Geisha & Maiko vs. Hose & Heels: Working Women of Gion, Kyoto


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“The biggest industry in Japan is not shipbuilding, producing cultured pearls, or manufacturing transistor radios or cameras. It is entertainment.”  ~Boye De Mente, Some Prefer Geisha

“Geishas are not submissive and subservient, but in fact they are some of the most financially and emotionally successful and strongest women in Japan, and traditionally have been so.” ~Iwasaki Mineko, Geisha, A Life

“There is currently no western equivalent for a geisha—they are truly the most impeccable form of Japanese art.” ~Kenneth Champeon, The Floating World

Modern Hostesses and "Snacks"

Modern Hostesses and “Snacks”

Japan-travel-Kyoto-Pontocho-Alley-visitWhat is up with all the prom dates and late-night flower shops?” I ask Jody as we wander the streets in and around Gion.  Women, or more correctly young girls, scurry about the streets in their über high heels and hipster nylon leg fashion, dressed to the nines for a ball extravaganza that never seems to materialize…while flower arrangements that more resemble funeral ornamentation are whisked away to the many small bars that dot each alleyway.  Perhaps the Japanese are subconsciously mourning the loss of their old ways.

Kyoto has a fetish obsession with nylons, which I admit I enjoy

Kyoto has a fetish obsession with nylons, which I admit I enjoy

FCP%20Legs%20Beautiful-smallJust after sunset something odd happens on the outskirts of Gion in Kyoto, the original capital city of Japan and still it’s cultural and religious center.  Young ladies frequent the numerous small nylon and pantyhose shops found there, dressing up on their way to “work” as hostesses and “snack bar” girls, far from the geisha ideal and sensuality of the past.  The ever-resourceful Japan has invented the “snack bar” (basic bars, older women) and “hostess club” (plush lounges, younger women), both places that come pre-stocked with attractive women, where drunk men can find female companionship without worrying about breaking the ice – or even rejection, and women can get paid for babysitting inebriated and males with low self-esteem.  Leave it to fickle Japan to work out such a regressive lose-lose system.

Me and Jody in front of the Yasaka Shrine

Me and Jody in front of the Yasaka Shrine

Traditional wooden nameplates of Maiko

Traditional wooden nameplates of Maiko

Gion (祇園, ぎおん) is a small historical district of Kyoto, Japan, dating back to the Middle Ages.  Centered in front of the nearby Yasaka Shrine, the neighborhood was designed and built to accommodate the needs of travelers and visitors to the shrine, and then evolved to become one of the most exclusive and well-known geisha districts in all of Japan.  Jody and were fortunate enough to stay on the very outskirts of Gion in an old, authentic Machiya (see Timeless Townhouse to read about that adventure!).

A collage of our Machiya stay in Gion

A collage of our Machiya stay in Gion

Geisha neckGeisha (芸者), geiko (芸子) or geigi (芸妓) are traditional Japanese female entertainers who act in general terms as hostesses, but whose skills center on perfecting and performing various Japanese arts such as classical music, traditional dance, skillful games and intelligent conversation.  The word consists of two kanji characters, 芸 (gei) meaning “art” and 者 (sha) meaning “person” or “doer.”  The most literal translation is “artist,” “performing artist,” or “artisan.”  The geisha of the Gion district (and in Kyoto generally) actually call themselves geiko, more directly meaning “a child of the arts” or “a woman of art.”

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then-now-geishaContrast this with Japan today, which offers various flavors of hostess clubs and “snacks.” Many young Japanese women work as kyabajō (キャバ嬢), literally “cabaret girl” (although there is no dancing or nudity), and most use a professional name genji-na (源氏名).  The Japanese hostesses of fast-paced, impersonal modernity, rather than highlighting traditional high culture and ideals of sensuality, instead are relegated to lighting cigarettes, pouring drinks, offering flirtation more than wit, and singing karaoke pop songs to entertain today’s average Japanese Joe Sixpack.  Although such hostesses are often said to be the “modern counterpart of geishas,” these groups of women are literally worlds and time apart.

