Geishas are traditional Japanese female entertainers, trained to perform in classical music, dance, games and conversation. Films like Memoirs of A Geisha have popularised geishas in the West, but it was executed in such a way that I felt it fetishised the role, creating misconceptions on what it really entails.
Geishas are by no means prostitutes – something that the fellow media guy I was travelling with seemed not to understand. The crude jokes about how our tour guide (who happened to be a woman) wouldn’t understand how ‘the guys’ would want to ‘visit’ the geisha district was not only distasteful but pure bloody disgusting. I lost my temper and snapped that they weren’t prostitutes, and that he should probably do some research on the topic. #pig
But I digress.
During our time in Kanazawa, we visited Higashi Chaya Gai (Eastern Teahouse District) – one of the best kept entertainment districts from the Edo era. There are three such districts in the city, but this is the largest and best preserved. Since the city escaped bombing from World War II, many of the original wooden teahouses (chaya) are still intact, although there are only two remaining chaya left – the rest have been converted into restaurants, souvenir shops and cafes.
It was a rainy day and the street was deserted. Flanking both sides of the paved road were roughly 20 wooden shops. The facades sported a type of lattice called ‘kimusuko‘ on the first floor, which would shield guests form prying eyes while allowing them to look outside.
There are two chayas still open to the public. One is called Ochaya Shima, which has been converted into a museum, while the other, Kaikaro, is a working teahouse. Admission during the day is 700 yen, which includes tea, but they are closed at night for exclusive functions.
Many Japanese scholars viewed geishas as the ultimate feminists, as they were working for their own bread and board in a time where women had very limited freedom. They were not limited to the traditional roles of a wife and could move around freely without needing consent from a husband. And while some geishas did indeed prostitute themselves, there were others who were strictly entertainers, providing music, dance and conversation.
Are there still geishas today? Yes, but the profession is a dying one, according to our guide Mariko-san. The training is rigorous and difficult (in ancient times, geisha training started as young as three or five years of age!), and many young women no longer find the appeal in it.
Geishas have a distinct appearance, the most recognisable being full white face makeup, charcoal-lined eyes and red lipstick. Hair is often sweeped back into a tall hair-do, accentuated by pins. Mature geishas wear more subdued clothing and makeup (above, background). Wearing a kimono is tedious and often requires the assistance of several people, which is why in ancient times, they employed the services of male dressers and hairstylists.
The interior of the Ochaya Shima.
Is it okay to take photos with a geisha if you spot one walking down the street?
Unfortunately, many geishas have encountered harassment from tourists wanting to take selfies. As such, there are patrols in the districts that prohibit you from stopping the geisha or harassing them for pictures.
When is it possible to see a geisha in action then, if you’re not paying for a session with them? Public performances are held every Saturday at Higashi Chaya Gai where the local geishas will sing/dance and entertain.
Teahouse at night.
GETTING TO HIGASHI CHAYA-GAI
Take the Kanazawa Loop Bus and alight at Hashibacho bus stop. From there, the area is a 5-minute walk away.