Adventures in (Post) Gradland

Thoughts on life after the PhD

Notes from Japan, Part 1: Geisha Safari

Beyond a basic interest in the arts and culture aspect, I’ve never been much interested in geisha.  I suppose I can understand why so many people are fascinated by them–they’re pieces of a rapidly dying tradition, they look as exquisite as dolls, and like hostesses (no, really, not much like hostesses) they exist in that strange realm of women who get paid to be charming and flirtatious, but are not paid explicitly for sex.  At the same time, many aspects of geisha life strike me as offensive in the 21st century–mainly the notion of people paying hundreds of dollars an hour for a woman to play at being hyper-feminine and submissive (yes, they’re also paying for dancing and singing, but it’s a highly cultivated attitude of subservience and daintiness that’s the real draw).  In recent years geisha and maiko have become increasingly rare–few women want the job, and fewer patrons are willing to pay the exorbitantly high price required for an evening of geisha entertainment.  I’ve been to Kyoto six times and never seen a geisha or maiko (it’s estimated that there are less than 200 left in Kyoto).

But last night, wandering the beautifully atmospheric cobblestone alleyway of Kyoto’s Pontocho, with a light drizzle that made everything even more lovely, I spotted not one but two maiko hurrying from one appointment to another.  And suddenly all my cynicism melted away, and I was completely star-struck.

It was a bit like seeing a unicorn, or maybe an A-list celebrity.  They both walked quickly, clutching umbrellas, their wooden geta making that distinct sound on the cobblestones.  When I saw the first one coming straight down the alley I wasn’t sure if she was real–tourists often pay to dress up as maiko and walk around the streets posing for photos.  But the way that this woman moved, and in particular the way she refused to make eye contact or pause, told me that she was the real thing.

I was with a group of twelve undergrads that I’m currently supervising on a trip / economics course in Japan, and I think they were as dumbstruck as I was.  She came and went so quickly, she really was like an apparition.

And then not ten minutes later we saw another one.  Slightly more prepared this time, I herded the students over to one side of the alleyway to get out of her way, and everyone managed to get a good view.

Geisha-spotting has become an aggressive hobby in Kyoto among both Japanese and non-Japanese tourists.  Geisha paparazzi will stand at either end of Pontocho at around 5 pm, when most geisha and maiko are going to their first appointments, camped out with zoom lenses ready.  Lonely Planet actually felt the need in its most recent guidebook to include some geisha-spotting etiquette (don’t treat them like exotic animals on safari, don’t block their path, don’t touch or grab them, don’t chase them, don’t ask them to pose for photos).

Maybe that’s what was so special about this sighting–we were in Pontocho around 9:30 pm, well past the time when one would expect to see geisha.  I certainly didn’t plan to see any.  And though star-struck, everyone was polite, no one chased anyone, and the maiko in question didn’t seem at all troubled or inconvenienced by our presence.  Just two completely unexpected but utterly magical moments in time.

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This entry was posted on July 28, 2010 by in Japan and tagged , , , .
Anne McKnight

writing•translation•scholarship on Japan (and a few other things)

A Modern Girl / モダンガール

tales of travel, research, and life

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