DINNER WITH A GEISHA (Maiko): THE CONVERSATION

As mentioned in my initial post on Kyoto, we enjoy learning the history and culture of Japan. We did not know what to expect with our dining with a maiko/geisha/geiko experience. When the maiko-san originally arrived, our interpreter quickly helped us make introductions.

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She sat down with our family and the conversation began, a free flowing discussion of her life over 2 hours.

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In no particular order, a few highlights from the conversation.

She is 17 and grew up in Nagoya. She chose to become a maiko after going on a school trip to Kyoto. She watched a geiko perform and decided that she wanted to join the profession.

Her upper lip is white as she is a maiko. When she becomes a geiko she will decorate both lips.

Every month she changes her hair decorations. This month I believe it is the willow.

She often entertains school groups and when asked what the funniest question she gets, she laughed and said one question always come up – does she have a boyfriend? (answer is no – not allowed to).

In her first year prior to becoming a maiko it was like an apprenticeship. She learned what the years ahead would be like, and whether she wanted to continue.

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It is not an easy life. She starts the day at 10am with training in the arts. She then dresses, doing her own make-up (it takes 40 minutes) and having assistance from a man who comes to the house daily to assist with the kimono which weighs 10kg. The sash is 7m long. She then visits 20 tea houses that her house is affiliated with, and starting at 6pm does 2 hour hosting sessions until midnight. At midnight she heads home, has a hot bath and a few hours of personal time (reading, TV, music) until she heads to bed at 3am.

She is not allowed to have a cell phone.

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When she contracted with her mama-san to become a maiko, she made a 5-7 year commitment until she becomes a geiko at 20-22 years. The mamma-san pays for everything (training, food, clothing, lodging) and in return takes all profits from the days work.

She lives with 8 other maiko.

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She only does her hair once a week, sleeping with it made like this (which can be awkward)

Because she keeps her hair in this style all the time, she must be careful where she goes when she does have time off as people will recognize her as a maiko. (i.e. no junk food places)

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She only gets 1-2 days off a month and time at New Years to go home.

When asked what do people think at home – she said that she is growing apart from her old friends. Her grandmother has never approved.

If she needs money she has to ask the mamma-san. I got the impression that was not something that was done often or lightly.

She enjoys listening to music on her Sony Walkman. She likes Avril Lavigne.

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Dinners are mostly with business men, although they are starting to see women. If it is after dinner, it often involves karaoke and evenings at bars.

Tourists are always trying to take her picture. She would prefer if they asked first.

She will often take the train to Tokyo for events (entertaining events, Sumo tournaments) fully dressed.

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To formally enter her maiko apprenticeship, she had a ceremony involving her performing for the mamma-san and an important client.

Many maiko do not become geiko (50/50). They decide to go back to their homes, head back to school or get jobs. In effect, starting a different education.

Will she continue on and become a geiko? She didn’t know. It is a hard life.

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Fascinating.

DINNER WITH A GEISHA (Maiko) Part I in KYOTO

This is a very interesting post to write as it elicits mixed feelings.

Part of living in a different culture is that never ending quest to understand, learn and to grow while trying not to use your own cultural biases to judge. After all, perception is reality.

As I have often joked with friends back home, living in Japan is like living on Mars. It is just so fascinatingly different.

The Japanese think differently than North Americans, and different than Canadians. How can it not be the case? Canada is a country of every culture (Asian, European, African) where Japan is comprised of 98.5% Japanese and non-existent immigration. Canada is a country with only a few hundred years of history while Japan is one of the world’s oldest societies, with 3,000 years of history and a clear isolationist bent where foreigners were killed on sight until the late 1800s. Canadians are individuals, in a society where they cut their lives out of the unconquered wilderness with an understanding that merit leads to fortune while Japan is about the group good, where the notion of paying a high performer more than others in the team is at odds with their values.

At a very fundamental level, culture, history, education and values, Japan is different than most other countries in the world and the Geisha is one of those cases.

Prior to leaving for Kyoto, we watched Memoirs of a Geisha and I could not help but find it disturbing on many levels. Obviously the selling of young girls into a brothel and a Geisha house was disturbing as were many of the scenes, but this type of abuse is unfortunately, common around the world.

