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?

The pandemic is thriving all around the world. With no exception, it became a major threat to Japanese society, as well. Geisha in the whole country are struggling, as the number of bookings has gone drastically low. Therefore, online shows are popping up in almost every geisha quarter to keep this profession alive. I got a unique opportunity to organize an online ozashiki with Gion Kobu maiko, too! (ticket info HERE)

In awe of my research for the online event, I decided to contact a renowned teahouse’s proprietress and ask her about the current situation in Gion Kobu. She also kindly shared the history of her establishment with me and explained the confusing rules of Gion. I was very lucky to listen to her story and I am more than happy to translate it into English for you.

Maiko Katsumomo at the Dainui teahouse

I first met the okasan (or okami-san; the owner and proprietress) of the Dainui teahouse in November 2018, a few days after I started working as an English-speaking host of a maiko show in Gion Kobu, created for international tourists. Back then, I was intimidated by her elegance and grace, but I also instantly recognized her as a skillful businesswoman. Indeed—her family has been managing the teahouse for generations, very successfully.

Q: What is the history behind the Dainui (大ヌイ) teahouse (ochaya) of Gion Kobu?
Toshi Murakami (村上斗紫): It was founded by Nui Murakami (村上ヌイ) who was born in the Meiji era, in 1888. She was very respected by the local community, as she acted as a matchmaker for many couples (under the ancient Japanese marriage system). The townspeople used to say: “Murakami-san holds a plan in her heart, but never discloses her intentions”. It means that she was a trustworthy matchmaker.
The successor of the second generation, Chieko Murakami (村上智恵子), is still in good health at the age of 97. Her mother was a geiko of Gion Kobu and some of their relatives served at the Imperial Court. Chieko’s daughter became the top maiko of Gion Kobu, number one for many, many years. Her success influenced other girls from our family to become geiko and maiko at Gion Kobu.
The proprietress of the third generation, Setsuko Murakami (村上節子), won a Grand Prix of the Miss Pacific Ocean pageant. She looked very elegant in the Western-style clothes.
And finally, I am the fourth generation successor and my biggest mission, at the moment, is to confront the coronavirus pandemic.

Q: The pandemic may change Gion Kobu and some of its rules. Which is the most important doctrine of the Gion Kobu teahouses?
Toshi Murakami: Certainly, it is the “ichigen-san okotowari” (一見さんお断り) unwritten rule. Let me explain it, as it is confusing.
According to this rule, the teahouses of Gion do not accept any first-time customers. It has two major principles. First of all, payment is not made on the spot, so it is a matter of trust, like a real credit. Secondly, the ochaya is our home. You would not invite any strangers for a home party, would you?
However, the kind of relationship with the customers I aim for is more like “having a distant relative in Kyoto”.

Q: What is the current situation with the coronavirus in Gion Kobu? Has it changed anything? How we can win with the pandemic?

Toshi Murakami: Personally, I cannot be light-hearted about the coronavirus situation. Currently, I am not told to close the teahouse, however, I decided to keep it closed for now. The virus has not changed anything drastically in the Gion culture, but at the moment, we have to reconsider some things. Because of it, we have to become a progressive hanamachi. For the time being, it is not about winning with the coronavirus, but about coexisting with it.

The rule of “no first-timers”, mentioned by the okami-san, has always been the biggest obstacle for the foreigners who want to get to know and enjoy Gion Kobu’s rich cultural heritage. While it is unlikely to lift this rule for the regular teahouses’ patrons, the pandemic created new opportunities for the people abroad to catch a rare glimpse behind the sliding doors of Gion Kobu’s ochaya.
I have the honor to host, the first in Gion Kobu, virtual ozashiki for foreign guests with one of the most popular maiko. Streaming from a former teahouse with 100 years of history, this event is open for everyone. No prior knowledge about Gion’s traditions is required, as I am willing to explain all of the basic aspects of maiko’s customs and appearance. We are going to admire a tea ceremony performed by the maiko and watch her dance. The final part of the meeting is reserved for your questions for her. Everything for the sake of reviving and promoting the unique and fabulous culture of Gion Kobu, that is suffering much during this difficult time of the coronavirus spread. Let’s meet on August 2 “at” Gion Kobu! We cannot travel to Japan, but we can teleport there easily, thanks to Zoom!

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