It’s clichéd to say that Japan is a land of contradictions. But this evening I stepped off one of the fastest trains in the world – a ‘Shinkansen’ bullet train; a white, dolphin-nosed, rocket speed future-mobile that looked like it had been built for space travel – then made my way on foot through the streets of Asakusa, a historic district of Tokyo; past the city’s most ancient temple, Sensō-ji, where citizens can still be found bowing their heads in silent prayer before the ornate gates of black and gold; and along Nakamise-dōri, the eighteenth century shopping street, where vendors present sweet-smelling monjii from traditional stalls under dangling red paper lanterns. My destination: one of Tokyo’s remaining traditional tea-houses, to experience one of the most antiquated aspects of culture Japan has to offer.
I had come to witness a geisha banquet. It was organised by Japan’s first foreign geisha. Australian born Sayuki received permission to train in a geisha house in 2007 as part of an anthropological study, and was later granted authorization to continue as a geisha. She now helps foreigners, and other people with no contacts within the notoriously private and impenetrable geisha world, to meet and dine with the traditional entertainers (geisha translates literally as ‘artist’) by providing the official introduction into the tea house.
Upon entering this traditionally styled building, I was led by a maid through the wooden-framed building to a porch just outside the dining room; as close as a freeloading visitor was permitted to get to proceedings.
Image by jessleecuizon
Through the sliding doors, I watched as the guests arrived and were led to their cushions on the tatami-matted floor, round the table which rose barely a foot from the ground. It lay in the centre of the ample room, the rest of which was left empty in the minimalist style only the Japanese can properly pull off. The three geisha glided in when all were seated. Elaborately coiffed and in full white face makeup, they resembled life-sized dolls. To me they looked fascinatingly foreign. Every movement graceful and disciplined (later I was told that it takes a skilled kimono wearer not to inadvertently show a flash of ankle whilst sitting down – the robes only wrap around and are basically unfastened), they sat and commenced their banqueting duties. Food was served with delicate gestures, sophisticated conversation was had (I assume – I don’t speak Japanese), and in the interval between the main and the dessert, the geisha performed music upon traditional flutes and drums, and danced.
The guests were visibly enchanted. There’s something incredibly intriguing about these women whose costume and deportment render them – to use another Japan-related cliché – utterly inscrutable. Maybe it’s the knowledge that they have each spent years training merely to sit next to one at dinner. I was craving an interview with one of this captivating group, but after the banquet ended they were spirited away (ha!) back to the mysterious ‘flower and willow world’ whence they came. I was left with the memory of rustling silk and reedy flute music, and the scent of sake drifting out through the bamboo-screened window.
Sayuki can be contacted through her website at www.sayuki.net
For more information about meeting geisha visit justjapan.his-j.com/en
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Category: Guest Post