What Would You Ask a Geisha, if You Had the Chance?

“What would you ask a geisha, if you had the chance to interview one?”

Fukiko asked me the question, and I passed it on to AWR community members in November, the day before I was to do such an interview in Kyoto.

The queries came back fast and furious; they included:

  • How many geishas are in Japan and how accepted are they in this day and age?
  • What is the most rewarding aspect of the ‘job’? And, what is the most laborious?
  • How does she describe herself on her business card?
  • What changes have there been to the Geisha traditions in recent years?
  • Is it a self-chosen profession or one that is chosen for her?

(What would YOU ask a geisha? Send me your question, maybe I have the answer somewhere in my interviews…)

Like millions of people around the world, and many of the AWR members who answered my call, I have read the beautifully written Memoirs of a Geisha, by Arthur Gordon, which is said to be the fictionalized account of one woman’s experience of the hidden, mysterious and fascinating world of the geisha.

And like many who have read the account, I wondered how much of it was fact and how much was fiction. This interview would be my chance to find out.

Getting There

Fukiko Teramachi, who owns and runs the serene Japanese guesthouse in which I stayed while I was in Japan (see more here), arranged the mid-afternoon interview in Kyoto. We drive into the city on the morning of the interview, from the small village Fukiko calls home, for a day full of activity.

japanes_greasy_spoon_small.jpgWe do some obligatory sightseeing before lunch, and then dine at the Japanese version of a greasy spoon, sitting opposite each other in a private booth as our food cooks on a grill built into the table between us.

We then traverse Kyoto’s famous Gion district, down several small lanes lined with charming restaurants and shops, to get to the teahouse at which the interview will be held.

Meiko (geishas in training; pronounced my-ee-ko and often spelled maiko), and geisha come out mostly at night, but we are fortunate to spot one of the elusive creatures, exquisitely coiffed, kimono-ed, and camera-shy, gliding toward us on our post-lunch stroll.

modest_small.jpgAs we approach, she stops, slips into an alcove, and modestly turns her back to us before I can capture her beauty full on. She continues on her way as soon as we walk past, perhaps on her way shopping, to visit a friend, or to an afternoon rendez-vous. The split-second near-encounter fuels my anticipation for what is to come.

At The Teahouse

We reach the teahouse a little early, so Fukiko and I sit on a bench outside until the appointed time. We knock on the door at the stroke of two (I’m not prone to sweeping generalizations, but, as a nation, the Japanese are impossibly precise).

A few moments later, we’re ushered in and up a narrow staircase to a tatami-ed room to await Mother, the woman in charge of the teahouse, as well as the geisha and meiko therein.

Mother arrives shortly after, dressed, much to my surprise, in a green tracksuit and sporting not a spot of make-up on her stern face. She kneels before us in the traditional Japanese way, and we start to chat….in a manner of speaking. I don’t speak Japanese, Mother doesn’t speak English, so Fukiko translates for us (as she soon will with Kiku ne, the 18-year-old meiko Mother has chosen for our interview).

The conversation with Mother, which lasts for about an hour, is a muddle of me asking questions, Mother talking at speed, Fukiko doing her best to translate simultaneously, me asking for clarification on just about everything, Mother repeating at an even more astonishing rate, Fukiko translating some more…you get the idea.

Thank God I’m recording it all, I think to myself.

Ironically, when I play it back later, it’s even more confusing than it was on the day. The answer to the simple question: “How many geisha and meiko are there in Kyoto?” is either 1,500 and 200, 200 and 40, 40 and 8 respectively, or none of the above – take your pick!

No Bowl of Cherry Blossoms

Japan may be famous for the magnificence of its cherry blossoms, but what does come across quite clearly in the tortuous interview with Mother is that the life of a meiko, as she trains to become a geisha, is no bowl of cherries.

She herself was a geisha for some 20 years, and her daughter followed in her footsteps. With that kind of experience, I’m sure she’s well equipped to teach aspiring geisha everything they need to know.

Training includes dancing, music, tea ceremony and, for those who are not Kyoto-born, learning the notoriously difficult Kyoto dialect, which is expected of any geisha worth her salt.

Mother pays for the apprentices’ training, their room and board, and, most importantly, the unbelievably beautiful kimonos, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars each and take forever to put on – I know from experience, Fukiko dressed me in one of hers one morning while I was there. (You can listen to my experience and see the pics here.)

The donning of the kimono and everything that goes with it is an involved process. I can’t imagine how long it must take to apply the highly stylized make-up, and produce the complex hair arrangements.

One thing for sure, I feel certain that Mother that would be quite capable of reducing anyone tears, so dispassionate is she about her profession and the young women for whom she cares.

Heaven knows how 18-year-old Kiku ne, who seemed such a sweet and gentle soul, has survived two years already. It must be the dream she has, to be a geisha, that sustains her day in and day out…

This is part 1 of what I think will be (when I finally finish it!), a three-part interview with this lovely young meiko.

Part 2 is here.

See wikipedia for excellent informtion on meiko (or maiko) and geisha. Well worth reading if you’re interested.

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