My first experience with maiko Kyoto, hanamachi, and dreams
In Japan, there are some places where people can come and go between the dream world and the real world.
It was on January 22nd of 2012 when I stepped there for the first time.
It was the coldest time of year.
I even felt that the cold air was the spirit of the dream world which was still surrounding me.
I will never forget the day.
Writer and the director of J ATOLL Inc.( http://www.jatoll.com)
Graduated from Waseda University. After working for a publishing company, she became a correspondent of “Number” (Bungeishunjusha) and an independent writer. In 1999, she established J ATOLL, a magazine advertisement company.
She expanded her business to the internet since 2010 and has been involved in public publication and marketing which adopt the style of the mixture of paper media and websites. She is now preparing “President Japan”, which is the project that supports Japanese CEOs.
I belong to the Creative Destruction Club, which is chaired by Shota Harada and Daisuke Sawa. They are young and genius business people in the net industry. Mr. Sukemoto Mitsuo, who organizes the Maiko Club, is their senior. He set an extracurricular activity “A day with maiko in Kyoto” through his special connection. It was a special and surprising activity. Going to the Kyoto Racecourse with maiko during the day and playing at a teahouse in the evening. Along with this activity, the ordinary seminar of the Creative Destruction Club was scheduled at Kyoto.
When I left for Kyoto in the morning, the weather was not good. By the time I arrived at Kyoto Station, it was drizzling now and then. The old capital showed a dim landscape. It looked like a nostalgic monochrome photo to me.
The ordinary seminar was scheduled at one o’clock in the afternoon and the special activity “A day with maiko in Kyoto” was on the next day. I took the first Shinkansen train of the day so I had some hours until the seminar. First, I went to the New Miyako Hotel, which was my lodging for the night.
It is located in front of the Hachijoguchi exit of Kyoto Station. I checked my baggage there then enjoyed the sightseeing of Kyoto as much as possible. I went to the neighboring Toji Temple and ate Kyoto style soup with rice cake at a famous restaurant“Hashitate”.
The seminar started in the afternoon. Members are always focused and full of energy. The seminar lasted until the night, as always.
After that, we enjoyed the usual get-together. We moved to a restaurant of Miyagawacho, which is one of the Gokagai or the five hanamachi of Kyoto. We drank and talked a lot then moved to Daiichiasahi, a popular Kyoto style ramen restaurant. It was nearly eleven o’clock in the evening but I saw a long line outside the restaurant. I joined the line then Mr. Sukemoto suddenly talked to me.
“Tomorrow, I have to go to the Kyoto Racecourse before other members to get the reserved
seats. So I want you to pick up and escort two maiko instead of me. I will arrange a car and send it to your hotel.”
It was an unexpected assignment but made me exited. I can get two maiko all to myself on the way to the Kyoto Racecourse. The joy was bigger than the pressure of the assignment.
Picking up maiko
The next morning, a car came in front of the hotel on time. It was about twenty-minute drive from the hotel to the teahouse of Kamishichiken, where maiko were waiting.
There are five “hanamachi” or “flower towns” in Kyoto. Kamishichiken, Gion Kobu, Gion Higashi, Pontocho, and Miyagawacho. They are collectively called “Gokagai” or “the five flower towns”. Gion is the most famous but it is said that Kamishichiken has the highest status. The town is the most exclusive hanamachi and shuts out the wave of tourism. However, I did not know such a thing then. I was just listening to the driver as he talked about tourist spots and enjoyed the landscape outside at ease. But at the moment the car arrived at Kamishichiken, my tourism mood changed.
Ten teahouses were lined along a narrow street in which only a car can pass. All of them had similar black walls. The driver looked for the teahouse on the map in advance but he was not able to find “Umeno”, the teahouse we were going to.
“It is almost the time. Is it OK to call the teahouse directly…?” He looked back to me with a baffled face. I had thought that the driver would do everything until I went to Kyoto Racecourse. But I finally realized that I had to manage everything. I got out of the car and started walking to look for the teahouse. About some dozen meters away, I finally found the plate on which small letters “Umeno” was written.
Thinking back now, it was the time and place where I was separated from the real world and moved to the dream world. I had some knowledge about the hanamachi of Kyoto through the movie “Memoirs of a Geisha” and some books. But it took a lot of courage to enter a high-class teahouse alone and it was for the first time in my life. Teahouses of Kyoto are exclusive and they don’t welcome “first-time customers”. That said, I had no choice but to go. I took a deep breath and pressed the bell of “Umeno”.
