Celestial Geisha: A Perfect Performance

Geisha in Tokyo? And where in heck is Mitakesan?

Yes, you may not realize it, but not only is there a history of geisha in Tokyo, but there are quite a few places where there are active geisha communities, including Kagurazaka, Asakusa, Shinbashi/Ginza, and Hachioji. There are, of course, Hatobus and other tours that offer geisha shows, but it seems, to me, at least, that these shows seem somehow less "authentic." There is, apparently, a free geisha show in Asakusa, a town where there are still more than 40 active geisha(only), but most dinner shows cost at least 20,000 yen.

Kyoto, of course, is much more famous for its geisha, geiko, and maiko, but Tokyo, too, has had geisha communities for many years. But the term "geisha," referring to women who were hired to perform "gei" or "art," "craft," or "skill," particularly, songs and dances, is from the 18th Century. The geisha were not, as is commonly misunderstood, prostitutes (hired for sexual delights), but employed as skilled performers and as artists. Just as the modern day term, "geinojin" (the artists and performers on TV, on stage, and movies) refers to people with some talent,; the geisha are talented performance artists, not sexual entertainers.

The geisha, were, too, Japan's first female entrepreneurs. who ran successful businesses that employed strong women in a variety of careers, including hair stylists and kimono dressers. While the crafts of making kimono, obi, hair pins and decorations, fans, musical instruments and other tools of the geisha trade were not limited to female professionals, the geisha houses have always been businesses that supported matriarchal social archetypes. In a very patriarchal society, the world of geisha was a very important one for strong willed, independent women who were unwilling to succumb to a lifetime of subservience.

The geisha community of Hachioji in Western Tokyo have served the ryokan and nightlife communities upstream of Tama River for many decades. The district originally had more than 200 geisha before World War II, when the area was home to a thriving textile industry. But since then, the decline of that part of industrial Tokyo has reduced geisha numbers to only around 20. I found a blog post from 2011 that had a summary of a classified ad for a 24-35 year old woman, under 160 cm in height, willing to work from 4:00-10:00PM, at 3000 yen per hour as a geisha in Hachioji.

Mitakesan is, as the name suggests, a mountain in the western outskirts of Tokyo. The mountain is 929 meters tall, just over 3000 feet. It is very steep, with a cable car run by Mitakesan Tozan Railway, that goes from Takimoto Village to Mitakesan Village, a ride just over 5 minutes on an incline of roughly 25 degrees. That may not sound steep, but in person, it is somewhat disconcerting to look down and see the cables that are pulling the car up the hill.

Mitakesan is home to a number of ryokan, many of which are run by Shinto priests, who serve mostly vegetarian meals that are considered medicinal and healthful. The Hachioji geisha provide entertainment in these ryokan. Visitors here can, if they wish, partake in Zen-like activities with the priests. Even if one does not participate in the ascetic prayers under the waterfall, the very steep hiking around Mitakesan alone can make one start to mumble and start a conversation with a deity.

Tenku Geisha Night

The community of Mitakesan, along with many of the enterprises of the area, started this year to actively promote their area's charms to the foreign community. The group has started to provide English information in local websites, as well as in the free information provided at local Tourist Information Centers and at train stations. And, utilizing municipal support, they sponsored in 2014 five Tenku (Celestial) Geisha Night events, with free geisha performances each night for around 40 guests.

I heard that in the performances in the warmer months from August through October, the three-hour performances were held outside. This is one of the characteristics that the Hachioji geisha are well known for, which is relatively unknown in other geisha communities such as in Kagurazaka, Asakusa, or even in Kyoto. Nearly all geisha performances are very private, indoors, and usually with the shutters closed. While geisha can be seen shuttling from the houses where they live and are employed to the tea houses and ryokan where they have been hired to perform, there performances are generally a complete mystery except to their generally well-heeled clientele.

But in the November and December events, the geisha performed for a mere 2 hours. This is probably to accommodate for the shortened hours of the cable car and the lack of convenient after hours transportation to and from the remote mountain village. While Mitakesan is part of Tokyo, it is nearly 3 hours by public transit from Shinjuku, which is considered the most important city center in west Tokyo. In comparison, 3 hours by train from Shinjuku would get a person as far away from Tokyo as Shonan or Hakone in Kanagawa Prefecture, Nikko in Tochigi Prefecture, or well beyond Mobara on the surf coast of Chiba Prefecture.

