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.
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.
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.
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.
We, as a media audience, have certainly witnessed quite a few important social issues within the past year. Some of them led to an unnecessary extreme, yet they all raised an important question—how to treat women, minorities, and traditional culture possibly in the most respectful way?
A usual, sugar-coated image of a maiko stands in the opposite of Tatsuko Takaoka’s story. Tatsuko’s—later named Chiyoha, Teruha, and, eventually, Chisho—fate was heavy with tragic circumstances tied in a clichéd metaphor of blood, sweat, and tears. These three eras of her life were stained with fame, jealousy, depression, suicidal thoughts, faith, hope, and unfulfilled love.
Geisha are strongly connected with the traditional Japanese dance, yet some of them choose a slightly different career path. Being a maiko automatically means a commitment to the art of kyomai and making it a priority during the whole education process. However, after a ceremony of erikae artists are free to focus either on dancing or music. Such choice is, most often, quite obvious—normally, maiko attend excessive dance training for few long years, and it’s difficult to become a full-time musician afterward. Some of the hanamachi allow to blend these two fields of interests, and there’s no need to choose only one specialty. Music career in teahouses can establish an excellent opportunity to excel as an artist and utilize natural talents.
First days of December are always exciting within hanamachi. Although it’s slowly getting colder, maiko and geiko get into festive mood regardless. The very first week of the month is exclusively dedicated for kabuki—special “Kaomise/顔見世総見” review is held at Kyoto Minami-za Theatre. It’s, for sure, the highlight of the whole winter season. Kabuki plays during Kaomise gather the finest actors, celebrities, and guests—including geiko and maiko who get seated at the collateral galleries inside Minami-za. The theatre itself is decorated with wooden maneki boards on the facade that create a peculiar program of current performances, as the maneki are decorated with the actors’ names respectively. This year, however, Minami-za is going under seismic-protective construction, so Kaomise was moved to the ROHM Theatre of Kyoto. The maneki plates still can be found at the new location, as many Kyoto-natives cannot imagine the wintertime without a sight of these wooden tabs.
One of the most significant parts of a geisha’s appearance is a thick white makeup on the face and neck. Oshiroi (白粉, lit. “white powder”) is also essential for kabuki actors, nihonbuyo, jiutamai dancers, and other performing artists. While geisha wear this makeup for their everyday engagements, oshiroi is normally considered as a conception used strictly on stage. Performing arts in Japan happen to be connected with creating an individual character, a brand new role of the artist. It’s visible especially among geisha and kabuki actors—they adopt new first names and surnames upon entering the world of theatre and dance. Accordingly, they create a brand new character—connected to the pseudonym—with oshiroi. A dancer’s face has to be still as a mask—and oshiroi allows this kind of an emotional retreat. Sensations are locked in the dancer’s body motion and eyes expression. There’s no place for smirks, tears, nor frowns.
As autumn comes and leaves’ tones turn slowly into orange and red, all of the Kyoto hanamachi get into a festive mood again. October is the month of the sophisticated dance recitals which, unlike April’s Miyako and Kyou Odori, are not that much “touristic”. In fact, most of the tourists may have no idea about these shows, and the audience mainly consists of conscious spectators connected with this unique world of art. Tickets are usually hard to obtain and, if you ask me, maybe it’s better this way. Autumn dances of the Old Capital guard the mysterious aura of the upscale Kyoto entertainment.