The Mystifying World of the Elusive Geisha

Meeting our Maiko (apprentice geisha)
Meeting our Maiko (apprentice geisha)

Walking quietly passed wooden and bamboo houses through the hauntingly empty streets of Gion. Lanterns float and bicycles lean against the wooden walls. My feet slap on the wet stones as I take in these picture perfect surroundings with thoughts running through my head as to what I am about to learn and witness. Butterflies in my stomach dance around as adrenaline pulses through my veins. I am going to personally meet with a Geisha. I have been fascinated and mystified by these rare characters for as long as I can remember.

I draw in a deep breath as I reach the teahouse. The wooden door gently slides open. There she is. Beautiful. Perfect.
Silently she greets me and ushers me to take a seat on the floor. She folds her kimono neatly and perfectly beneath her knees as she whisks and serves me bitter green tea using the learned techniques of proper tea making

As I sip away on my frothy green tea, she performs for me. She dances in a trance like state to the twanging sounds of a shamisen, a traditional three stringed instrument. Her pasty white face is expressionless as she moves with grace and precision. She is mystifying and enchanting to watch. Her pure white porcelain face is contrasted with blood red lipstick on her lower lip signifying that she is a Maiko (apprentice Geisha). Red eyeliner frames her eyes, her hair frozen in place and littered with decorations.

A jade clip shows that she is under 18 years of age and a dangling jewelled wisteria branch signifies the month of May. Her red and white kimono makes the statement that she is still in training and she proudly wears a family broach decorated by coral. She looks like a doll.

She folds onto her knees and plucks at her shamisen and gently begins singing in a soft, sweet voice. I watch in awe at her ability to capture my undivided attention and I’m sure I am sitting there with my mouth hanging open. I am speechless.

As she finishes, she politely bows and I have the opportunity to talk with her. She does not speak English, so a translator joins me. The Maiko’s name is Kotama, which translates to ‘Little Jewel.’ She has been training to
become a Geisha or Geiko for two years now and will become a fully trained and skilful Geisha by the age of 20.

She quietly tells me of her traditional lifestyle which includes sleeping on the hard wooden floor and the hard and tiring work involved in cleaning and tidying the ryokan she is hosted in. She expresses her lonely existence and her heart ache at being so distant from her family but her passion to succeed in this intriguing world far surpasses the tug at her heart strings. She is focussed and determined.

Kotama attends Geisha school daily to perfect her skills and her okiya (host family) is in search for an onesan or “elder sister” to mentor her through her final years of training until she is ready for her time to debut as a fully trained Geisha. This time in a Maiko’s life is called erikae, or ‘turning of the collar.’ Kotama’s image will change significantly when she reaches this milestone. Her kimono will have shorter sleeves, less flamboyant patterns and no hair ornaments will be worn. This will be her turn to consider accepting a ‘younger sister’ to mentor.

Suddenly, time is up. I thank Kotama for sharing her exotic but secret life with me. The fascinating world and culture of the Geisha is fast disappearing. The lack of interest in traditional Japanese art and the expense of having a Geisha for entertainment is the reason the tradition is in steep decline.

The traditional way of training to become a Geisha in fast growing cities like Kyoto are starting to crumble due to modernisation and westernisation. The practise learned today is still the same as it was in the 1800’s. The skills and duties have not changed.

Maiko and Geisha are a mystery even to the Japanese. It is a rarity these days for people to have the opportunity to see, let alone meet them in person. The fading culture of the Geisha is like the cherry blossom tree. Signifying that life is short, sweet and beautiful and not to be taken for granted.  My personal experience of these unique artists specialised in Japanese traditional culture and entertainment was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and I was truly honoured and humbled to have had a rare glimpse of this ‘Little Jewel’ in the crown of  Japan.

Streets of Gion, Kyoto's Geisha district
Streets of Gion, Kyoto’s Geisha district