Still, though the performance I attended was only for two hours, it was a packed, delightful, and entertaining experience. The geisha were beautiful, their kimono exquisite, the make-up and hair were impeccable, and the shamisen was enchanting, but the biggest surprise was how entertaining and fun the experience could be. The geisha are, no doubt, consummate professionals, who are able to bring joy to every occasion, making each person there feel wonderful.

The first part of the geisha's work, though, is music and dance. This clip is a portion of their performance celebrating the autumn season.

The second part of a geisha's work is serving drinks and engaging in conversation. In a mere 15 minutes or so, I learned that the youngest of the geisha here has worked for nearly seven years total, two years in Hachioji after starting her career in Asakusa. I also learned that the eldest member of the group worked previously in web design and marketing, and that she was asked to help out with the proceedings because of her ability to understand some (mostly written) English. The conversation transpired seamlessly almost like an informal interview, not entirely unlike a courting ritual. How skilled they were in the art of conversation!

The third part of the event, amazingly, was probably the most entertaining. In this part, the geisha taught us two participation games.

One of these games is one in which two players standing on a "zabuton," or seat pillow, try to knock the other person off of the zabuton. The game is preceded by a short dance, in which the game's "story" is introduced: two cats are playing in the yard, they fall asleep on the wall, and then clumsily, one falls off!

Inbound... Outbound... Rebound?

The other game that the geisha taught was a copying game. This game was played in a number of stages, evolving and escalating as it goes along. After a brief introduction, the game starts by people just mimicking the simple dance taught by the geisha. The game proceeds on, with (the drunken) guests going onstage to dance with the geisha. In the third stage of the game, two people play and dance together.

The dance itself is based on folk "history," with the character, Benkei-san crossing a bridge. Benkei is a famed samurai warrior, who was originally a feared bandit but eventually became the highly revered clansman of a major warlord. Benkei is also renowned as a huge man and the dance is a reference to the idea that he was as big as two normal people.

The music, dance, conversation, and games are incredibly fun, not only for the beauty (and the beauties), but for the history, stories, and the flow. The stories, of course, include some history. And both, of course, are part of the ebb and flow of the party itself. But all are designed and choreographed, pushing and pulling the participants through the experience, along with the food and drink, and smoothly getting the participants to, well, participate. It is practically impossible just to observe. Or take photos. There are no wallflowers. Everyone just starts growing, glowing, dancing, falling, and having the time of their lives.

The sake (nihonshu), provided by Sawanoi (you'll be hearing again from me about them) helps with the flow. It flows by the bottle - the big issho-bin. In a restaurant, or even in most ryokan, the food and drink are the main event. But the geisha could make a wake festive. They are the food and drink - rejuvenating.

The entertainment is adult oriented, not only because of the drinking, but because the conversation is rich. It is full of double entendre, sexual jokes, and embarrassing fun. But while in the past the audiences were predominantly male, the participants today are not only very mixed, but geisha parties are growing in popularity among women. The kimonos, the hairstyles, the complete "ownership" the powerful women have over the situation - all are probably important reasons for this shift. But I think it is also because the female participants feel a complete lack of pretense and a relaxation that they rarely get in stressed out Japan. And that is extremely entertaining.

The two hours seemed like twenty minutes. And twenty minutes seemed like hours. After the party, the guests felt like we knew each other for years - we were all friends.

And the geisha, they became friends, too, in the way that we all got to know and love Tom Hanks. Louis Armstrong. Joni Mitchell. And Robin Williams. They entered our homes and our lives and seem to always be there, whenever we need them and call. I think that's why people keep going back to the ryokan and Asakusa and Kyoto, to see their geisha. To mingle and party. And to feel like a ton of gold.

I heard that the Mitakesan Tourist Association will be doing their Geisha Nights again next year. I didn't mention this before, but the event is free. You have to register, but if you do, all you have to do is show up.

If they do it again, it's likely to start again next spring. I'm going back again. I'll see you there. We'll become friends.

They do want us to become customers. But for that to happen, they want some people to become fans and to spread the word. I'm convinced. I'm an evangelist.

I also think it's very appropriate that Hachioji and Mitakesan are so far away from central Tokyo. You go west past Tachikawa and Fussa on the Chuo Line to Ome, then meander even further towards Okutama, into the deep and lush forests of west Tokyo - one really gets a sense that you've left the city and gone deep into Japan's rich countryside. Up the cable car and hike - really hike - 15 minutes or so to the village and the whole experience seems a bit mystical and otherworldly. It is.

On the way back, you see the bright and staggering lights of Tokyo far off in the horizon - waiting, beckoning. I'll be back.

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