A short anecdote about childhood curiosity:
When I was ten years old and living in Melbourne, I was in a play presented by a professional theatre company. We did two performances a day. My sister and I shared a part, doing three weeks each of the summer holidays. Since my part required me to wear a lot of stage makeup I usually hung out at the theatre between performances while my fellow actors, all teenagers or adults, would leave the theatre for lunch. One day I decided to remove some of the makeup and go with them. After eating we went to Captain Cook’s Cottage in Fitzroy Gardens in the centre of Melbourne, within walking distance of the theatre.

I vaguely remember from childhood history lessons that waft around the edges of consciousness that after Cook “discovered” Australia and claimed it for Britain, he later circumnavigated and mapped the continent sometime back in the 1700’s. Anyway I knew at the time that this cottage was his residence in England and that it had been dismantled, every piece labelled, and the whole thing shipped to Australia to be reassembled in Melbourne. That act alone fascinated me, and made me curious. Why would they do that?

So we’re all wandering around and in the cottage and I see a garden tap. It has one of those old-fashioned circular handles on top of the faucet used for turning it on and off, and I wanted to know if it worked or not. I wanted to know if they’d bothered to hook up the water when they set up the cottage in Melbourne. So I gave the metal circle a good turn and sure enough water came gushing out. And the metal circle fell off into the mud below . . . . .

As the water gushes all around creating a lake and flowing over the pathway in front of me, as other people visiting the cottage walk by, as I’m scrambling around in the muddy flood below me trying to find the thingy, whatever it’s called, that I need to turn the tap off, the cottage guard arrives. He starts to help me look for it. As people walk by he says Look at her! Isn’t she stupid! Doesn’t she look stupid? Over and over. My fellow actors come to help, but eventually have to get back to the theatre. I’m not on until near the end of the first act so have a little more time, but still, this is taking a long time, with the water continuing to gush out everywhere and me becoming more and more mortified, when finally, suddenly I put my hand on it, lift it up, slip it back into place and turn the tap off. And hightail it back to the theatre just in time.

16-25 March 2019
Ah but that curiosity! It has never left me. Sometimes I think I want to know everything about everything, but really I most want to know about people, the more “exotic”, meaning different, the better. Couple that with a love of bright colours, beautiful clothes, authentic traditions, and a deeply secret lifestyle and I am hooked. I want to know everything. I am a willing catch, reeled in by geishas every time. They are so exotic and rare that any glimpse of them is cause for a quickening of the senses, an excitement, a hope that somehow I’ll get to know/see/experience more of their inscrutable way of being in the world.

When I went to Japan in 2018 I was lucky enough to get a ticket for the annual performance presented by one of Kyoto’s five geisha houses, and then Don and I were able to get tickets for the performance of a different geisha house during our visit in 2019. This second visit we also went to a special pre-show tea ceremony, but our first encounter with geiko, as they are known in the Kyoto dialect, was at Yasaka-Jinja Shrine.

In March, to welcome spring, several of the shrines and temples in Kyoto illuminate their buildings and stay open at night. As part of this festival a small stage was set up in the grounds of Yasaka-Jinja for various performances, including a dance recital by a couple of “apprentice” geisha, known as maiko, accompanied by a musician.

I manage to get to the front, right up against the barrier around the stage. There are deep crowds around me, local people, Japanese people, hardly a foreign tourist in sight. The Japanese love their traditions, and their festivals, and attend them in great numbers with both veneration and delight. They too are curious about the geiko.

They dance with such deep grace on the stage before me. I am beguiled by their gravitas, and the devotion and reverence they have for their art. Every movement is presented with profound respect as a perfect gift. I am beguiled by the elegant exquisite beauty of their outfits. I am beguiled by their poise and presence. No matter what is happening around them, they are there, fully involved in each moment, presenting to us a rare stylised beauty.

It feels like a great privilege to be given this glimpse into their private world.