After for a while, the lattice door was slid and a girl poked her head out of the door. I thought that she must be a trainee maiko. Then the Mother of the teahouse appeared. I was upset a little but greeted politely. After that, two maiko showed up. At the moment, the air suddenly changed to a cheerful and lighthearted mood. The crisp air of the real world disappeared and I deeply entered into the dream world.
“Nice to meet you” the maiko who showed up first said with adorable smile. I told her to get in the car but she looked back and said “My big sister…”
In the world of maiko, a day’s seniority makes a big difference. Senior maiko are called “onee-san” or “older sister” by junior maiko. Strict hierarchy exists. Perhaps this maiko wondered whether she could get in the car before her senior maiko. Good customers can tell the difference of senior and junior maiko by the half callers and the decoration of hairpins. But I did not know about such things then. She had no choice but to get in the car first. The most important thing is following the customer.
Even now, I can still recall the scene clearly. Customers are required to have the good knowledge and manners when they come to hanamachi. It was the moment when I understood why teahouses do not welcome first-timers. I should have known the difference between the older and younger sisters and taken care of the senior maiko first. I was not a good customer.
「Young girls dress much more ornately than older women, you see, which means brighter colors and showier fabrics, but also a longer obi. A mature woman will wear the obi tied in back in a manner we call the “drum knot,” because it makes tidy little box shape; this doesn’t require very much fabric. But a girl younger than around twenty or so wears her obi in a showier fashion. In the case of an apprentice geisha, this means the most dramatic fashion of all, a darari-obi—“dangling obi”—knotted almost as high as the shoulder blades, and with the ends hanging nearly to the ground.」
“Memoirs of a Geisha” Arthur Golden
Going to a horse racecourse for the first time with maiko
It was never a smart behavior. But two maiko got in the car and we set off. It was about 50-minute drive to the Kyoto Racecourse. I sat on the navigator seat and looked back to introduce myself to the two maiko. They also introduced themselves saying “I am Umeyae” and “I am Umechiho” and handed out their business cards. Their professional names were written on them.
I got two maiko to myself in the small space of a car. I was in a dream world and started talking with no thought. “I wanted to go to Fushimi Shrine but I did not have the time. In the movie of ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’, the heroine went to the shrine and prayed to be a maiko.”
Then the senior maiko Umeyae said “I have not been to Fushimi Shrine”. Umechiho, the junior maiko said”I have been to the thousand torri gates halfway when a guest took me there”. On top of that, they said that they had heard of the movie “Memoirs of a Geisha” but not seen it. I was a bit surprised then I realized that I had the assumption that maiko should have known a lot about Kyoto. But maiko cannot go anywhere without their customers.
Later, I knew that maiko have two holidays a month. But what they do on holidays is usually strolling around Kamishichiken in kimono. They seldom go out for movies or shopping. On their working days, they practice dance and music and go to ozashiki rooms. On top of that, junior maiko have a lot of chores. And needless to say, I was told “We have never been to a horse racecourse”.
「What makes a geisha’s training so difficult isn’t simply the arts she must learn, but how hectic her life becomes. After spending all morning in lessons, she is still expected to work during the afternoon and evening very much as she always has. And still, she sleeps no more than three to five hours every night.」
“Memoirs of a Geish” Arthur Golden
It was the first time for me to go to Kyoto Racecourse. I thought maiko knew something about the racecourse and I could follow them. But again, I came to know that I had to handle everything here…
I had to make arrangements after we got to the racecourse. The first thing I did was calling to Mr. Sukemoto. He said that he was not able to get out of the reservation area so he wanted me to bring the maiko to the entrance of the reservation area through the entrance of the racecourse. Anxiety came to my mind for a moment. A racecourse is a worldly place which is utterly opposite to the dream world of hanamachi.
Can I guard the two maiko? But my mind was in the dream world then. I had nothing to worry about. As soon as we reached to the racecourse, the driver told me “Go up the stairs. Then you will see the entrance of the reserved-seat area.” I lead the two maiko and slowly climbed up the stairs and looked around. I saw some people who showed a curious look on their face and took photos of maiko but did not find something that looked like the entrance. The two maiko watched me with worried face. I was upset and even thought that my dream might finish here. But at the time, I saw Mr. Sukemoto waving his hand in distance.
This is my first experience of escorting maiko. I somehow managed the assignment but I did not handle it well. However, we managed to join Mr. Sukemoto and others. I was relieved and changed my mind to enjoy the dream world after that.
