Kisarazu 「木更津」 was once home to numerous ryotei, establishments where accomplished geisha performed stylized dances, played traditional instruments, sang, served sake and provided entertaining conversation. We were supposed to meet a geisha there in the late morning but due to some mix-up in the arrangements, the geisha wasn’t available. I’ve never met a real geisha in person as you’ll either need to be rich or have a fat business expense account to do so, thus was a little disappointed when I heard the news.
After some negotiations by the tourism official who accompanied us, we learnt that the geisha would be meeting us at our hotel later that night…..
…..and later that evening, we were introduced to Momiji, whose name literally translates to “autumn leaves”, and she entertained us with several songs on her shamisen 「三味線」.
We had a Q&A session after the performance and Momiji explained that karyūkai 「花柳界」, “the flower and willow world” of the geisha, is divided between the western and eastern parts of Japan. In Kyoto, the geishas are more elegant, refined and poised. On the other hand, the ones in Kisarazu are fashionable and more sophisticated.
It is extremely difficult to preserve this Japanese tradition as the younger generation today are followers of western culture so not many are willing to learn this trade. Thus, the geisha profession is in danger of becoming a thing of the past by the next century or perhaps even the next decade!
When asked how long it would take to train to be a geisha, we were told that it takes about 2 years to learn how to dance but learning how to play an instrument like the shamisen is difficult as it doesn’t have any frets. The koto 「箏」 can be mastered within 3 days but learning the shamisen takes about 3 years! Momiji took 2 years to master it, however it was an arduous process and she divulged that she kept biting her hand during her period of training.
She also let on that the reason why she plays the shamisen is because she doesn’t think she is as pretty as the other geishas.
Apart from entertaining guests with song, dance and music, geishas sometimes drink sake with their guests over light conversation and games may be played as well. These games are creatively thought up by the geishas using whatever items are available in the room and depending on the size of the room (which is usually quite small).
I was hoping that she would demonstrate the traditional game of jan-ken-pon, a Japanese version of “rock, paper, scissors”, but that didn’t happen. Instead, she demonstrated a different game using a zabuton 「座布団」 and the rule of the game is that both you and the geisha will stand on opposite edges of the same cushion with your backs towards each other, then some catchy phrase is recited, at the end of which you lean forward and that results in your behind jutting out backwards at the other person. The objective is to try to butt the other person off the cushion and the game ends once one party steps off the cushion. You can choose to thrust your pelvis forward to avoid getting butted or you can try to butt the other person out (careful strategy may be required! LOL…). It was really funny watching a demonstration of it.
Although geishas exist in Chiba Prefecture, their numbers are few and we learnt that there are 3 in Chiba city and 10 in Kisarazu.
One can get to meet geishas over dinner at a ryotei but prior reservations are required. Check with your hotel reception or the ryotei on how the booking can be made.
Due to the limited number of geishas and their varied talents, there aren’t many shamisen players so you’ll need to be specific when make your request, otherwise you may end up watching only dance performances by the geisha.
It was definitely an interesting experience meeting Momiji but I have yet to unravel the mysteries of the “flower and willow world”. Now that I’ve met a geisha from Chiba Prefecture, I wonder when I will have the opportunity to meet real geishas from Kyoto?… (i.e. there are many costume rental shops and photography studios in Kyoto and tourists patronise these shops/studios to transform themselves into maikos/geishas for the day and walk the streets of Kyoto so if you meet any maikos/geishas along the streets during the day, chances are they would most probably be tourists in disguise! This activity seems to be quite popular with Japanese tourists who hail from other parts of Japan. Foreign tourists who happen to bump into these wannabes wouldn’t be able to tell and assume they are the real thing, especially if there is a language barrier and you can’t understand each other! LOL…)
For more information (in Japanese only):