Sunday, 11 November 2012

The Mystique of the Geisha

One of the iconic images that can be seen on tourist brochures about Japan is that of the Geisha. These young girls dressed in elaborate kimono, with heavy traditional make-up and sculptured black hair adorned with hanging decorations, appear to represent everything that is traditional in this country. While the image is very familiar, their role in modern Japanese society still remains somewhat of a mystery and to a certain degree an intriguing curiosity to visitors.

While the Geisha community is quite small in Osaka, a quick train ride to Kyoto has often led us to several districts in which they can be seen at various times. Certainly Kyoto is quite unique in this regard and is the place where many of the apprentice Geisha (referred to as ‘Maiko’) learn the art of becoming a traditional hostess. This may involve learning Japanese arts such as dance and music as well as important communication and hospitality skills for their generally male guests. In fact the word Geisha actually means ‘person of the arts’, which suggests something very different to the misguided western notion of their role and the salubrious comforts they may provide. Indeed it is the exclusivity of their establishments and the long-standing trust between their clients that has over time enhanced the mystery that surrounds this small and unique cultural society.

When Jules and I have been walking through the historical Gion district of Kyoto, we have often seen pairs of Geisha (more likely Maiko) walking the laneways between buildings. Well, ‘teetering’ might be a better term, as they are often wearing very tall, steeply angled wooden shoes (called okobo), which combined with the heavily layered kimono, ensure that only tiny steps are possible. They are always immaculately dressed in their brightly coloured kimono’s with ghostly white make-up that covers the entire face except for a perfectly chiseled W shaped area at the back of the neck (regarded as one of the most sensual areas of Japanese beauty). In stepping out into the streets, they inevitably attract a crowd and quickly the cameras are out for those lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. They are of course well aware of the attention they attract and are generally very obliging in stopping to pose for the occasional photo before shuffling off to their destination.

The random nature of their appearance ensures that at most times they are able to go about their business relatively easily, however this is not always the case as Jules found out during a recent visit to Kyoto. It had been announced locally that a small number of Geisha would make an appearance to commemorate the local poet and playwright Isamu Yoshii, so Jules thought that she would investigate. What she found was the sort of paparazzi mayhem that might otherwise be reserved for the arrival of celebrities and movie stars. Such was the appeal of the Geishas that amateur and professional photographers alike could be seen clambering for position, some even bringing step-ladders to see over the anticipated crowds. The ceremony quickly dissolved into camera flashing chaos and the Geishas hastily retreated back to their establishment. With attention like this, it is not surprising that young girls are still attracted to the life of a Geisha. For the Japanese, they are still regarded as national treasures who provide a tangible link to the simple and elegant traditions of their past. For visitors like ourselves, they remain an exotic enigma that symbolizes much of the charm, beauty and mystery of this ancient culture.

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