The world of geishas (芸者) called Karyūkai (花柳界), which translates as “the world of flowers and willows”, is a world of secrecy and exclusivity. Since its inception the figure of the geisha has been and remains a fascination for most foreigners and Japanese.
Japan, throughout its history has always offered several forms of entertainment related above all with pleasure and eroticism. The role of the “entertainment woman” in medieval Japanese times has played a very important role in history.
The first historical records of “entertainment women” are found during the Nara Period (around the seventh century) with the Saburuko (サブる子 · 侍る子). There were two kinds of Saburuko:
The first class were the Saburuko that came from a lower class environment. These were women who were forced by economic conditions and social displacement to exchange sexual favors to survive. The second class of Saburuko were upper class women who danced and entertained at social events of the social elite.
During the Heian and Kamakura eras, courtiers spent much of their time preparing and participating in religious ceremonies and festivities. These occasions often demanded the presence of female artists. It was here that the Shirabyōshi (白拍子) emerged. Women highly qualified in the arts of music, dance and poetry, occupied a small but significant position in the history and fiction of the time.
The Shirabyōshi were educated women who could read and write, they danced their own poetry compositions dressed in male attire (Shinto style costumes). These women became desired figures because they evoked the sexualized male image. And many of them became legitimate wives of aristocrats and high-ranking warriors. Among the most famous Shirabyōshi is Shizuka Gozen, lover of Minamoto no Yoshitsune, one of the greatest and most famous warriors in the history of Japan.
During the Edo Period, Japan closed its doors to the outside, cutting off all contact with the outside world. Many merchants benefited from the peace and prosperity of Japan and became extremely wealthy. But the strict social hierarchy prevented them from using their wealth to improve their status or acquire political power in an open manner. So they channeled much of their money towards social ritual, the pursuit of pleasure and the acquisition of beautiful and often expensive objects.
In its early form, the world of geishas was to provide a service to entertain and enchant, working together with the desired courtesan, called Oiran (花魁).
But the merchants looked for other types of entertainment, which included music, dance and poetry. It is here when the first geishas appeared on the scene. And surprising as it may seem the first geishas were men, called Taikomochi (太鼓持) or also called Hōkan (幇間). These geisha men began working in the brothels, entertaining the guests with music, cheerful conversation and comic games before the courtesan made her appearance.
Later, geisha women joined the service. These geisha women were strictly regulated by the government and had rules not to eclipse and “steal” the clients of the courtesans. Hence, the dress of the geisha as we know it today, is so simple and inconspicuous. Even many of the geisha worked sometimes even outside the pleasure districts.
As the popularity of the Oiran courtesans diminished, the entertainment of the geishas became increasingly popular.
Finally in 1956, with the prohibition of prostitution throughout the country, the pleasure districts were abolished. The courtesans lost their jobs, but the geishas, as musicians and dancers, survived to this day.
The geishas, nowadays, are guardians of the traditional arts of Japan, and spend all their life dominating classical music, dance, games and conversation.
Meigiren, the Nagoya’s geishas and maikos
Even today there is the erroneous image of Geisha = Kyoto. Perhaps it is simply mere misinformation, or rather the intention to continue promoting the place. The truth is that the geishas and maikos are NOT EXCLUSIVE OF KYOTO. Geishas and maikos exist in other regions of Japan such as Tokyo, Yamagata, Fukushima, Niigata, Ishikawa, Shizuoka, Fukui, Akita and Aichi. Each region has its own group or association of geishas and maikos making representations in private parties, banquets, religious celebrations and public events.
In Nagoya you can find the Meigiren (Nagoya Geigi Association 名妓連組合), an association founded in 1952, that currently has 17 geishas (also called geigi 芸妓) and 4 maikos. Nagoya geishas offer performances at different public events such as at the event Nagoya Odori or at the Nagoya Culture Festival Yatto Kame.
The Kawaii Aichi team had the great opportunity to chat and interview Meigiren’s boss, Hitomi san (ひと美) and one of the geishas, Hikono san (ひこ乃), who told us about Meigiren.
Like all geisha and maiko, the geishas and maikos of Meigiren have a daily routine that they follow strictly. Every morning they have dance training, shamisen training (string instrument 三味 線) and sing training (お稽古 Okeiko). They usually rehearse from 10 in the morning until well past noon (around 15:00).
Once the training is over, they take a short break for lunch and return home to prepare for the evening performance. To prepare, the maikos go to the house of their Onee san (geisha mentor) so she can help him put on the kimono, makeup and groom his hair.
The beginning of the day depends on the type of representation of that day. If they are representations in banquets, the day begins around 17:00. If they are nighttime performances like Kawabun Culture Night, they start around 21 at night. They usually work until late in the morning, although sometimes they can finish around 9:00 p.m.
The geishas, according to the region, differ as much in their style of dance as in their lifestyle.
One of the big differences of Meigiren, with respect to other groups of geishas, is that they don’t have their own Okiya (置屋 a geisha house). This means, on the one hand, that they don’t all live together in the same place, and on the other hand, that they have to cover all their costs of kimonos, wigs (and their maintenance), makeup products, rehearsal classes, etc.
Other differences are the characteristic Meigiren dance style. This dance style is influenced by the Japanese classical dance school Nishikawa Ryu, one of the most prestigious in Japan. Also singing “Nagoya Jinku”, folk songs of Nagoya folklore. And finally, doing the “Kin no Shachihoko” (しゃちほこ) (symbol of Nagoya Castle). This is an exclusive traditional Nagoya dance that ends with the pose of the inverted carp or Kin no Shachihoko.
The Meigiren’s geishas and maikos perform mainly in Ryoteis (traditional Japanese restaurants). One of the Ryoteis where you can enjoy their performances is Kawabun, where they offer 2 weekly performances, at the event called Kawabun Culture Night.
*Most of the photographic material used for this article has been provided by Meigiren and Ryotei Kawabun.