The air is heavy with the advent of something unique and important about to happen. Dead silence fills the narrow streets of Miyagawa-Cho Geisha Town in Kyoto, a silence that is marked only by the occasional footsteps – “clack, clack” – of the young Maiko making her way from teahouse to teahouse, splendid in her traditional Kimono dress & wooden winter sandals. The winter sun adds to the blissful atmosphere of peace and serenity, gently bathing the Maiko in a beautiful midday light and warming all of us who we have come to witness this special, historical event.
What I have lived, breathed, heard and seen in my last 24 hours of visiting Japan is something that only very few Japanese, let alone international travellers, ever experience.
“Lucky me”, I smile over reading the following lines in an email from dear Dannie de Fazio, who I have met over my speech on Creative Travel at Doshisha University and who has already offered to take me out on an exclusive, one-of-a-kind nocturnal bike ride around the many temples, shrines & Geisha Towns of Kyoto. We meet again after I return from a short weekend trip to the creative culture & #foodlover district of Kanazawa City, and what a meeting it will be: “I think I have great news for you! Monday will be the initiation ceremony in one of the Geisha Towns for a new Maiko, ‘apprentice-geisha‘. You will be able to take lots of pictures and experience her first walk as a Maiko in the Geisha Town. …”
So let me try and put into words what I have felt like over this amazing, once-in-a-lifetime travel event here in Japan, one stunning photograph and story at a time.
A first glimpse of gorgeous. The Maiko – Geisha women are an integral part of Japanese society, with the art of female entertainment and seduction through song, music & play deeply rooted in the island nation’s cultural history. A poster in the streets of Miyagawa Geisha-Town advertises an upcoming event that celebrates their diversity and unique sense of beauty, fuelled by an interest from visitors & locals alike.
Preparing for the show: Greeting the Gods. As we make our way around Miyagawa Geisha-Town in preparation for the initiation ceremony, Dannie takes me to a local temple whose small wooden boards depict an image of seven of the many Japanese Gods: “Buddhism, or Shintoism, calls for many forms of prayer and belief, as expressed through song and meditation. See the fish there, or the female Goddess playing one of the traditional Japanese guitars …”
On the catwalk. Bracing ourselves for the appearance of the new Maiko, or ‘apprentice-geisha’, we find that it is not only us visitors and photographers that roam the small streets of Miyagawa-Cho here in Kyoto. The unique beauty of these three young Maiko, aged between 15 to 20 years, captures my (camera) eye as they gently stroll from teahouse to teahouse, greeting their kind and us passers-by.
Turning heads. It is not only us that the Maiko – Geisha in this town are leaving spellbound. Even the kitchen porters, who I imagine to be kind of us used to seeing the astounding Japanese women in their traditional dress & make-up, are easily put under a spell. After attending what is known as a Maiko initiation ceremony, I can only nod in silent agreement at Dannie’s words: “They make you feel so good … ultimately charming, and ever so skilled at the art of seduction …” Like sirens, really. Only that they are 100% REAL!
“Oh” as in … I love my Origami. Can’t really understand what else is written and printed on this billboard just outside one of Miyagawa-Cho’s teahouses, home and workplace of the Geisha, but I am able to appreciate the beauty of Japanese painting, characters and paper art … On my first morning in town, I have even been given a sweet little selection of the pretty paper birds by a lady serving me “café au lait” … Olé!
Dress-up Party. One of the attractions in the Geisha-Town of Kyoto is that you can be dressed up as a Maiko – Geisha yourself, complete with wearing a Kimono and make-up for the day! Is that something you would like to see me do over one of my next visits to Japan, dear readers? 😉
Ready for some action. Brace, brace: The Paparazzi are in town! “You will see them multiply in drones later on”, Dannie warns me with a bemused smile, obviously used to them from his many years of researching the Maiko – Geisha culture and the concept of beauty in Japanese society. Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder, and what is it that those photographers see in the new Maiko, I wonder? Her eyes – her face – her dress?
