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Vol.01: Tomaro-kun in a Gion teahouse!

⇒1. A chat with the geimaiko
⇒2. Appreciating a Kyoto dance
⇒3. A delicious meal
⇒4. Parlour games, 1: tora tora, 2: konpira fune fune
⇒5. An interview with today's geimaiko
⇒6. How can I visit a teahouse? / Manners and etiquette in the parlour

Kagai, is the deepest and most gorgeous part of culture in Kyoto. When you think of Kyoto, automatically, the maiko and the geiko, come to mind. This is their world. Firstly, to prevent any confusion, geiko are not 'companions', so to speak, nor are they prostitutes. Rather, accomplished in traditional Japanese dance, song and music, they can be said to embody Japanese culture, including the culture of language and decorum.
There are five kagai, or entertainment districts, in Kyoto: Gion-kanbe, Gion-higashi, Ponto-cho, Miyagawa-cho and Kamishichiken. The oldest, Kamishichiken, with a history of over 500 years, is said to have been founded with the destruction of the Kitano-tenmangu shrine, in 1444. Though famous as a place for society ladies and gentlemen to meet, the kagai remain a world veiled to most people even now, due to the unique custom of 'ikkensan okodawari' – refusing walk-in visitors. To give you a tiny glimpse into this world, join Tomaro-kun on his first visit to a teahouse. See here for more about Tomaro-kun.

The kagai are made up of three broad divisions: ochaya (tea houses), shidashiya (caterers), and yakata or okiya ('manors'). The ochaya provide the space, and arrange alcohol, food and people. The shidashiya bring the food to the ochaya. Maiko and geiko belong to, and live in, the yakata, which deploy them to the ochaya. Guests contact the ochaya, and ask for a place to be prepared. The problem here is the system known as 'ikkensan okodawari.' An ikkensan is a first-time visitor. An introduction is required in order to use the ochaya for the first time: visitors must be accompanied by a regular guest. There are many reasons for this system being in place, but it is one thing that has protected the culture and the atmosphere of the kagai for so long. So, having arranged a room in the ochaya, what can we do once we are inside? Follow Tomaro-kun to see.

1. A chat with the geimaiko

Of course, you can enjoy chatting with the geiko and maiko. They may be young, but they have had opportunities to meet people of all occupations, and their conversation is rich. They will never, however, reveal a customer's conversation to anyone else.
To relieve Tomaro-kun's nerves, Kokiku-san (a tachikata: a geiko who specializes in dance), Koemi-san (a jikata: a geiko who plays the shamisen) and Katsumi-san (a maiko), enliven the room with smooth, lively conversation: an accquired skill of all good conversationalists.

2. Appreciating a Kyoto dance

Whatever else they may do, the real work of a maiko is to dance. No-one whose dancing is not recognized can become a maiko, nor can any maiko step up to become a geiko. They must practice day in, day out. Kokiku-san and Katsumi-san's dance begins, accompamied by Koemi-san's shamisen. With its taught strings ringing in the air, the sound of the shamisen transports you, for a moment, to another world. Now is the time quietly to appreciate the geimaiko, and their devotion to practicing every day. Tomaro-kun is captivated by the beautiful kimono and graceful dancing.

3. A delicious meal

Basically, an ochaya is a space for rent. According to the guest's request, the mistress of the ochaya will arrange a number of geimaiko, the drinks and the food. Licking his lips at the previously-arranged Kyoto delicacies, Tomaro-kun calls for drinks. Today it looks as though takoyaki (octopus dumplings) have been delivered as well. There is no particular need to take kaisekiryori (an elegant Japanese meal of many courses). The mistress is flexible, and can also arrange sushi, boxed meals and snacks: anything the guest desires. Tomaro-kun is delighted with his takoyaki.

4. Parlour games, 1: tora tora, 2: konpira fune fune

Traditional parlour games are an essential part of the tea house experience.
There are many types of games, but they are all there to keep the sake flowing.

On this visit, Tomaro-kun is taught the most popular games, 'tora tora' and 'konpira fune fune.'

1: tora tora

Tora tora is 'paper, scissors, stone' played with the whole body. The two players stand on either side of a folding screen. Following the maiko's lead, Tomaro-kun dances the traditional steps to the refrain '♪In the thicket that seems to go for a thousand ri,' and thinks of what action to play.
At the sign of 'hai, douzo' from the geiko playing the shamisen, the two players emerge from the screen that had divided them, show their pose, and decide the winner. Naturally, there are three poses. Based on the story of Kokusenya kassen, the joruri (puppet drama) by Chikamatsu Monzaemon, Watonai (the pikeman), tora (the tiger), and obasan (Watonai's mother), are represented by three poses. Watonai beats tora, tora beats obasan and obasan beats Watonai. Even Watonai, who could kill a tiger with a single blow, must submit to his mother.