The uniquely Japanese part that was disturbing was the whole notion of the Geisha. Reading broadly, the information was varied. Prostitution is disputed and the truth hard to determine; in this post it is clearly stated it does not happen yet another quote says that in 1929 3/4 of geisha were prostitutes.  While there is an elegance to the appearance of a Geisha, the information on “what a Geisha is” left us wondering about the profession … Noble undertaking or a veneer hiding a seedy underside of sex for sale?

Nothing made us wonder more than this question: what does it mean that this profession is funded by older business men, where the Geisha’s sole purpose is to entertain them every evening? I find the feminism assertions hard to swallow and cannot think that it is good for marriages.

It is with those questions in mind that we did something that is not common for a gaijin.

We booked a dinner in a wonderful restaurant with a room by the garden, a Geisha and an English interpreter to learn.

We were not disappointed.

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A 3 DAY TRIP TO KYOTO

We spent 3 days in Kyoto recently and it was a fantastic trip, although complex to organize.

I present this itinerary for others, with a few suggestions that I hope help.

TripAdvisor City Guides. If you have not downloaded this application, you need to. I lived on it with my iPhone. It has all of the top restaurants, sites and hotels which you can easily search at any moment via a map. One of the best features is that I “saved” the sites we wanted to see and as we visited, I “checked-in” (turning the post to Facebook option off – no one needs to see we are not at home). At the end of the tour, it provides a complete list by day of what we visited, in chronological order as a journal and provides an area to write notes. Amazing app, available for many cities.

Our trip journal can be found at http://cityguides.tripadvisor.com/checkins/428596. The trip via Lightroom – quite a lot of ground covered.

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We spent 3 days there and that was the perfect amount for us.

The first day was the Shinkansen from Tokyo, arriving at 11AM. Quick check into the Westin, an afternoon of exploring followed by private dinner with a Maiko (geiko/geisha in training) .. and yes, the experience was a once in a lifetime.

The second day went from 9AM to 6PM with a private tour guide hitting all of the highlights of Kyoto. A private guide is expensive but as we found out in Rome and in Egypt, worth every penny as it leads to a very different trip than going from site to site on your own and really not learning anything.

One of our frustrations with Japan is that it is very hard to learn the history and culture due to the language barrier. 3,000 years of isolationist history means that Japan is not really fussed about not sharing what happens at a location. We connected with Kyoto Limousine which was highly recommended by expat friends of ours and is well known among the concierges. Our guide Yoshida-san has hosted many celebrities, princes and even Jean Chretien the former Canadian Prime Minister (I apologized on behalf of Canada) and he was UNBELIEVABLE. At every site he shared the deep history of what had happened there, different religious insights and more history than we could ever retain. It was 9 fascinating hours learning about the real Japan, seeing the best sites in Kyoto (including many hidden gems that are off the beaten path) and truly enjoying his company. He was an amazing host and even followed up our day with an email listing every site we saw with internet links. Just look at the 2nd day of our itinerary and you will see just how much we covered, and more importantly – learned.

On the third day we hit the Monkey Park, explored a shopping area, had lunch and then trained home.

For us, 3 days was perfect.

On the seasons, this is also difficult to understand until you get hold of someone. Here is a rough guide; May brings the cherry blossoms and millions of people. June brings the sun and lots of Japanese children on school trips. It also gets hot, it was 32C and humid while we were there, and we were lucky to avoid rain. July and August are insanely hot but the slow season if you are brave. The fall brings the spring colors, with October and November being the best seasons for viewing the fall colors. We were there in green June and I visualized what it would be like in the fall – beyond stunning.

As an aside, 50M people visit this city of 1.3M every year … 50 million.

As many Japanese will tell you, Kyoto is the cultural center of Japan. A thousand temples, beautiful forests, castles, amazing cuisine, culture (geishas) and incredibly rich in history. It truly was an adventure of a lifetime and I have a few pictures and stories to share ahead.

Hopefully these few simple insights help others. If you can get there, you will not regret it.

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(Golden Pavilion, Canon 5D Mark III, handheld HDR, Canon 28-70mm)