Kyoto, Japan

Survival: The Last Geisha Art

Red light
Lampião garrido marks one of the many bars and restaurants in Ponto cho, Kyoto's most renowned nightlife district.
Kikuno the last geisha from Nara, Japan
Exhibition of Kikuno, the last geisha of Nara.
Geisha in Kyoto, Japan
Geisha walks through a narrow alley in Kyoto.
haughty Maiko
Friends dressed as maiko gather in the shade of a tree in the Hanami-koji neighborhood.
Kimono mannequin "receives" customers at the entrance of a restaurant full of other mannequins in Kyoto.
Geisha in Pontocho
Geisha walks through an alley in the Pontocho neighborhood.
Script "maiko"
Friends dressed as "maiko" stroll along a traditional Kyoto street.
walk through history
Maikos stroll through the traditional streets of Hanami-koji and Shinmonzen-dori, wearing their kimonos with their backs armed.
Geisha Shadow Kikuno, Nara, Japan
Kikuno's shadow, during a show by the last geisha of Nara
geisha company
Two maikos walk down an alleyway from Gio, the geisha core of Kyoto.
Maikos pretending
Kyoto visitors dressed as maikos.
Geisha Kikuno in Nara, Japan
Kikuno assumes one of the poses that geishas refine as a form of sensuality.
Promo Kimono
Gion store window with several kimonos on sale.
Under the lights of Ponto cho
Passersby traverse the narrow alley of Ponto cho, a privileged territory for the geisha of Kyoto.
Maikos back to pretend
Visitors dressed in maikos stroll through the historic center of Kyoto.
geisha pose
Geisha in Ponto-Cho, the most emblematic alley of geisha art in Kyoto.
There have been almost 100 but times have changed and geishas are on the brink of extinction. Today, the few that remain are forced to give in to Japan's less subtle and elegant modernity.

The last light of day dissipates and the balloon lamps stand out and liven up the alley of Ponto-cho, which history has turned into the heart of Kyoto's nightlife.

At this hour, geisha from the city flock to the bars and restaurants prepared for the appointments they have scheduled. They appear without warning, with ghostly faces defying the dimness. And they disappear into small traditional ground-floor buildings identified by stylized kanji signs.

The Arts and Virtues of a Geisha

Out of respect for their ancient art and the many thousands of yen they earn, a patron cannot wait. But, as important as punctuality, every minute of company should be enjoyed as a special moment.

To guarantee this, a geisha (gei=art + sha=person) develops various skills. learn to play early cat (Japanese harp), declaiming poetry and prose, telling anecdotes, interpreting traditional Japanese songs and dances.

Geisha Gion, Gion, Geisha, Kyoto, Japan

Geisha walks through a narrow alley in Kyoto.

But, if these are superior attributes, also conversation, the way to serve tea or other drinks, the simple walk, laughter and, in certain situations, even crying, are expected to be graceful.

The geisha's cultural level is supposed to feed exquisite dialogues including about politics and art, but when the effects of sake and beer make themselves felt, the companions they cannot avoid flirting and erotic behavior.

Sex or Not Sex and Other Geisha Controversies

The issue of sex remains shrouded in mystery and controversy. The fact of being part of the functions or coming to happen is a reason for disagreement among geishas, ​​let alone among observers gaijin (foreigners) of Japanese culture. Some geisha and maiko (young people in apprenticeship) are offended by the simple innuendo.

This is the case of Ichimame, an apprentice who maintains a blog about her profession and for whom the film “Memoirs of a Geisha” proved to be abusive either because he involved Chinese actresses in Japanese culture, or because of the sexual component added to the narrative.

Susumu Harema, one of the managers of the teahouse that forms Ishigame, was also scandalized: “a geisha doesn't sleep with a customer” her job is just to entertain the clientele”.

Some admitted, however, that sex is unusual but not always out of the question and that certain clients would refuse to sponsor them if they were banned. Just go back in time for us to consider your version.

Tour of Maikos Gion, Gion, Geisha, Kyoto, Japan

Visitors dressed in maikos stroll through the historic center of Kyoto.

The Remote Japanese Origins of Geishas

At the end of the XNUMXth century, the odoriki, hired dancers who were hired by the more affluent samurai and feudal lords. A hundred years later, they were also selling sexual services.

Those who had ceased to be teenagers (and, as such, could not be considered odorikis) adopted other titles. The most popular was geisha, borrowed from male animators of the time.

The first woman who called herself this was Kikuya, a prostitute from Fukagawa. She did so around 1750, when she was already known as a gifted singer and shamisen player.

Maikos friends ride Gion, Gion, Geisha, Kyoto, Japan

Maikos stroll through the traditional streets of Hanami-koji and Shinmonzen-dori, wearing their kimonos with their backs armed.

As others began to use the title, many went on to work only as animators (not prostitutes), often in the same establishments as the men.