Sadly, not Geisha...or even Maiko.

Sadly, not Geisha…or even Maiko.

672px-Maiko_in_GionMaiko (舞子 or 舞妓), literally “dance child”) are apprentice geisha, and actually are the one who wear the white make-up and elaborate kimono and hair dress which we in the west hold as the popular image of geisha.  A year’s training leads to a woman’s debut as a maiko, and under modern Japanese law, all must be 18 years of age, except for those in Kyoto, where women can apprentice as early as age 15 (as opposed to age 3 or 5 a century ago).

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14195691615_ccc5a28e7c_bShiroNuriSeriesMaiko are considered one of the great sights of Japanese tourism, and although most westerners don’t’ realize, they look very different from fully qualified geisha.  The scarlet-fringed collar of a maiko’s kimono hangs very loosely in the back to accentuate the nape of the neck, a primary erotic area in Japanese sexuality.  She wears the same white makeup for her face on her nape, leaving two or sometimes three stripes of bare skin exposed.  Her kimono is bright and colorful with an elaborately tied obi hanging down to her ankles.  She takes very small steps and wears traditional wooden shoes called okobo which stand nearly ten centimeters high (4 inches).  There are five different hairstyles of a maiko, all impossibly ornate and complex, each marking a different stage of her apprenticeship.  Around the age of 20–22, the maiko is promoted to a full-fledged geisha in a ceremony called “turning of the collar” (erikae) where white replaces red.

The whole idea behind Japanese Hostess clubs and Snack bars....

The whole idea behind Japanese Hostess clubs and Snack bars….

60947212_66fb58d83c_mattachmentModern hostesses’ professional wear consists generally of very short skirts or cocktail dresses, but range to prom-like gowns, both looks completed with stylized “big hair,” sexy high heels, and what only can be described as a fetished-obsession with nylons and pantyhose.   These girls drink with customers, sharing in a percentage of drink sales. For example, a patron purchases a $20 drink for the hostess (in addition to his own), which usually are non-alcoholic concoctions and guarantees the hostess’s undivided attention for the subsequent 30-45 minutes.

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ShiroNuriSeries14584584159_e22d477ea9_bIn modern times the traditional makeup of apprentice geisha is unmistakable, though established geisha generally only wear full white makeup during special performances.  This makeup features a thick white base with red lipstick and red and black accents around the eyes and eyebrows.  The application of makeup is hard to perfect and consumes vast amounts of time, and is applied before dressing to avoid dirtying a kimono.

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Yikes.

Yikes.

Not a geisha

Not a geisha

Personal introductions to geisha and maiko were, and still are often required today.  However, modern patrons of hostess clubs are greeted warmly (if not insincerely) at the door and invited directly in.  At some establishments, a customer is able to choose his specific female companion, but that decision is most often left to the house’s mamasan, herself once a hostess who’s worked her way up cleaning splashes off the glass ceiling and into management.  In either case, the hostesses usually rotate after a certain amount of time or number of drinks, offering customers a chance to see a fresh face.  Personally speaking, I have always been assigned a “snack” in a “Snack Bar,” but have had choice in the Okinawan Hostess Clubs I’ve visited.  For the experience.  And nothing more!

There is no greater insult to Geisha than this.

There is no greater insult to Geisha than this.

A mature and established Geisha and her Maiko.

A mature and established Geisha and her Maiko.

airfrance3A maiko’s eyes and eyebrows are drawn in; the eyebrows and edges of the eyes are colored black, and red is applied around her eyes.  The lips are filled in, but not in our more familiar Western style, but instead red and white is used to create various optical illusions and representations, such as a flower’s bud. Maiko wear this heavy makeup almost constantly, but it does change over time to a more subdued style to better reflect her maturity and to help display her own natural beauty.  For formal occasions, mature geisha still apply white make-up, but for geisha over thirty, the heavy white make-up is only worn during the special dances that require it.

