Exclusive Look Into Gion Kobu’s Teahouse—And Will Online Meetings With Maiko Save This Profession?

The global pandemic is not giving up. It is affecting the global economy, but some businesses are suffering more than others. Naturally, the world of traditional Japanese entertainment is facing a lot of problems at the moment. Let’s take a look behind the sliding door of a notable teahouse (お茶屋 ochaya) at the most famous geisha district of Kyoto, Gion Kobu. What is their story and how are they dealing with the coronavirus pandemic?

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Geisha in the Age of Coronavirus

2020, a highly anticipated year, was expected to be groundbreaking, especially for Japan. The upcoming Olympics were exciting not only for the tourists but also for the business owners who invested a lot in one safe bet: the sports games would make the economy great again. The tourism industry, in particular, was thriving in 2019 indeed and 2020 would only accelerate the boom. Because of it, it might have been secure to assume that tourism is an endless gold mine of Japan. The increasing number of tourism-related services is overwhelming, especially in Kyoto and Gion, where even the famous school for geiko is being transformed into another hotel. But then, the most unexpected and terrifying thing has happened—the coronavirus pandemic, described by the Japanese prime minister as “the biggest crisis since the II World War”. What does it mean for the geisha business?

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Nara’s Hanamachi Deserves As Much Attention As Kyoto

If you think of the word geisha you probably automatically think Kyoto. Understandable—Kyoto maiko’s image is one of the most popular symbols of Japan (I even did my own academic study confirming this thesis) and it’s so distinctive that it serves as a pattern of a unified geisha look.
But not far from Kyoto lies a real treasure: a small one-house geisha district in Nara, abundant with culture, traditions, and hope for a bright future. Let’s have a look inside.

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Maiko Toshinaho—New Star of Komaya Okiya

Book a meeting with maiko and/or a guided tour in Kyoto now at geishakagai@gmail.com

At a tranquil August evening, just a night before a typhoon hit Kyoto, I had a privilege to be entertained by a charming maiko Toshinaho of Miyagawacho district. It is one of my job’s perks when a customer requests to meet a geiko or maiko privately. It was quite difficult to arrange an ozashiki in the middle of Obon holidays, but luckily, while the Gion Kobu artists and local businesses are off, the Miyagawacho geimaiko don’t mind the holidays and keep on working. So young Toshinaho of the Komaya house was chosen to be our star that night.

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Ichigiku—a Rising Star of Kamishichiken

Maiko Ichigiku of Kamishichiken wearing a wisteria kanzashi for May

The Kamishichiken district, the oldest of five hanamachi in Kyoto, seems to be so tranquil nowadays. The area lost its most famous faces and business suffered heavily. I visit Kamishichiken regularly, but this place resembles a ghost town sometimes, especially in winter and after dark. For me, Kamishichiken has a very peaceful and calming atmosphere, though. It’s certainly the best place to completely relax, far far away from the busy streets of Gion or Pontocho. Kamishichiken is ancient, quiet, and mysterious. And it gained new blood last Autumn!

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Winter Wonderland and its Demonic Legends – Kyoto’s Kibune Town

I’ve been waiting anxiously for snowy weather over here. This year’s winter in Kyoto, however, is mild and quite warm. There were only four snowy days, including the past weekend, this season. Downtown Kyoto was covered only with a thin, fragile layer of wet snow. But up in the North, there is a magical area called Kibune. (more…)

Summary of 2018—what the year of the dog means for the kagai?

Rainy Yasaka Jinja, phot. Geishakai

Last year was rough. 2018 is marked with tragedies, sorrow, happiness, surprises, big decisions, and even bigger disappointments. Kyoto is still standing strong, though, despite the fact that a kanji for “disaster” is haunting us from the head temple of Kiyomizu complex. Indeed—what I like the most about Kyoto’s culture is its peaceful stability against all odds. But, as this culture greatly relies on weather conditions, sometimes the sacred customs need to be adjusted slightly. For me, personally, the kanji describing last year is “change” and “humbleness”. These two words are imminently related.

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Enchanted time with Fukuna san!

Meeting a real maiko in Kyoto might feel like an impossible challenge. Sometimes, geisha spotting in Gion can be a form of an extreme sport. Also, you can be fooled easily by random tourists dressed up in kimono. While I really don’t recommend chasing maiko on the streets, I’m very happy to discover much better ways for meeting a geisha in Kyoto. Open parties with maiko are now a big thing over here. It’s a fun, budget, and unique experience. The world of traditional entertainment has never been closer.

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So long, Umechie! Saying goodbye to the most famous maiko

I arrived to Kyoto just in time to attend a farewell party of Kamishichiken’s top maiko, Umechie. During her super long career (exactly six years as a maiko!), she became one of the most recognizable faces in town. Her debut was marked by an NHK TV program which, thanks to YouTube, gained popularity all over the world. Three years later, the fans were anxiously waiting for Umechie’s debut as a fully-fledged geiko. But, sadly, it wasn’t meant to be.

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Glittering glamour of the sakkou hairstyle

The goal of a maiko’s career is to become a geiko. As for every other special occasion, this particular event is also celebrated with a meaningful ceremony. It’s called erikae (衿替え/襟替え) or, roughly translated, “turning the collar”. The collar worn with a geiko kimono is indeed different than maiko’s one—completely white, in the front and the back, carefully sewn onto a light pink undergarment (襦袢juban) which replaces maiko’s red robes. It’s not only a visual change but a mental transition as well. After the maiko adapts the new collar, she steps into an entirely different path. From now on, it’s expected from her to be more autonomous, liable, mature, and diligent, as she slowly adjusts to working for her account. It’s the final exam of her art skills, the one she’s been waiting for since she first stepped through the door of her okiya.

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