In the twilight we walk through Gion, the geisha district of Kyoto. We turn into an alley were a part of the wall is fully stickered with typical geisha business cards. Are we close? Is there an okiya somewhere near? The first step for a girl to become a geisha, is being accepted in an okiya. In this house the maiko or geisha will live during her carrier as a geisha.
This is where fairy tales are made
It’s autumn. Kyoto is full of maple leave trees with intense red coloured leaves. The city is at her most beautiful. The jovial cultural capital of Japan is surrounded by endless Japanese gardens composed in different layers. In the gardens are perfectly cut trees, that clearly reflect in ponds full of award winning koi carps.
Mysterious trails overgrown by moss lead to a blinding golden temple, behind it a traditional teahouse with red parasols. The perfect setting for a tea ceremony from a geisha. We take a seat and drink bright coloured green tea, with elegant decorated sweets next to it. A Japanese woman in kimono, unfortunately no geisha, serves us.
The chef of a restaurant, our hotel owner and random locals we meet in Kyoto, everyone tells us that it is impossible to meet and especially talk to a geisha, unless we have a lot of money. This is for us only more reason to push through. We walk through the labyrinth of small alleys in Gion. Corridors that always end in closed wooden sliding doors. We are both intense curious. What happens behind all those closed doors? After a long search an older Japanese lady finally points out an okiya to us. When she walks away we carefully glance inside. I see four pairs of wooden sandals right behind the door. On the floor are cane matt furthermore the room is minimalistic decorated. In the back of the room is a young lady sitting in front of a mirror. Her face is partly white. In her hand she is holding a big white make up brush and her hair is graceful tight up. Our looks cross in the mirror, I gasp and of confusion I quickly close the door.
Geisha & geiko
Geisha are called geiko in Kyoto and are the symbol of the Japanse culture. The former capital of Japan is the only city where maiko –geiko in training- and geiko still play a huge roll in daily life. Geisha literally means ‘women of art’, but even in Japan some people still think that geisha’s are refined prostitutes. To become a geisha is a tough and intense four to five year study programme followed. There is no time for friends, a boyfriend or even enough sleep. That is why not much young girls now a days choose for the traditional profession and there are only 100 geiko left in Kyoto. Furthermore there is the rise of the furisode-san. Women who after three months of training start working as a geisha, and adapt to the huge question of tourists for a geisha entertainment night. Of which the ‘real geisha’s’ say it is a humiliation for the traditional Japanese culture.
The door slides open. Katsumomo is in the doorway. Her face painted completely white, bright red lips and glittering eyes. She is dressed in a colourful kimono made of heavy, shiny fabrics, her feet are in white socks with one toe and wooden sandals with at least 15 cm thick soles. She smiles at us, her hair decoration twinkles cheerful to the movement. All background noise fades; I have a feeling comparable to meeting a pop star. I smile a bit nervous back. We both bend lightly, the palms of our hands pressed together in front of our heads. Katsumomo finished her junior high school and speaks to our surprise very well English. There is a mutual curiosity. She is curious who we are and we are free to ask her anything.
‘Becoming a geiko has always been my dream’
At her 16th Katsumomo moved to Kyoto and got accepted in the okiya where we are now. Every day she has geiko training from early morning until 17:00. She learns to speak traditional Japanese, official manners, play different instruments and –the most important and difficult- dancing. After her lessons she changes and does her own make up, even the sophisticated points in her neck, which are considered very sexy. An hour later she is on her way, transformed into a geiko, to her appointments with clients. ‘I enjoy that I have the opportunity to travel the world and meet, new, important people. I like to entertain them, get compliments and be the centre of attention in return’. The mystery around the geisha culture is to protect the relations with customers. When we ask her what is happening during her appointments, she is very clear; ‘entertaining clients means dancing for them, playing an instrument, have small talk and do a little bit of flirting. The customer is amused with an illusion that will never happen’.
During appointments geiko drink rice wine and whisky and around midnight in Gion you can see, sometimes lightly tipsy, geiko walking back to the okiya. After a short night rest a similar fully planned day starts. It are very long days confirms the geiko and she sees her parents and brother only once a year. ‘My life is completely changed’, says Katsumomo. ‘I pay more attention to the needs of others then those of myself, but on the other side I can experience things ‘normal’ Japanese women never get to experience. One day I want to have a man and children, by then I will have to move out of the okiya and quit as a geiko. But because of my choice for this tough, traditional occupation I am now living my dream’.
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