Well, I was wrong.  Manson as a Geisha is indeed worse....

Well, I was wrong. Manson as a Geisha is indeed worse….

Katie, you're no geisha....

Katie, you’re no geisha….

There is one way in which geisha and their loosely modern equivalents seem to converge: in addition to their on-site duties, hostesses are generally obliged to engage in paid dates called dōhan (同伴) with their patrons outside of the bar, beyond regular working hours.  Although characterized much differently, maiko and geisha are also paid for such alone time.  While the intersection of prostitution and both geisha and hostesses remain vague and unsure, the fact is that sometimes sex occurs on these “paid dates.”  Although such an arrangement of sex for money is clearly dictated by geisha, there are ongoing concerns about human trafficking and sexual slavery with hostesses, particularly those of non-Japanese citizenship.  Note that since Japanese law narrowly defines prostitution specifically as “intercourse with an unspecified person in exchange for payment,” non-coital services remain legal and are widely offered and available.  If only Clinton had been President in Japan, he actually wouldn’t have had sex with that woman!

Monica, not a Geisha.

Monica, not a Geisha.

Geisha Girls from our "Sayonara" going-away party last year

Geisha Girls from our “Sayonara” going-away party last year

13933417728_f4b9093d88_bUnfortunately, in modern Japan, geisha and maiko are now a rare sight.  In the 1920s, there were over 80,000 geisha in Japan, but today, there are far fewer, with most estimates between 1,000 and 2,000.  World War II heralded a huge decline, especially after 1944 when geisha teahouses, bars and houses were all forced shut by the government so that everyone could work in factories in support of the war effort.  At the end of the war such facilities were reopened, but geisha as a label was irreversibly defamed as common prostitutes began referring to themselves as “geisha girls” during Japan’s post-war occupation.  An association which the American GIs bought, hook, line and sinker.

I'm pretty sure this Geisha and Maiko are the real deal.

I’m pretty sure this Geisha and Maiko are the real deal.

Our "real" sighting!

Our “real” sighting!

14606602998_d3487a96e9_bThe most common (mistaken) sightings are those of tourists who pay a fee to be dressed and made up as a maiko.  The Gion neighborhood in Kyoto has five hanamachi (“flower towns”), or geiko districts, and despite the geisha’s considerable decline in the last hundred years, Gion remains famous for the preservation of forms of traditional architecture and entertainment, and remains one of the places in Japan where a foreigner has a good chance of actually seeing a geisha.  While we did see plenty of woman playing the part, we maybe, just maybe saw one in a rickshaw…and I’m almost positive we followed a maiko and her geisha for a block or two (see below).

Not as sure about this one....

Not as sure about this one….

Personally speaking, the intrigue and sensuality of geisha and maiko, regardless of how backwards and repressive some in the West may think such lifestyles are, should and will always outclass and outlast the rather demeaning heels and hose of the snacks and hostesses that now frequent the streets of Kyoto.  I feel for the Japanese women today who, although they most likely think they are exercising free-choice in pursuit of their destinies, have given up so much status, income and power of the past.

vintage geisha girls

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At least they are dressed well for the funeral. And how’bout those flowers….

Me and Jody with our performing Maiko for the night.

Me and Jody with our performing Maiko for the night.

Timeless Townhouse: Our Machiya Stay in Kyoto


 井の中の蛙大海を知らず, I no naka no kawazu taikai wo shirazu: A frog in a well does not know the great sea. Or, people are satisfied to judge things by their own narrow experience, never knowing of the wide world outside.

Kōshi lattice work on the ground floor; earthwork walls on the second story with mushikomado windows.

Kōshi lattice work on the ground floor; earthwork walls on the second story with mushikomado windows.