Though the tradition of the geisha is now hundreds of years old, even the Japanese feel their world is mysterious and difficult to access. Geisha are one of the most iconic cultural images of Japan and yet it is a world steeped in secrecy. They are professional entertainers and companions who attend private dinners, banquets, and other events to take care of the guests. They are trained in the art of conversation, the art of the tea ceremony, and other hospitality skills, as well as being the keepers of time-honoured traditional dance and music.

Their journey begins at about the age of fifteen, though in the past it could be much younger than this. During their training they live in an okiya, or geisha house, under the care of the housemother. While training they cannot enter into a romantic relationship or marry. After introductory training the talented and determined continue on to become maiko, and eventually after several years, geiko. For many years it is a very prescribed lifestyle, but after becoming a geiko they can live separately from the okiya, and can marry.

Ochaya, or teahouses, where geiko dinners take place, are highly exclusive places due to their traditional way of doing business, and will grant entry to trusted customers only. One needs to be referred to gain access, although these days if you have deep pockets you can arrange a dinner with a geisha through the concierge at your 5-star hotel. I found a website that creates “bespoke and unforgettable cultural experiences in Japan” including geisha entertainment. One must contact them to enquire about prices.

We arrive at the theatre early and wait in line watching the maiko and geiko coming and going from a side door and down a lane presumably to another door.

They are like exotic tropical birds with a secret I’ll never penetrate. I cannot imagine a life so structured; I’m too loose at the seams for that so it is all the more fascinating to me. Their outfits alone are enough to make me stare, and smile. So much beauty. Their makeup is strictly traditional, the white paint so they could better be seen by candlelight before the advent of electricity, and their red lips designed to emulate flower petals.

I also watch the others in line, most of whom are Japanese, many of whom are in traditional kimono, including this dazzling beauty, the brightest butterfly of all.

Soon we are beckoned in for the tea ceremony. I’m thrilled with my seat. I can photograph without being seen or disturbing anyone. Attendants graciously serve us a bowl of matcha green tea and a sweet cake, with a bow to every person.

The tea ceremony, like the dances and other traditional Japanese arts, is meticulously orchestrated; every move an exact copy of what has come before, every gesture strictly defined to make it as aesthetically pleasing as possible. It is its own kind of dance, a slow reverent and beautiful presentation.

And now we’re in the theatre ready to watch the show.

Over hundreds of years the geiko communities have developed a distinctive style of music and dance. It is mandatory that the geiko follow the prescribed forms absolutely; there’s very little room for innovation. The dances are highly formalized and strictly choreographed. Most are slow so there’s no chance for speed to hide mistakes; every move must be perfect. Despite the slow movements the dances require strength and stamina, and being invited to participate is considered a great honour. There is fierce competition for the most prominent roles. The staging is elaborate, the costumes breath-taking in their beauty. A huge amount of work goes into each lavish production.

The music begins, the curtain rises. With a bright colourful backdrop the stage is quickly filled with dancers, all in matching equally bright kimono, all moving in synchronous perfection like the corps de ballet. Major characters arrive, dance, and fall away. The scene gives way to a smaller number, or individual dancers, then swells again to many, all accompanied by music from an orchestra of traditional instruments.

Then the scenery changes before our eyes and we are watching a story-based play, a pantomime that we follow as best we can. It’s entertaining and funny. It is followed by more dancing and a grand finale.

Photo by Nullumayulife on Flickr.

Needless to say I am completely enraptured. This performance doesn’t tell me about the daily life of a geisha other than she must spend a lot of time practising and perfecting her art, but it does fill my heart with beauty and grace. I couldn’t possibly ask for more.

We catch final glimpses as we leave the theatre, of the maiko and geiko,

and of an elderly couple I suspect may be VIP members of the geisha house. Perhaps long ago she also was a Geiko. I love that his tie matches her kimono.

I’m still as curious as ever.

In 2018 I attended Kamogawa Odori and in 2019 we went to Kitano Odori. I highly recommend both.

Next post: back to Borneo – orangutangs in the jungle!

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2020.