Who Are Geisha?
First things first, who are geisha? Geisha are female professional dancers and musicians. Apprentice geisha, usually aged 15 to 18 years old, are called maiko (舞妓), while the more experienced women are called geigi (芸妓), geiko (芸子—the name more prevalent in Kyoto) or geisha (芸者), the most familiar name of the three abroad.
Kyoto has many historical temples and shrines, and travelers and pilgrims of olden days perpetually flocked to them like today. Around the more famous temples and shrines, such as Yasaka Shrine, Kiyomizu Temple and Kennin Temple, teahouses for visitors emerged in the 16th century and began to flourish in the Edo Period (1603-1868). The teahouses first offered travelers hot water or green tea and sweets as a service, but gradually began to serve sake and snacks. Waitresses also began to play the shamisen, a three-stringed Japanese guitar, and dance to attract visitors and customers. After lots of caterers started businesses nearby, the teahouses began ordering their dishes to offer them to visitors. The performance skills and the art of entertainment of those early waitresses became refined over a long period of history, leading to the professional geisha of today.
What Do Geisha Do?
Geisha are professionals who excel at entertaining guests. Although you may feel nervous to meet one of these mysterious women, they are wonderfully friendly. After coming to the parlor, they will give a brief greeting and inquire each guest for a business card before serving sake. Unfortunately, most of them don’t speak English fluently, but they will nevertheless try to relax you with their friendly smile and gestures.
During the exhibition, the geisha will perform dances and play musical instruments, such as shamisen, before offering you the chance to join them in playing a few parlor games, or asobi. Some of these games include konpira fune fune, omawari-san, tora tora tora and such. They are all pleasant games with geisha, accompanied by music, that'll have you playing and laughing like a child.
In playing konpira fune fune, you'll sit and face one geisha as she puts a small, round cup on a low table between you and her. While another geisha starts playing the shamisen and singing konpira fune fune—an accompanist or music player can also be used—players must tap the top of the small cup with flat hands rhythmically in turn. Both players have an option to pick up the cup instead of tapping. When one picks it up, the other must tap the empty table with a clenched fist. At first, the game proceeds at a slow pace, but the geisha or accompanist gradually accelerates the tempo; you must tap and pick up as quickly as possible. Go ahead and abandon yourself to the game and music.
Where Can You Meet Geisha?
If you'd like to hire a geisha in Kyoto, you'll need to first make a reservation at an ochaya (teahouse) in one of the five hanamachi (teahouse districts, also known as kagai in Kyoto):
• Gion Kobu (祇園甲部)
• Gion Higashi (祇園東)
• Kamishichiken (上七軒)
• Ponto-cho (先斗町)
• Miyagawa-cho (宮川町)
Although present teahouses won’t allow you to call geisha directly, if you have a contact familiar with the system, they can call a teahouse to arrange for the venue, geisha, sake and meals. Furthermore, high-end hotels may be able to assist you with making arrangements. Among the teahouses, many places won't accept reservations from unfamiliar guests. Services such as Gion Hatanaka offer the geisha experience to locals and visitors alike. However, there are a few teahouses that welcome newcomers by appointment as well as some travel agencies that offer a geisha experience.
How Much Does It Cost?
Honestly speaking, hanging out with geisha can cost a large sum of money. There isn't really a fixed-price list, which may be puzzling to customers. The cost roughly consists of:
• Fee for using the teahouse
• Payment for foods and drinks
• Performance fee for the geisha
Of course visiting a teahouse with a number of friends means splitting the cost. Furthermore, teahouses tend to lower their prices in the daytime. When I visited a teahouse in Kyoto with a group of 18 during the day, the payment of each participant was just ¥10,000 (about US$90). This included payment for delicious Japanese dishes and as many drinks as I wanted.
If you dream of spending time with geisha in Kyoto, or even other cities like Tokyo or Kanazawa, remember this tip: visit a teahouse with a number of friends, family or relatives in the daytime.