2: konpira fune fune

Konpirah fune fune is a simple game in which players compete to take each other's hakama – Japanese-style coasters places under beer and sake glasses. The game requires three actions: players can place their hand on top of the hakama, take the hakama, or put out a clenched fist. If one player holds the hakama, the other player can only put out a clenched fist. If the hakama are on the table, players are free to either take them, or just place their hand on top of them. Players perform these movements in tempo to music. If one player bumps hands with the other, they lose. As the shamisen music gradually speeds up, the split-second decision to take or not to take the hakama gets harder, and the winner and loser are determined.

It looks like Tomaro-kun had a great ochaya game experience and is happy with the close and comfortable atmosphere. Tomaro-kun is optimistic to see more guests come together at ryokans to experience the fun and exciting ochaya games with Maiko.

5. An interview with today's geimaiko

Geiko (tachikata), Kokiku-san

I came to Kyoto at 15, when I graduated from Junior High School. I was raised by a mother who loved kimono, so I naturally became interested in Japanese dance, and started on the path to becoming a maiko. It's now 12 years since I entered the kagai, but I've never thought 'I want to give up.'Some people leave as maiko but I regarded the 'maiko stage' as being necessary in order to become a geiko, and stuck with it.


Geiko (jikata), Koemi-san

In the world of the kagai, it is normal to become a geiko after gaining experience as a maiko, but I entered at 27. Since it is generally only possible to be a maiko as a young girl, until about the age of twenty, I started out as a geiko. There are two types of geiko,; dancers known as ‘tachikata' and shamisen players known as ‘jikata.' I liked traditional Japanese instruments, so I didn't hesitate in choosing the jikata path. One thing that bewildered me is that, in the hierarchical society of the kagai, career takes precedence over actual age. So I have had to speak in honorifics, and to carry bags even for people who are younger than me. For this reason, in this outing, although I am older than Kokiku-san, I still call her by the honorific ‘Kokiku-san nee-san.'


Maiko, Katsumi-san

My desire to become a maiko came purely out of admiration. I had never even met a maiko-san, but determined to become one, knowing only that, ‘in Kyoto, there is an occupation known as maiko.' My home is Tokyo, so for the first year I missed my family and friends, but now I enjoy every day, and am never lonely.

6. How can I visit a teahouse? / Manners and etiquette in the parlour

Out of a policy of wanting to give the finest hospitality, ochaya, even today, cannot be entered without an introduction. Please refrain from contacting ochaya directly. In general, it is not possible for tourists to visit ochaya. There are, however, ryokan to which you can invite geiko-san and maiko-san. Some facilities in this ryokan association even have geimaiko entertainment packages. Ordinarily, arranging maiko-san is very expensive, but some ryokan have plans whereby it is possible to keep expenses down by dividing the cost among several guests. Thanks to these places, ozaseki-asobi, feels a lot more casual and accessible than ever before.
Other opportunities to easily see maiko and geiko are the public performances held in spring and autumn in each kagai. Performances of tranditional arts (tea ceremony, koto, flower arrangement, gagaku court music, kyogen (tradiotional comedy theatre), Kyoto dance, and puppet theatre) are also held every day from March 1 through November 30 at Gion corner (Kyoto traditional performance centre), and here it is possible to enjoy maiko dances.

Finally, we offer the following basic manners and etiquette to help you relax and enjoy your visit.

■Dress code: there is no need to go out in especially formal wear, but please keep to minimum dress standards. Please refrain from wearing T-shirts and jeans. You will also be taking off your shoes, so no bare feet.

■Can I take pictures?: You may bring your camera (including video camera). However, please don't climb into the tokonoma (photo at left) to take pictures, or come up close to take pictures of the geimaiko-san without permission. It is good manners to ask when taking a picture.

■Can I touch the maiko-san?: Absolutely not. All of the kimono, obi, and even tabi and hairpins that the maiko wear are extremely expensive, and borrowed from their mistress, and maiko take extreme care not to damage them or get them dirty. In Japan, we go so far as to say that ‘a woman's hair is her life', so it is important not to touch without permission. The ochaya or the ryokan is a respectable social scene for mature and responsible adults.