Stirring behind closed doors. For now, we still have to wait. And wait. Something is going on, the appearance of the new Maiko has been delayed, as the photographers start murmuring in rapid, yet ever so quiet words, with Dannie being able to translate most of it. I am standing still among them, unable to understand a single word they are saying, only left to my own sense of imagination, my thoughts wandering, my skin welcoming the gentle warmth of the winter sun touching my face, my excitement for what is about to happen growing …
So young! Another Maiko makes her appearance just before the arrival of “the new Maiko in town”, this one only fifteen years old herself – the age when a girl starts her career path of becoming a fully-fledged Geisha at 20 years old. In those first five years, they enjoy lots of dance classes, speech training, learn at least one instrument, learn how to sing – and ultimately, how to seduce men. … “But isn’t it illegal for them to … have sex before they are even eighteen?!”, I ask Dannie in a moment of peace, utterly thankful for having him as my companion guide & interpreter for this world of wonders I find myself in. “They can marry once they reach the age of 18”, Dannie tells me. “No sexual intercourse is allowed as long as they are still minors of age. Mind you, some Geishas never marry, but quite a few of them have children … They can have children yes …” To me, this young lady still looks very much like a child herself. Perhaps, and here is a thought, this is exactly what the men that come to see them are looking for? “The Maiko young girl is always very popular with the men, the teahouses like them”, Dannie confirms my thoughts.
Where is she? More visitors are entering the scene, as this young man pauses from drawing a Japanese lady in his bike car on the street that marks the appearance of the Geisha district’s new Maiko. In the background, you can see the crowd of photographers gathering, looming for the perfect (first) shot …
The new Maiko: An exotic creature springs to mind … and eventually, to life here in the streets of Kyoto. The moment we have all been waiting for has finally come. Dozens of Paparazzi photographers bow and push for the perfect shot, as the new Maiko called Fumiyoshi enters the stage … of what will be, her living quarters, workplace, playground, and way of seduction in the years to come. “It used to be only girls from the same town. With the Maiko – Geishas being in decline, however, many Maiko – Geishas nowadays come from the surrounding districts as well as countryside towns, attracted by the difference in lifestyle, the “glitz & glamour”, the opportunities provided by the men caring for them. Many men take on the role of both a father figure and an entertainer / provider for the young girls here.”
Fumiyoshi. Quite “simply”. In her extravagant & elaborate black Kimono dress, as is traditional, wrapped and tucked around her body in the most complicated way possible I am told – by men, who would often have to get very close to them in the process. Their hair is long down to their bottom, delicately put up as fashion (and tradition) bids. The corners of her eyes are painted red, so as to keep any evil spirits at bay. In the first year of being a Maiko, from fifteen to sixteen years of age, only her lower lip is painted red. After that, both the upper and lower lips are painted bright red. Her face and neck are painted in traditional white make-up, what with …
… her neck painted in a white W, considered especially attractive and ever so seductive to the man watching her bow in front of him.
More Maikos appear “on stage” in order to greet and support the new Maiko in Miyagawa-Cho Geisha town. By now, the exceptional makeup, dress and unique fascination of Oriental beauty has completely drawn me in and put me under a spell. The magic of their appearance works its way on both men and women, I can tell you …!
Each new Maiko is joined by an experienced elder to guide her on her first day as a Maiko – Geisha. It is exceptional not only to watch the young girl make her first steps in wooden sandals the height of 15 centimetres (!), but also to watch the unfailing pace and stoic pride of this gentle, elderly lady who is joining her in a supportive, almost grandmotherly way.
Magic. Pure Magic. I will never forget my moment of magic, when the new Maiko, her companion and I all of a sudden find each other standing alone in a small side street, only within two inches of each other, and hearing her say “Okinii” – Thank you in my direction, thereby acknowledging my presence as a visitor with smiling eyes. “Wow! You are so lucky, Elena. …” Says Dannie with an honest look of appreciation in his face, emphasising just how special my tender bond with this fascinating, foreign world is.
I cannot stop looking. What a presence. What an exotic bird. What a beautiful appearance. What will the years hold for her, I wonder? What is her background and story? Where does she see herself in the future? What does she love most about being a Maiko – Geisha woman? There are so many questions, but also so many answers written in this unique moment of time and space, captured somewhere between the magic of an ancient tradition with modern beliefs and lifestyles of women today. I am fascinated, forever fascinated, to say the least.
Good luck, my dear. You are so young – only half my age. This is your day. The whole world has come to look at you, fascinated by and appreciative of the beauty you have bloomed into. A new Maiko, on the path to providing pleasure in a world whose characters (and egos?) need exactly what you might be able to give them: Peace. Moments of forgetfulness. Moments lost in a dance, in a song, in a good conversation, in the art of enjoying life.
“I will never forget my first interview situation with a Geisha“, says Dannie, smiling, talking to me about his unique research into the whole Geisha culture. “I was totally and utterly fascinated by her presence. Captured. Spellbound. She was so …. Perfect. Gentle. Delicate. Simply delightful! She made me feel so good! In fact, I left without having any of my questions answered … She managed to completely turn the interview situation around! That is the power they have upon us. And they are perfect at what they do, for it is who they are, in keeping with an ancient tradition that continues to mark past & present-day Japanese society over the art of seduction.”