Fascinating flowers bloom at the horse racecourse
Some male members of the club were already there. I asked them to be with the senior maiko Umeyae. Umedhiho, the younger maiko, and I sat down in a box seat which is set a little away. Fortunately, a club member who was familiar with horse races was in the same box. He taught us how to fill in the betting ticket. I decided to buy the “win” ticket, which is the simplest one. Umechiyo looked for horse names that sounded strong or watched the marks in a racing form for me. Her dangling hairpin swung every time she tilted her head.
I told her “I hope your guess is right” and bought the ticket. She said “Thank you very much, onee-han (older sister)”with a smile. How adorable!
I even imagined staying in the dream world and not going back to the real world. It was only natural for me to think of such a thing at this time. Actually, there are many movies and novels that describe such people since the old days.
Meanwhile, other club members came and joined us. We were very excited and watched horse races with maiko. We moved to the stands outside and bought beer together. All people watched Umechiho and us. She was a beautiful flower blooming in a drab horse racecourse.
The main race was over and the first part of the seminar was successfully finished. Before going to “Umeno” of Kamishichiken, which is the stage of the second part of the seminar, we joined Umeyae and other members. They were on the different seats.
But I notice her face a bit rigid. Suddenly, I felt uneasy. I was the only woman in the club members this time. But I never went to see how she was. She might have been worried being left alone surrounded by men in the horse racecourse and it was the first experience for her to go to such a place. Again, I felt how careless I was.
Enjoying ozashiki play
On the way to “Umeno”, I was reflecting on my behavior. But as soon as I reached there, the euphoria of the dream world dispelled such mood.
All other maiko and geigi welcomed us in the ozashiki room. They walked between us to pour sake and we enjoyed taking photos with them. They are real professional ntertainers.
They walk soundlessly and gracefully. Their movement was almost like flying butterflies.
I met geigi for the first time in my life here and I was really fascinated by their charm. Compared with maiko, the appearance of geigi is conservative but because of that, they have mature atmosphere. They were elegant but their skillful talk made me laugh a lot.
“In all of these classes, music and dance were only part of what we learned. Because a girl who has mastered the various arts will still come off badly at a party if she hasn’t learned proper comportment and behavior. This is one reason the teachers always insist upon good manners and bearing in their students, even when a girl is only scurrying down the hall toward the toilet. When you’re taking a lesson in shamisen, for example, you’ll be corrected for speaking in anything but the most proper language, or for speaking in a regional accent rather than in Kyoto speech, or for slouching, or walking in lumbering steps. In fact, the most severe scolding a girl is likely to receive probably won’t be for playing her instrument badly or failing to learn the words to a song, but rather for having dirty fingernails, or being disrespectful, or something of that sort.”
“Memoirs of a Geisha” Arthur Golden
Then I noticed that Umechiho was not in the room. I wondered why but other maiko started dancing in the room. I was attracted by the dance and stopped thinking of her. After the dance, we enjoyed “Tora Tora”, which is the traditional ozashiki play. It was the zenith of the dream world.
But I was behind the scheduled a lot at the time. The last Shinkansen for Tokyo was 9:34 p.m. It was already nine o’clock.
Rushing in bare feet in the night Kyoto
I was panic stricken. I asked to call a taxi and headed for Kyoto Station with other members. We were able to slip into the station if we straight went to the station. But I left my baggage at the hotel. I got off the taxi near the hotel, took off my high heels, and started running in the dark Kyoto.
I rushed into the hotel lobby, received my baggage from the frightened cloak staff, ran to the station, passed the ticket gate, and climbed to the platform. Then I suddenly noticed people saw my bare feet with curious eyes. It was the point which made me go back to the real world from the dream world.
Luckily, I was able to catch the last Shinkansen. In the train headed for Tokyo, I was thinking about Umechiho. She did not appear at the ozashiki room in the day. She got in the car before her senior maiko. She enjoyed drinking beer at the racecourse.
I even imagined that she might be scolded because of such behavior.
There is no way to dispel such anxiety in the real world. I have to visit the dream world again to quell my anxiety.
To make it realize, I will have to work hard and succeed in the business to visit hanamachi with a lot of money someday.
I will need some experience to be a smart customer, too. From now on, I set it as my objective in the real world. Hanamachi is the place where people can freely come and go between the dream world and the real world. But I must get the freedom to go there by myself.
Last but not least, I thank Shota Harada and Daisuke Wada, the organizers of Creative Deconstruction Club, and all club members for sharing the seminar “A day with maiko in Kyoto”. And I am deeply thankful to Mr. Sukemoto earnestly for giving me the wonderful assignment of escorting maiko.