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.
In 2018 it became clear that Umechie is going to retire. The exact date was only a matter of question. Umechie’s best friend (and the most popular geiko in Kamishichiken town), Katsuna, left the profession at the end of August. Chie-chan followed her in late September. Her sweet personality and attitude are loved by many people, even those who never had an opportunity to meet Umechie in person. But it’s not a surprise—Umechie’s warm heart beams through the photographs.
As Umechie is cherished by everyone, Tondaya shop in Nishijin ward (a neighborhood located next to Kamishichiken) kindly organized an open farewell party for her fans, customers, and supporters. It wasn’t just another random gathering. Every single guest knew that it’s an ultra rare and special occasion. I must admit it was bittersweet. We were all teary at first, but once Umechie showed up in the room, the tension went down and we all seemed to forget that she’s leaving this week. She’s so good at entertaining people! All guests left the party with bright smiles on their faces.
The celebration was divided into two parts (guests could attend both or only one). The first part, tea ceremony, had to be moved to a larger room and took two turns. Soon after my arrival at Tondaya, I could hear a gentle bell sound coming from the street. We all held our breaths. Here she was—stunningly beautiful, delicate, and lovely. Dressed in a lilac purple kimono and contrasting obi belt, with a charming silk bellflower in her hair. This outfit perfectly suited a sunny September day.
The tea ceremony began. Umechie prepared a few cups of matcha herself. She carefully chose the guests to serve for. I was the lucky one—I think she particularly liked my dress which she complimented later three times. I need to admit that the tea was especially tasty. Usually, I’m a bit disappointed with a bitterness of matcha, yet this special bowl had an excellent taste without any bitter flavor.
Some guests left after the tea ceremony and complimentary photos. Those, who decided to stay for the ozashiki asobi part, were asked to wait in the second room. While Umechie was hosting the last turn of the tea ceremony, a Tondaya proprietress (Mineko Tanaka) taught us how to sing the songs of Tora Tora and Konpira Fune Fune games. She even handed us some copies of the lyrics, both in Japanese and English!
Umechie came back to us roughly after 20 minutes. She helped the staff to unfold a gold screen and informed us that she’s going to perform two dances—”Hagi Kikyo” (“萩桔梗”) and “Gion Kouta” (“祇園小唄”). The first dance is a seasonal one, usually performed in autumn or late summer. With the Autumn Equinox today and a bellflower kanzashi in Umechie’s hair, “Hagi Kikyo” was splendid to observe.
The golden screen was unfolded, Umechie bowed in front of us, ready to begin the spectacle. She was bowing quite longer than usual… suddenly, it turned out that a tape with “Hagi Kikyo” song wasn’t working! I could see her laughing face, pointing to the floor. After few minutes she gave up on bowing and decided to fix the tape herself. And this is what I love about Umechie the most—she’s not full of herself. It’s otherwise. She’s very humble, down-to-earth, and natural. This is how she conquered our hearts.
Ozashiki games started straight after the amazing performance. Umechie folded the gold screen and announced that she wants to play Tora Tora with us. Once again she picked me from the crowd. I wasn’t super fond of this idea—my Japanese is still awkward and my shy personality doesn’t necessarily help in such cases. I had no choice though. I couldn’t refuse as she smiled at me and said “onesan, dozo!” (“older sister, please!”).
In Tora Tora game, players need to mock one of the three characters—a grandma, a tiger, or a spearman. The grandma slaps the spearman who kills the tiger. Yet the last one eats the granny. If the players choose the same character, the whole game goes on. It’s finished when one player picks a stronger role.
I decided to be the tiger. And it seems that I ate poor Umechie who adopted the role of obachan! Although my moves were lousy and my Japanese sucks, I still had tons of fun. She didn’t let me feel uncomfortable. And I really appreciate that!
I won the game and my prize was a shot of nihonshyu. I was a bit surprised how strong the liquor was, even though I’m quite used to drinking pure vodka at the parties. Sadly, I couldn’t finish the whole glass and probably others could see the confused expression on my face. Maybe I won Tora Tora, but I lost the battle with this small glass of alcohol.
Next came the Konpira Fune Fune game. There were more volunteers for this one, so I gladly watched the encounters and their surroundings. I noticed that some pedestrians stopped for a while at the street, to peek inside Tondaya (it has an open display) and catch a glimpse of our party. It was so loud outside. Zuiki festival happened to cross this narrow street a few times, so our meeting with Umechie was interrupted from time to time by the folk music and hearty screams. The atmosphere was a bit surreal and my head was heavy from the smoke of incense burning in Tondaya’s nostalgic garden.
All of a sudden, a distinctive face in the back caught my attention. “Oh… the mayor of Kyoto came over!”—I whispered to my friend. Indeed, Daisaku Kadokawa, accompanied by two extremely elegant ladies, entered the store. It was a huge surprise for Umechie. She jokingly asked the mayor if he would like to play Konpira Fune Fune with her. However, instead of playing the game, he grabbed a spare glass of sake and made a toast, thankful for her career.
The party was almost over. We had more than two full hours with Umechie and we almost forgot that we need to go back home at some point. But she had more stuff for us. She prepared souvenirs to honor her retirement. I also had a gift for her. I brought her a plushie stork and a small bag of Polish sweets. She was amused with the stuffed toy and showed it to all of the guests! I really hope she likes the rest of her present as well.
Umechie, goodbye for now. I hope we can meet again someday, somehow. Please stay happy and healthy. Good luck with your new life!