A night with geisha
Have you ever played janken (rock, paper, scissors) with a geisha? She’s tough! Especially after several drinks and a game involving simultaneously spinning around and hitting a taiko drum. Hello, my name is Nick and I’m an ALT teaching English in Uchinada. There are no geisha in San Francisco, well at least of the traditional variety, so I was very excited to have this opportunity.
Published: March 15, 2011
and Bright Red Lips
The evening began at a small ryokan (Japanese-style Inn) in Kanazawa. Upon entering the ryokan, I took off my shoes and went upstairs to sit at a quaint tatami mat floor with several short tables full of dishes made from locally caught fish and grown vegetables. The audience was mostly men, but there were also a few women equally anxious to see the upcoming geisha performance. Four exquisitely dressed women came out, two young geisha, and two experienced entertainers. From afar the most striking characteristics of a geisha are her white makeup and bright red lips painted perfectly with a small, almost heart shape at the tip of her mouth. Also, her striking jet-black hair is wrapped largely around the sides and combed into a large wooden pin prominently at the crown of her head.
Before spoiling the details of the night, let’s quickly define who geisha are. In traditional Japanese society and history, the geisha ruled the pleasure quarters.
Through dance, song, music, calligraphy, or many other skilled arts, geisha are highly cultivated female entertainers who have won the hearts of Japanese for hundreds of years. Historically, the carefree style of geisha showcasing their skills contrasted the traditional role women played as modest caretakers of home affairs. Although they may not play the same role in society today, we can still occasionally see maiko-san (geisha in training) briskly walking the streets of Japan. Meeting a geisha in person is a lucky and rare treat.
While the drinks were being served I had the opportunity to ask a geisha about how she entered the profession. She explained that she was working as an office lady and one day decided to ask a geisha house about this trade that she knew very little about other than the basic images proliferating places like Kyoto.
She began to practice every day anywhere from 3 hours to the whole day, from morning to night. She explained that she would sometimes cry from the pressure and severity of her elders to so elegantly perfect the subtle art of geisha entertaining.
She joked that she didn’t see the sky for the first year because she was so busy shamefully bowing all of the time. After two years she can now entertain guests and serve alcohol, but she is still learning how to play stringed instruments like the shamisen and koto as well as sing traditional songs.
While listening, I got the chance to look at and later ask questions about her kimono. It was hand-painted silk with colorful shades of pink, purple, and yellow adorned with traditional motifs of plum flowers, pine trees, and bamboo. She explained that local artists make them and that this was the only one like it.
I eagerly participated
when it was my turn
Once the drinks were served, the formal entertainment began with the two entertainers sitting in the back, one playing a shamisen and the other singing, while the two geisha began a dance involving conscious movements of opening and folding painted fans, known as nihon-buyoh in Japanese. They then brought out a large standing taiko drum and randomly selected audience members to come up to the front and play with them kneeling and hitting a smaller flat drum twice and the standup drum once.I eagerly participated when it was my turn, yet the magic of the geisha, with her exceptional beauty, femininity, and charm, made it difficult to focus on the music. Her eyes fluttering and looking at me with a gentle smirk, I kept thinking that every aspect of her character and look was perfect. I probably kept beat ok, but know that I blushed the whole time.
After I sat down and resumed composure a janken spinning taiko game ensued. It consisted of the same drum, but audience members would stand next to the drum and janken one of the geisha.
Whoever lost would spin around and hit the drum. Three strikes and you’re out. I didn’t come prepared for janken battling and only lasted three rounds, but some of the others did pretty well. Not surprisingly, nobody actually beat the geisha. The room was full of music, laughter, and a jovial spirit. The final game digressed into a leg splitting affair of more janken. This time the loser would have to edge their feet outwards, heel then toe, slowly opening their legs into the splits! Where I previously thought the geisha were poised and gentle, this was no more. They were competitive - yet still forever lovely. One geisha stretched her legs so far that her beautiful hand-painted kimono looked as though it would soon tear! Everyone was rolling with laughter and the continuous pulse of shamisen, taiko, and janken noises made for an unforgettable experience.
Everyone went back to their seats and we were handed one paper plate and bowl. I was very confused, yet the host explained what to do: raise the bowl and say, “o-wan dase” then raise the plate and say, “sara dase”, literally: “raise the bowl”, “raise the plate”.
Everyone around was equally as confused, until the music started and we began to sing, “O-wan dase, sara dase, o-wan dase~, sa~ra~ da~se~”… I quickly realized it was to the tune of "When the Saints Go Marching In". This was most definitely something not traditional and unique to this ryokan, yet fun nonetheless. Everyone red-faced with laughter danced around the room singing, the geisha playing music and laughing along with the crowd.
By the end, the audience boisterously left the ryokan loudly talking about the night. I met several men who were also experiencing meeting geisha in person for the first-time, and they were equally as enamored and in love with them as I was. If you ever have the chance, please join in the fun of Japanese culture and meet a geisha! Just be careful to practice your janken skills beforehand.