In 1800, being a geisha was already a female occupation (although there are still a few male geishas today) and they became far more desirable than the rival old-fashioned courtesans, the oirans.

However, Japanese authorities enacted laws that sought to consolidate the cultural status of geishas. It became mandatory that they tie the obi (band) on the back to make it difficult to remove the kimono.

And also the hairstyle and makeup became simpler than the oirans so that its beauty could be found in art and not in bodies.

Portrait of Geisha Gion, Gion, Geisha, Kyoto, Japan

Geisha in Ponto-Cho, the most emblematic alley of geisha art in Kyoto.

The Social Promotion provided by the Meiji Restoration

From the Meiji imperial restoration, the role of the geisha was gradually enhanced by Japanese masculine society. Around 1920, it reached a climax of importance.

But World War II destroyed that ascendant. As the miracle of economic recovery transformed Japan into the highly industrialized and technological nation of the last few decades, the number of geisha dwindled from 2 to a peak of 80.000.

His craft has become a true relic that, despite, survives behind so many doors and Tokyo and Kyoto rice paper walls.

Geisha in Gion, Gion, Geisha, Kyoto, Japan

Geisha walks through an alley in the Pontocho neighborhood.

In recent years, some Japanese businessmen have dedicated themselves to exploring the fascination of Japanese and foreigners for the strange profession.

gion has two hanamachis (geisha communities), Kobu and Higashi. these neighborhoods preserve the tradition with a solid foundation in the ancient architecture of the machiyas, the “old” houses of the city.

Its streets are the trustworthy environment that inspired a phenomenon of Japanese business creativity that is starting to make a splash.

Puntocho Street, Gion, Geisha, Kyoto, Japan

Passersby traverse the narrow alley of Ponto cho, a privileged territory for the geisha of Kyoto.

The Nippon Geisha Core of Gion in Kyoto

As we wander through the Gion neighborhood, we come across colorful and sophisticated studios that rent out costumes, characterization services, guides and photography to Japanese teenagers and gaijin.

Guided by Japanese perfectionism, his work is so faithful that almost only the natives detect the differences. Clients are grateful for their dedication and rejoice in their new image.

We find them protected from shyness in groups of friends and snuggled in extra-colored kimonos. They stroll white-faced along the perfect backdrops of Hanami-koji and Shinmonzen-dori streets, stiff in okobo-geta wooden sandals and proud of every step of their short life in geikos (another term for geisha).

Maikos pose in Gion, Gion, Geisha, Kyoto, Japan

Friends dressed as maiko gather in the shade of a tree in the Hanami-koji neighborhood.

As if they were the original characters, they are frequently followed and challenged by outsiders with cameras at the ready and by groups of students in uniform on their way to classes or home. We do not ask and follow their movements.

But these throwaway performances do not make up for the gradual disappearance of the real geisha.

The Inglorious Resistance of the Only Geisha of Nara

In Nara – another ancient Japanese capital – there is only one maiko. While countless native teenagers complain about the excessive traditionalism and civilizational backwardness of their city, Kikuwaka, the apprentice, has always been proud of the Japanese past.

Geixa during cultural show Maikos, Geisha, Nara, Japan

Kikuno assumes one of the poses that geishas refine as a form of sensuality.

At her mother's suggestion, she enrolled in Ganrin In, a kind of school that continues to teach the ancient arts required of geisha. In less time than expected, it became a unique and unavoidable attraction. But the absence of competition proved both an asset and a burden.

During a show that we watch in a cultural association that welcomes her again and again, her steps on the stage accompany the dramatic and minimal music.

They are as beautiful and sluggish as possible and the rest of the movements are paused, like the expressions that change smoothly, illuminated by the bright background of golden screens.

Maiko during cultural show-Nara, Maikos, Geisha, Nara, Japan

Exhibition of Kikuno, the last geisha of Nara.

When the performance ends, on the contrary, the geisha pretender leaves the installations at great speed. She's late for one of the four cultural engagements she's made for tonight.

Despite the stress to which she was sentenced, Kikukawa does not have the worst reasons to complain about her activity.

Adaptation to the Reality of Our Times

Japan has also been hit by the new economic crisis and fewer and fewer men dare to pay the huge fees charged by the minute for mama-san and charged by some geisha from Kyoto and Tokyo.

These had to improvise. They ignored age-old rules of the profession and became less exclusive, mysterious and stealthy.

Shadow maiko during cultural show in Nara, Geisha, Nara, Japan

Kikuno's shadow, during a show by the last geisha of Nara

From the turn of the millennium onwards, every year in February, several geishas serve 3000 people in an open-air tea ceremony held during the Festival of Plums in Blossom in the city of temples.

And in the summer of 2010, they started pouring out imperials and mugs and dancing in the beer garden of a local theatre. The evolution (or degradation) of your art will hardly stop there.

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