A memorable visit to Kyoto

Memoirs of a Geisha is one of those books I picked up, not knowing much about it, and found myself immersed in another world. While it disappointed me to discover that the character was fictional, and the book was in fact written by a man, I became enthralled by the mystery of the geisha. Geisha roughly translates to ‘performing artist’ and their heyday was in the 1920s when there were an estimated 80,000 in Japan. There are only 1,000 to 2,000 left today. Geisha are an expensive rarity hired to entertain predominantly male guests during parties, banquets, and other occasions.

They have years of meticulous training and are skilled in musical instruments, games, dance, and the art of the conversation. Memoirs indicated that Geisha were courtesans of sorts, and could be purchased for entertainment of the flesh. This most likely did happen in the past, but it doesn’t happen in modern-day Japan and is against the rules of the profession. I asked a geisha about this once, she laughed and asked, ‘did you read that silly book?’

In search of Geisha in Kyoto

I have visited Japan three times and it is one of the most unique countries on earth, with a culture and history that has miraculously kept its originality and authenticity intact. On my visit to Kyoto, my only goal was to see a real live geisha. I was there with my art dealing father, who was doing business with Japanese antique dealers. We spent our days stomping the streets of Kyoto, visiting temples, eating noodles and sashimi, and admiring netsuke, woodblock prints, and other Japanese pieces of art. The dealers we met were accommodating and friendly, and we were always buzzing from the amount of tea we were offered throughout the day.

While exploring, my eyes were constantly peeled for geisha. I had been furiously googling ‘where to find geisha in Kyoto’, and I knew the main haunts in the old town, where we had lunch every day. We were lucky enough to see two maikos, geisha in training, walking rapidly up the street. You can identify them thanks to their wonderful outfits, hairstyles, and makeup. I was thrilled and tried to surreptitiously snap some photos of their receding backs as they marched along in their wooden slippers.

Cheers to my new geisha friend

The real prize came one evening that I will never forget. We visited one of the top dealers and dad bought an expensive piece that he was thrilled with. The dealer, My Shoygu, offered to arrange dinner for us as a thank you. He had a friend who was a well-known chef. We eagerly agreed and had the most incredible meal. We sat at the bar while the chef made us a tasting menu based on whatever we liked. It was intricate and completely unlike any of the Japanese meals I have had in other countries. One of the dishes was made from rare mushrooms, the broth was poured from a teapot, and was one of the tastiest things I have eaten. I wish I could remember the restaurant, but the door was unmarked and it felt like a secret.

After our feast, Mr Shoygu suggested a tiny whiskey bar where he would meet us for a drink. We obliged and took a seat at the bar. The establishment only fit 10 people in the entire place. That’s one of the attributes I love most about Japan. Quality over quantity. They do that better than anyone. Mr Shoygu said he had a surprise coming for us and I almost fell off my chair when a geisha joined us at the bar. She sat between dad and me and ordered a glass of champagne. I was dumbstruck. I think the magnitude of the occasion was lost on my father, and I spent the remainder of the evening talking to her. I wish I had her name, she did tell me, but my simple, Champagne addled English-speaking brain did not manage to get it stored away. 

My new geisha friend and I chatted about all kinds of things, she spoke perfect English and had the most alluring demeanor. She fluttered when she talked, and it was hard to make out what she really looked like under the wig and white makeup. I asked questions about her profession and alluded that I had read the book Memoirs of a Geisha. She informed me that most of the details in Memoirs are outdated or embellished. She owned and ran her own house and was not indebted to anyone. She made an incredible living and employed many people. I asked if she had entertained many famous people and, being Australian, she told me about meeting the former prime minister of Australia, John Howard. When it was time to leave, I was elated. The most memorable part of all was how special she made me feel, and what an adept conversationalist she was.

Arrange your own geisha experience

My experience was unique and unplanned. I have a feeling it would have cost many hundreds of dollars. There are dinners that can be arranged for travelers to dine with a geisha. If you would like to meet a geisha you will most likely do so in Kyoto, Tokyo, or Kanazawa. A geisha dinner costs around 50,000 yen for the geisha and another 10,000 yen for dinner. Sometimes the geisha cannot speak English, so it’s best to check. You can also book a translator. I can’t speak for this myself, as I haven’t done it, but I have heard great things. These experiences are rare, expensive, and best booked in advance.

The experience I had in Kyoto remains one of my most memorable. Partly thanks to the respect and awe I already had for the legendary profession. Japan is a special place steeped in tradition alongside ultra modernity. It’s historical, weird, and cutting edge all at the same time. And for that, I love it!

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