You might have a certain image of Geisha (called Maiko and Geiko in Kyoto) from films such as Memoirs of a Geisha(2005). They are often represented as mysterious women and it’s true that the world of Geisha is definitely not open to anybody, and has a lot of specific traditions, but it’s not just fantasy. Five Geisha quarters have always existed in Kyoto from the 17th century, the small districts where Maiko and Geiko live, practice performance art and work every day. They are what is called living tradition: they learn traditional performance, tea ceremony and flower arrangement from experts of each field, and they wear Kimono, a sash and accessories which are made in Kyoto by traditional methods. There are a lot of first-class artisans around them.
Kimono dresser is one of the special jobs in the Geisha quarter. Almost Kimono dressers are male, we call them Otokoshi, meaning “male attendant”, because this work requires the strength to fasten the Maiko’s sash, which is too heavy for the Maiko to do up by themselves.
Kiichi Nakayama is a freelance Otokoshi who has about ten years experience.
At first, tell us a bit about your work. Ochaya is your workspace, right?
Yes, Ochaya is normally a house where Maiko and Geiko entertain, distinguished from Okiya where they live, but sometimes the Ochaya serves both functions. I go there to dress Maiko and Geiko just before they have to go to a banquet, not only in the evening but also morning and afternoon, so sometimes 3 times a day, sometimes only one. Well, what matters is the sash. It’s very important for them that the sash holds the whole time during their work. I try to make adjustments depending on the person, the material of the sash and the season etc.
It is necessary to be flexible for my job according to the work schedule of Maiko and Geiko, so I don’t go out of Kyoto very often. Besides, I have lived here since my birth.
That’s why we decided to ask this Kyotoite to guide us around the city.
Our meeting began at Shimogamo Shrine (called Shimogamo-jinja in Japanese), near where he grew up. Even though this is one of the oldest shrines in Kyoto and is registered as a World Heritage Site, it was a playground for him during his childhood.
Here, it’s like a backyard for you?
Yes, I was going to junior high school across from the shrine every day. Well, I actually have an incident that is the reason I started to believe in the god of Shimogamo-jinjya. One day when I was a child and was playing as usual, I found a 500 yen coin on the top of an offertory box and I stole it on impulse. The following day, I got ill of all things! Yes, I suppose it should be considered a coincidence, but this episode frightened me as a boy and I began to retain the faith and often come here to pray. Anyway, I recommend this place to the tourists too, because there isn’t only a spiritual monument but also a large primeval forest where you can take a stroll. Turn off the main road approaching the shrine to find a brook and ancient ruins in an atmosphere so calm that you forget that you’re in the city.
Have you ever wanted to live in other cities?
Well, it wasn’t necessary for me to leave Kyoto. There is everything I need—for example: bookstores, small cafes and restaurants, some nice shops, museums. I like the size of this city for going anywhere by bike. I recommend that tourists rent a bike for going around. You won’t lose your way because the streets in Kyoto city are laid out in a grid pattern.
After Shimogamo-jinjya, we went south to visit a soy sauce shop, named Sawai Shoyu Honten near Kyoto Imperial Palace. The traditional wooden house and storehouses with thick mortar walls stand out in the residential area. As you approach, the good aroma of soy sauce floats in the air.
Do you use these products regularly?
Yes, they’re really good. I like cooking; I’m particular about seasonings. I heard that this soy sauce is often used by many famous Japanese restaurants in Kyoto. If you are lucky, you would admitted into the part of storehouse and know that they make soy sauce by hand with traditional methods. There are various kinds of soy sauce: strongly flavored, light colored, for Sashimi, for Tofu etc. Mini bottles are available for tourists.
Then, we continued our cycling to the Gion area, the biggest Geisha quarter in Kyoto. There are many shops and restaurants that Maiko and Geiko often visit. He also strolls in this area because his working area, Miyagawa-cho, is just next to it. He took us to two different cafes: a local coffee shop called Nakatani, and a traditional japanese sweets shop and cafe called Kagizen Yoshifusa.
Are these cafes popular in Kyoto?
Nakatani has been patronized by locals rather than tourists, the customers are often connected with show business in this district. My employer, a chef at Ochaya, has sometimes coffee and sandwiches delivered from this shop for me. Meanwhile, Kagizen Yoshifusa is very famous among tourists, but I like it very much. I sometimes come here alone when there’s a lull in my work to savor the elegant feeling of good sweets in beautiful lacquer ware. Their specialty Rakugan, dried sweets like a hard candy, is good for a souvenir.
You’re exposed beautiful japanese things every day, do you like traditional japanese culture?
Naturally. But I like also the mixture of Japanese and Western culture, for example the thoughts, art and cultural events in early 20th century Japan. Junichi Nakahara, my favorite illustrator, lived during the period of war, but he always pursued beauty and especially gave women dreams and hopes. I think that Japanese people in those days had good taste for incorporating new culture. I like also japanese films, both new and old.
Kiichi, thank you for a lovely afternoon.
To meet Maiko and Geiko, you have some choices as below.
Programs of entertainments in restaurants (a charge for their services included) :
At Beer garden at Kamishichiken/from Jul.1 to Sep.5 except Aug.15-17.
At Ganko Takasegawa Nijoen/about 4 times a month.
The dance performances (called Odori) at each theaters in Geisha quarters :
Kitano Odori/Mar.25 – Apr.7.
Miyako Odori/Apr.1 – 30
Kyo Odori/1st Sat. – 3rd Sat. of April.
Kamogawa Odori/May 1 – 24.
Joint Performance by Five Geisha quarter/the last weekend of Jun.
Gion Odori/Nov.1 – 10
Special thanks to Ochaya Kawahisa.
Photo: Hanako Kimura
Text: Takami Miyamoto