location in Japan for maiko-spotting. Tottering daintily through the streets on vertiginous wooden clogs, these apprentice geisha are an arresting sight, with hair elaborately adorned and faces made up in the traditional pure white. Japan's geisha and maiko live mainly here in Kyoto, in five hanamachi or 'flower towns'. That even here there are only around 50 maiko in the city makes it even more exciting to glimpse one.


Always a source of fascination, the world of the geisha will soon be in the spotlight as Memoirs Of A Geisha, the Spielberg-produced film adaptation of Arthur Golden's bestselling novel, hits the big screen in the New Year. Set in 1930s and '40s Japan, the story is that of a young girl from a rural fishing village who rises to become one of the most celebrated geisha in the country.

In terms of tourism, the film may do for traditional Kyoto what 2003's Lost In Translation did for the bright lights of Tokyo. Yet among geisha, worry has been reported that the more sensational aspects of the story - the main character, Sayuri, is sold to the geisha house as a child and loses her virginity to the highest bidder - will strengthen popular misconceptions about geisha, specifically the early links of their craft to prostitution.

Back in London, a week before the preview screenings of the film, I meet Fumiyu, a geiko (Kyoto dialect for geisha) who was in town to accompany a young maiko on promotional duties for her country. Beside her, 18-year-old Toshiaya sits resplendently beautiful in full regalia, but after 20 years as a geisha, it is Fumiyu's charm that is most captivating. She tells me she read about half the book, but waves off questions about its accuracy. Please understand that our talents are as artists and performers - there are no little rooms at the back for other things," she says with a polite smile. "That story took place a long time ago. Maybe it was true at that time, but it's nothing like that now. Anyway, who cares - it's just a movie!"

Nevertheless, as establishments that stake their reputation on discretion, most of Kyoto's geisha houses refused access to the film crews, and those seen on screen are mostly recreated sets in Los Angeles. Anyone hoping to spot a Sayuri or two can head to Gion, the main setting for the film and the most well known of the five geisha districts, where maiko and geiko can often be seen clopping delicately to their evening appointments. Other locations from the film which visitors can explore include the bamboo forest of Arashiyama on the outskirts, the Fushimi Inari Shrine and Kiyomizu-dera Temple in the eastern part of the city, a Unesco World Heritage site and one of Japan's most celebrated temples.

Geisha are hired to attend gatherings at tea houses or traditional restaurants, where their time is still measured in incense sticks. Yet with only around 200 geisha in Kyoto compared to over 3000 in the early 19th century, even geisha are having to move with the times. "Our role is as performers of traditional Japanese culture," says Fumiyu. "We try to keep the traditional part of our art alive, but we have had to modernise to make things more interesting for our audience." When I raise an eyebrow at the mention of karaoke, her response is utterly diplomatic. "People are less knowledgeable about the arts than in the past. But our clients are nicer than they used to be!"

Today, the decision to become a maiko is entirely voluntary. Although not all parents approve of their daughters' decision, Toshiayo says that hers were very supportive. The training of a maiko takes around four years, during which she learns everything from traditional song and dance and how to perform the tea ceremony to flower-arranging, kimono-wearing and conversation skills. "There are more and more girls who want to become geisha, but fewer stick with it long-term," says Fumiyu. "It is a way of life - we must be continuously working to improve our skill and craft. A successful geiko is one who is still practising."

Charmed and disarmed by Fumiyu's vivacity, I'm almost unsurprised to hear that she's quite a beer drinker. "When performing we are very polite," she says, "but in our free time we relax, have a drink and don't worry about etiquette." This sounds like a scene I could relate to, yet I sense that I'm destined never to fully understand the geisha world, least of all by crashing their after-party with a six-pack.

My pockets are not quite deep enough to afford an evening with the geiko - it wasn't until I was literally about to leave Kyoto that I had finally glimpsed a Kyoto maiko in her hometown. At the train station, I followed the two kimonos of maiko and accompanying geisha through the turnstiles and up onto the platform, where I caught them buying bento boxes to take on their journey. Seeing my camera, the maiko turned and, with the practiced serenity of a film star, posed graciously for pictures. Feeling more mystified than ever by these visions of feminity, I thanked her with a clumsy bow. Sometimes it's hard to be a woman.

Where to get the geisha experience
• The best place to spot maiko and geisha out and about are in the five hanamachi, particularly Gion or Pontocho. For a sure view, head to Gion Corner (Yasaka Hall, Shijo Sagaru, Hanamikoji, Higashiyama-ku, +81 (0)75 561 1119), a theatre established in 1962 as a venue for traditional culture. A one-hour show of seven performances includes tea ceremony and a traditional dance by a maiko. Shows take place March-November and admission is ¥2800 (£14).
• Several places in Kyoto offer 'maiko makeovers', in which you'll be dressed in a traditional kimono, have your make-up and hair done and photos taken, either in a studio or in an outdoor setting. Geisha Make Over Studio Shiki (351-16 Masuya-cho, Koudaiji, Higashiyama-ku, +81 (0)75-531-2777; www.maiko-henshin.com) have over 100 choices of kimono and offer a geisha makeover for ¥12,000(£59) or maiko plan for ¥10,000 (£49). To live the celluloid experience, Yumekoubou (www.yumekoubou.info) have studios in Memoirs of A Geisha locations in Gion, Arashiyama and Kiyomizudera.
• If you're still saving up for the air ticket, London's V&A Museum (www.vam.ac.uk) is currently displaying a collection of early 20th century Japanese dress, featuring garments from a major private collection being exhibited for the first time. The display will be rotated on December 12 and runs until May 1, 2006."