6/24/08

The Geisha return to the floating world

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The blue text below is lifted from guardian.co.uk/

''Miehina has barely taken a dozen steps along a Kyoto street before the audio backdrop to her every public move comes to life. In the fading light of an early summer evening, the metronomic clip-clop of her platform okobo sandals is accompanied by the clicking of shutters, as a gaggle of amateur photographers seeks the perfect snapshot of one of Japan's most venerated women.


They stay with her until she retreats down a backstreet and slips through the sliding wooden door of her teahouse, her emerald green kimono, worth tens of thousands of pounds, now no more than a photogenic imprint.

In the past tourists would have had to wait hours for a fleeting glimpse of a lone geisha on her way to an appointment. Now they are spoiled for choice.

After decades of decline, Japan's traditional entertainers are making a comeback. Earlier this year the number of geisha trainees - known as maiko - reached 100 in Kyoto for the first time in four decades.

The ancient capital is still a long way from returning to its 1920s' heyday, when there were around 800 geisha in Gion, its most famous geisha district.

In 1965, records show, the city was home to 76 maiko. By 1978, the number had fallen to 28; the number then stuck between 50 and 80.

Experts believe the recent surge in teenage girls hoping to enter the "floating world" of tea ceremonies, performing arts, and yes, flirtatious exchanges with inebriated clients, is evidence of renewed respect among the Japanese for their traditional culture.

"I remember years ago being told by one woman: 'How would the English like it if their country was represented by what many people regard as prostitutes in national dress?'" says Lesley Downer, author of Geisha: the Secret History of a Vanishing World, who lived among geisha for six months while researching her book. "The Japanese are far less concerned about appearing western than they once were. They used to be paranoid about what the west thought of them. That was particularly true of geisha, which even Japanese considered too olde-worlde."

Much of the mild embarrassment many Japanese felt about the geisha thread running through their cultural fabric arose from popular misconceptions: the suspicion that, beneath the veneer of cultural exclusivity, they were little more than high-class prostitutes.

Though illicit sex is not unheard of, the myths surrounding the geisha are slowly unravelling amid unprecedented media exposure and a belated embrace of the internet among the teahouses of Kyoto's five geisha districts.

Though it was as aesthetically removed from geisha life as Hollywood is physically from Kyoto, the 2005 film adaptation of Arthur Golden's bestseller Memoirs of a Geisha piqued interest in the profession among teenagers. Hanaikusa, a TV drama based on the autobiography of Mineko Iwasaki, the source for much of Golden's book, was one of the small-screen hits of last year.

Then came the emergence of the cyber-geisha, who combine daily study of the traditional arts with a few minutes spent on their laptops. Though free of gossip - protocol precludes any mention of clients' names or how they behave - the most popular blogs draw thousands of visitors a month, eager to soak up even the most pedestrian accounts of the maiko's working day.

"The old geisha were terribly snooty and couldn't care less what people thought of them," says Downer, who attributes teahouse websites and online maiko application forms partly to enlightened self-interest.

"Now there is more interest in presenting an image to the world that brings them bigger dividends. They finally started to worry that geisha traditions would die out, and that they needed to do something about it."
Dividends

Whether the new approach succeeds will depend on apprentices such as Miehina, now ensconced behind the bar at Harutomi, her teahouse and living quarters in Miyagawacho district.

"It wasn't that I didn't want to become a maiko," she says in her lilting Kyoto dialect as she pours beer into tiny, wafer-thin glasses. "I just didn't think I could. I wasn't mentally prepared for all the training involved."

Now 20, with three years of training behind her, she has just a few months to wait until full geisha-hood beckons. Though her talent for dancing was apparent early on, she resisted several approaches from Kyoto teahouses, relenting only when her father gave his blessing. "I knew that if I were to become part of this world, life would be totally different than it is for other teenage girls," she says.

Though she rarely sees her family and has lost touch with her school friends, she does not regret her decision. "It may appear a tough lifestyle to outsiders, but you quickly get used to the strange rhythm of maiko life. There are people looking out for you all the time. When they complain, it is because they want to make me better at what I do."

As Harutomi's only resident maiko, she will one day run the teahouse and nurture a new generation.

"This profession is about quality, not quantity," says the teahouse's owner Haruno, a retired geisha. "I'm pleased that more girls are interested in becoming geisha, but they must be up to the job. As long as they come here with the right intentions, I'm happy."

It is clear that expectations are high for the once-reluctant teenager who, her regular clients say, has become one of Miyagawacho's finest dancers.

"She is the face of Harutomi, and one day she will be in charge here," says Haruno. "If she messes up she will bring shame not only on herself, but on the teahouse ... and her profession."
The apprentice

After waking at 8.30, Miehina eats a light breakfast and reads the newspapers: some clients discuss current affairs. She spends the next few hours learning the three-stringed shamisen and other instruments, song and dance, the tea ceremony and the art of polite conversation. After lunch with her teahouse "mother", it is time to prepare for the evening. After applying makeup, which can take an hour, she crosses the street to be wrapped, layer by layer, in a kimono that along with hair ornaments and other accoutrements weighs several kilograms. Her appointments begin at 6pm. If at another teahouse, she must be back at Harutomi by midnight. She rarely sleeps before 3am. Her days off are the second and fourth Sundays.''




Like alot of people my first interest in geisha culture arose from reading Arthur Golden's 'Memoirs of a Geisha', as I only tend to read non-fiction this book was a very welcome supprise, beautifuly written and well paced, not only was it a tale of love it was also a mini history lesson in the 'floating world' that is the life of a geisha.
Subsequently following from that I read even more books on the history, culture and perceptions of them from a western and Japanese stance, other books that stand out for me are Liza Dalby's 'geisha' which is her story of becoming the first ever non-Japanese geisha.
Also 'Geisha of Gion' written by one of Japans number 1 geishas Mineko Iwasaki.
In regards to the article above I find it very pleasing that fading faucets of Japanese culture are making a comeback, it will be interesting to see if they will try and recapture lost ground that has been taken by the maid cafes industry, regardless of the outcome I'm sure it will have sexy results.
Also While I'm on the subject its kind of ironic that I was talking to [name withheld] from MorningBerryz’s blog the other day about okinawan style music and the shamisen, I've loved the sound of the shamisen for a long time and hope to own one someday soon (for the right price).
As I'm sure alot of you are aware the shamisen features heavily on Berryz Kobo's Piririto yukou!, isnt it a funky sound?
I'll leave you now with a video by the Yoshida Brothers, the track is called 'rising' and is a fusion of traditional shamisen, ambient keys and rock, how awesome is that? VERY.

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