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Machiya Seiun-an, entrway on the small alleywayWanting to avoid being narrow American frogs overseas , and equally desiring a more authentic stay in Kyoto, Jody and I elected to stay in a traditional Japanese machiya called Seuin-An, “Blue Cloud Hut.” Seuin-An is a historic Kyoto townhouse were the essence of the Japanese tradition of Geisha was taught: dance, music, tea ceremony, flower arrangement and more were handed down here for generations from teacher to the young ladies who chose this mysterious world as their way of life. While it has been renovated to provide more comfortable quarters to guests, it still retains a cozy machiya’s spirit, esthetic, and beauty of these wonderful traditional Japanese townhouses.

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Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Machiya Seiun-an, bamboo garden and entrywayMachiya (町屋/町家) are traditional wooden townhouses found throughout Japan, but typified in the historical capital of Kyoto. Kyoto, largely spared the devastating fire-bombing campaigns of World War II, retains many old and quite historic wooden buildings, including many machiya. These townhouses, along with Japanese nōka (farm dwellings) constitute Japanese minka architecture of “folk dwellings.” Machiya have a long history spanning many hundreds of years, and traditionally housed chōnin (townspeople), primarily consisting of urban merchants and craftsmen. The plot’s linear footage along the street was in the past a visible index of wealth, and typical machiya plots were only 15-20 feet wide but over 60 feet deep, leading to the nickname “eel bed.” Machiya is written using two kanji: machi (町, “town”), and ya (家 or 屋) meaning “house” (家) or “shop” (屋) depending on the kanji used.

Main Living Area

Main Living Area

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Machiya Seiun-an, asian Japanese living room accentsThe typical Kyoto machiya is a long, narrow wooden home, often containing a small courtyard garden. Machiya of the past incorporated earthen walls behind wood lattice works and baked tile roofs, and were usually two stories high. If used as a shop, the front of the structure served as the retail space. The remainder of the building is then divided into the kyoshitsubu (居室部, “living space)” composed of divided rooms with raised timber floors and tatami mats, and the doma (土間), an earthen-floored space that contained the kitchen and passage to storehouses.

Master Badroom

Master Badroom

Multiple layers of sliding doors are used to moderate the temperature inside; closing in the winter offers some protection from cold, while opening in the summer offers some respite from heat and humidity. Machiya homes traditionally also used different types of screens, using woven bamboo screens in summer to enhance airflow but block sun, while solid screens were used in winter to retain more heat.

Functional Kitchen

Functional Kitchen

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Machiya Seiun-an, functional kitchen 2On a sad note, between 1993 and 2003, over 13% of the machiya in Kyoto were demolished. Roughly 40% of these were replaced with new modern houses, and another 40% were replaced with high-rise apartment buildings, parking lots, or modern-style commercial shops. Of those machiya remaining, over 80% have suffered significant losses to the traditional appearance of their facades in a process called kanban kenchiku (看板建築, “signboard architecture”); they retain their basic machiya shape, but their facades have been completely covered over in cement, which replaces the wooden lattices of the first story and earthwork walls of the second, along with losing their tile roofs.

The Entrance to Our Seuin-An Machiya

The Entrance to Our Seuin-An Machiya

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Machiya Seiun-an, Asian bedroom lamps and skylightsKyoto Japan Winter 2014, Machiya Seiun-an, Japanese wall hangingsJody and I were lucky enough to be able to experience this corner of a quickly disappearing tradition in Kyoto. Stay at Seuin-An was an experience neither of us will soon forget; imaging who may have passed through its doors and contemplating the full range of Far Eastern humanity that the structure encompasses allowed us to make a much stronger connection to not just Japan, but to our collective and shared pasts. In a phrase, we Western frogs managed to jump from the well of our narrow experience to see the wider world of Kyoto beyond.

Bathing Room

Bathing Room

I ended up writing a review for Trip Advisor, which is included here for your review. You may note my sensitivity to the owners, who seemed to be quite insulted with any type of less than good review online. It’s interesting to note that my review did not solicit any response, which I am pleased about, as anyone wanting to stay at Seiun-an. Read on…if you’d like.

