KYOTO--For a first-time foreign visitor to Kyoto, perhaps there is nothing so tantalizing as catching a glimpse of dainty "maiko," or apprentice geisha, as dusk descends on this historic city.
And then there are "geiko," as geisha from western Japan are known. Like maiko, these veterans of the "flower and willow word" ply their skills in the "hanamachi," or flower towns, of which the Gion district is by far the best known.
It is customary for high-class inns and teahouses where geisha entertain to turn away first-time visitors, known as "ichigensan," who have no formal introduction from a regular patron.
As most people know, it is only well-heeled men--and even then an exclusive group at that--who frequent "ozashiki asobi" establishments to be pampered in an art that dates to the early Edo Period (1603-1868).
To most Japanese, this is an elite world where kimono-clad women with white makeup, red lipstick and elaborate hairdos charm patrons with skills learned over many years.
Geisha excel in traditional dance, singing, games, playing the samisen and cultured conversation.
But this hidden world is losing its mystery.
Traditionalists would decry the goings on inside an ozashiki room in Gion Hatanaka, a Japanese inn in the city's Higashiyama Ward one evening in mid-June.
Amid the delicate sounds of samisen being plucked, riotous laughter was wafting from the room.
There were 26 participants, of whom 16 were women. The group was having a ball playing a fast-paced game called "Konpira fune fune," where two players take turns placing their hand on a small object, like a sake cup, to the rhythm of a little ditty that goes, "Konpira fune fune, oite ni ho kakete, shura shushushu." Another popular game was "Tora tora," very much like rock, paper, scissors, only with gestures.
Since 2008, Gion Hatanaka has been offering an 18,000-yen ($226) package deal that allows ordinary visitors to feast on sumptuous Kyoto cuisine during an evening of geisha entertainment in traditional ozashiki asobi surroundings.
The project is co-hosted by the Kyoto City Tourism Association.
Initially, Gion Hatanaka expected to attract mainly foreign visitors. However, the package has become popular among Japanese eager to experience "ochaya" life. Women make up more than half of the new clientele. Ochaya are teahouses where maiko and geisha work.
Kei Kawano, 28, manager at Gion Hatanaka said: "The female guests seem to get along great and have a lot to share with each other."
Yoko Nomura, 31, wanted a break from the daily grind of working for a company, and was looking for an unusual night out. After surfing the Internet, she decided that an evening with geisha would do the trick.
Nomura visited a geisha house with mother from Tokyo.
She had a fun time, and with a streak of bad luck at losing games, she found herself gulping down beer as maiko and geiko cheered her on chanting, “Drink, drink, drink. Sister, you can do it!”
Nomura said her interest was piqued because "geiko and maiko are, of course, beautiful to look at with their lovely faces and kimono."
She did not stop there. "The way they use their hands ... whole demeanor is so feminine. I wanted to study them close up and try to step up my own femininity."
As it turns out, the interaction is two-way.
Tanewaka, a maiko, said in soft-spoken Kyoto dialect: "Female guests take interest in our kimono patterns and our makeup. which changes with the season. It is really flattering."
This year, Kyoto Brighton Hotel in central Kyoto introduced a special campaign for women visitors called "Himesama no maiko asobi," or "Maiko entertainment for princesses," on a trial basis.
It combined traditional "kaiseki" cuisine with dancing by geiko and maiko. It had proved immensely popular.
Ayako Kodama, 28, from the hotel’s planning division explained: "Women love beautiful things. That's the starting point. What was long considered entertainment for men only is proving just as popular with women, perhaps even more so."
Those who crave a taste of ozashiki entertainment, Gion is one of Kyoto's five hanamachi that offer a "Maiko hana no seki" experience.
These are held during the day, so they may not quite qualify as a genuine evening spent with apprentice geisha. But for 4,800 yen a head, visitors can savor maccha green tea and confectionery while watching maiko go through traditional dance moves. Seventy percent of visitors are women.
These experiences are made possible by the support of ochaya establishments, those that do not welcome first-time visitors as a rule.
Ikuko Takeda is the "okami," or head mistress, of "Kaden," an ochaya in the Miyagawa-cho district.
"We definitely see more lady guests these days. We sometimes have women only groups, too. I think it's partly because more women are working, and there's a lot more freedom," she said.
Takeda is one of the pioneers behind the promotion of Kyoto's distinct hanamachi culture and the decision to target women and the younger set.
Like Takeda, a number of teahouse mistresses have taken to blogging and uploading information on their websites, offering insights on seasonal kimono patterns and topics related to teahouse culture.
There are also publications for women that focus on the manners and fashions of maiko.
Kumiko Nishio, an associate professor at Kyoto Women's University who studies Kyoto’s hanamachi from the viewpoint of business management, concluded: "The idea that the hanamachi entertainment districts are upheld by men only has now become a fantasy."
"After the collapse of the so-called bubble economy, we see fewer occasions for ochaya teahouses being used as a venue for exclusive client dinners. But geiko and maiko are finding more opportunities, and discovering a wider audience."
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Note on Hanamachi
Hanamachi, which literally means flower town, are special districts where geiko and maiko, cultured professionals in the field of entertainment such as samisen, dancing and other traditional arts, live and work. Kyoto has five hanamachi districts: Kamishichiken; Gion Kobu; Gion Higashi; Pontocho; and Miyagawa-cho. Collectively they are called "Gokagai" (five flower towns). Ochaya, or teahouses, are establishments that offer the use of the ozashiki, a formal Japanese room, for inviting geiko and maiko for exclusive traditional entertainment. Maiko, which literally means "dancing girl," is an apprentice geisha, usually under the age of 20. They wear flowered "kanzashi" hair ornaments, to express their "innocence." A full-fledged geiko wears kimono with shorter sleeves and a wig in the traditional "nihongami" style. As of May, there were 192 geiko and 73 maiko living in Kyoto's Gogakai.
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