Japan 4: In search of the Geisha

We went on a walking tour of Kyoto last night. It was billed as a tour around Gion, an old and fascinating part of the city.

In reality it was all about the geisha. Mari, our guide was very enthusiastic about this cultural quirk of the Japanese. ‘They are not plostitutes.’ She was adamant about that and poo pooed The Memoirs of a Geisha, which seems to indicate otherwise. I haven’t read it, I must admit.

Some of the women in the group weren’t convinced and the idea of a sixteen year old girl performing privately for a rich businessman, as he ate and drank his way through a good meal and a bottle of saki, didn’t sit well. I could tell by their questions and the look on their faces.

Now here’s something you didn’t know. The apprentice geisha, called a maiko begins her training at 15. She leaves home and goes to live in a boarding house with a kind of bean an ti, who trains her for 5 years. A kind of private block release apprenticeship. An extended FAS course, or whatever it’s called now. After her first year as a novice performing menial duties and receiving basic training, she goes to work. All the money she earns goes to the bean an ti to pay for her upkeep and training.

Then she graduates to be a geiko, or a fully qualified geisha. She gets to wear a wig and a different type of kimono, and less ornate make up (very white) and a simpler otaiko (like a backpack). And she’s now self employed. The cost to the client is 50,000 yen (€370) for two hours entertainment. But this includes the tea house, food & drink also. A geisha might do 3 gigs a night, max.

She’s not doing it for the money. So why do it at all? What type of girl wants this life and why? Glamour? Prestige? Mari couldn’t really answer this question. Most girls are just drawn to it despite their families’ disapproval. They miss out on their education and any hopes of a boyfriend or husband until after they retire. And about half of them drop out in the first year. And while they are not dying out, there are now only about 300 maikos and geikos in Kyoto, when once there were thousands.

I wondered if it’s just that they wanted to live in a different time, where there was a certain type of idealisation.

I wondered if they wanted a type of belonging, the kind you might get in a religious order. A simple way of life, an old one, with rituals and a long established way of living and dressing. An escape, perhaps. I don’t know.

There’s a huge problem in Japan now with teenagers becoming reclusive and not coming out of their rooms. These are the hikikikomori, and there may be up to a million of these now in Japan, 1% of the population, and growing. There’s a big worry as to fate of the first generation of hikikikomori, who are now in their 40s after 25 years of isolation. Their parents are getting old and how can they reintegrate into society when their parents die? It’s called the 2030 problem. And if that’s the future, perhaps some girls are better off in the past.

In the dusk, on one of the old stone streets, by wooden cladded inns with red lanterns hanging in the doorways, we saw a maiko, rushing to her 6pm tea house appointment. Eyes downcast, face painted pale, wearing a beautiful pure silk kimono. She seemed so out of place in the flashing lights of the cameras. And yet not. At another point we heard a geisha playing a musical instrument and singing for her client. The sounds were old, coming from upstairs, behind a latticed dimly lit and indistinct building.

And it was like going back in time, but not a time in which I’d like to live. And what of the hikikikomori, and their bleak future?

I’m grateful to live in the time and place that I do.

Image: impressivemagazine.com


Novelist, short story writer, essayist, sports writer. Crime novel: Whatever it Takes due out 31 July 2020. The First Sunday in September, debut novel, published in 2018. Mercier Press, Stinging Fly, Irish Examiner, Irish Times, The42.ie, Holly Bough, Honest Ulsterman, Quarryman, Silver Apples.

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