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Machiya Seiun-an, upstairs futon and tatami

“A Diamond…in the Rough” (3 of 5 Stars)

I’m going to try and write this review without having the owner get overly defensive while hopefully portraying our stay accurately. After all, that is the point of Trip Advisor.

This home COULD easily be 4 stars…with just a little bit of work. If I could on this site I would have rated the home as 3.5 or even 3.75 stars (instead of the 3 I did rate it). We enjoyed our stay, and the location of the home is excellent. And, it does give one a personal, authentic experience of living in Japan. Let me explain.

This is an old home, in mostly original style and layout, and that should be clear to anyone renting or staying. That was exactly our point in renting this type of accommodation – for a more authentic experience while traveling and staying in Japan. Expect the home to be cold and drafty in the wintertime, with the bathroom floor being VERY cold. The heat on the 2nd floor sleeping area works well (one wall unit and one floor electric radiator), and is very comfortable at night. Only one pair of slippers is provided in the home, but no robes, which would be a very nice touch since one has to go downstairs at night to use the only toilet in the home. The toilet is a modern Japanese one, with a welcomed heated seat!

The best iron deep-soak tub around!

The best iron deep-soak tub around!

The tub is fantastic, a deep-soak iron barrel sunk into the floor. However, the small plastic-framed bathroom mirror is much too small and is miss-hung for it to be of any use at all. My wife ended up using her iPad camera on herself, turning her iPad into a de facto mirror at the living room table. The sink installation is rather haphazard and lacks any sort of refinement; there is no medicine cabinet or other storage areas in the bathing room (sink & shower being separate from the toilet).

The lighting takes a few moments to figure out, and while adequate, we had numerous lights that were burnt out, including the outside light, two hallway lights (we replaced one with the over-the-stove hood light), one accent light in an art/panel area, and there was a broken and missing light fixture in the living area that resulted in quite an eye-sore. We only asked for the outside light to be fixed, since we are not fans of having people enter our living spaces while absent, but it is also not much to ask that lights be operable before we take residence. And there was no explanation for the broken fixture, which really detracted from the appeal, look and feel of the living room.

Tatami Sleeping Arrangements

Tatami Sleeping Arrangements

The living area furniture is not dark wood like in the website photos, nor is it located where it is as pictured there. It is however very functional, and there is plenty of room downstairs for eating and socializing.

While I understand the sliding doors are old and fragile in the home, the sliding door to the kitchen is very tough to use, and constantly was getting jammed. It is not really on a track, and is heavy to move, lacking any type of handle. We kept it closed most of the time though since heat downstairs was a constant issue in the middle of winter. The kitchen is functional.

There is really no weather-sealing or insulation at any of the doors, and this causes the draftiness of the downstairs area. The heater downstairs (one wall-mount and one electric floor radiator) both ran on high full-time; they simply couldn’t keep up with the cold. If the entryway bamboo vented screens were backed with Plexiglas (or glass), and if the door to the outside mechanical area were sealed properly, this would be a much warmer residence.

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Machiya Seiun-an, entryway

Finally, there are some aesthetic flaws that interfere with the charm of the machiya. The patches in the rice paper doors are too numerous and visible, along with the damaged bamboo entry sliding doors. The bathroom sink area really needs some updating, which could be accomplished while keeping the experience “authentic.” The bamboo water “garden” in the entryway would, if functional, provide some terrific ambiance to the entire structure, as well as some soothing water sounds….

The owner-recommended café “Yamamoto” around the corner is an excellent choice, and was much easier for the taxis to find than the house’s address!

Like I said, this home is a GEM, but with some pretty rough edges. With some much needed attention, it would easily be a 4-star home, and with some further investment, much higher rents could be charged given the potential charm of the residence and its location. It’s a recommended place to stay, but be forewarned: if you are looking for western style kitchens and bathrooms, and if you want to be pampered with warmth, look elsewhere.

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Machiya Seiun-an, photo collage of our accommodations in Gion