Geishas are elusive to tourists and foreigners, partly because of the language barrier and partly because some Osaka geisha houses have a no first-time policy, that is, a friend must introduce you to them at a geisha party before you can contact them for their services.
But in Tokyo, you can engage the services of true geishas via Voyagin. (Voyagin also helps you make reservations at hard-to-get restaurants in Japan, as you know, some restaurants only allow people who speak Japanese to make reservations.)
Geisha houses, run by geisha mothers, are separated into districts in Tokyo. Asakusa, the old town district in Tokyo, has several geisha houses, and so does the Omori district. Out of the 4 geisha houses in Omori, Yoshinoya Geisha House is the oldest, with 150 years of history. (Our geisha, Kimi-cho, quipped, “We are from Yoshinoya, but we don’t sell beef bowls.”)
We were apprehensive about booking the experience because we didn’t know what we were getting into. So we structure this as a FAQ to help readers understand our experience.
Why hire geishas?
Many Japanese companies hire geishas during celebrations or when they are entertaining other guests. This is because geishas are skilled in the art of conversations, drinking games, singing, dancing, playing musical instruments like shamisen (traditional 3-string lute). There will not be a dull moment with them.
For groups of travellers, it will be super fun to indulge in this traditional custom, a tradition that goes back to 16th century. You can also understand the Japanese culture better.
Is it sleazy?
No. Geishas are selling their craft of entertainment, like an artist sells her paintings, or a doctor diagnosing a patient, or a lawyer defending a client, or an IT guy coming to your house to fix your wifi; they are selling a service. So get your head out of the gutter.
Furthermore, I abhor exploitation. At first, I worried that geishas were like poor girls who are in Bangkok’s tiger shows; this turns out to be untrue. In fact, geishas enter the profession on their free will because they like to perform and entertain.
Your geisha is White. She’s not a real geisha.
Actually, I had the same thought when I opened the door to the private room and saw Kimi-cho for the first time. But after interacting with her, I assure you she’s a real geisha. In any case, she is not the first White geisha in history; they are rare but they existed before.
Kimi-cho (cho means butterfly) has an amazing story. She is an American, but she aspired to be a geisha since young. She pleaded with the geisha mother at Yoshinoya geisha house, the oldest geisha house in Omori district, and the geisha mother accepted her. Kimi-cho trained for a year, and now has two years of experience. She is fluent in Japanese, and can sing, dance, and play drinking games.
If you’re not convinced Kimi-cho is a real geisha, think of it this way: being a geisha is a job, just like a banker or a teacher. You don’t discriminate your banker or teacher based on their nationality, so why would you to a geisha?
It was better for me to have an English-speaking geisha because I learnt a lot from Kimi-cho about the geisha culture and the Japanese culture. In any case, if you still prefer a Japanese geisha, you may also indicate your choice at the Voyagin website. And if you go in a big group, and want more than a geisha, you can also indicate to have 2-3 geishas, so there can be a English-speaking geisha as a translator.
What can I expect from a dinner with a geisha?
We arranged to meet at a 4-storey restaurant at the Omori district called Darake だら毛 (6-28-2, Minamioi, Shinagawa-ku, Tokyo, 140-0013; +81-3-3762-9551; M-Sat 11.30am-1.30pm, M-F 5pm-11pm, Weekends & holidays 5pm-10pm). Darake works with geishas and puts their photos on their wall-of-fame. Kimi-cho’s photo is going on!
We were shown into a private room, and Kimi-cho was already waiting for us. The 7-course kaiseki set commenced. Throughout the meal, Kimi-cho made us laugh and taught us about the Japanese culture. We talked about Game of Thrones; the esteemed male geisha Eitaro who took over his mother’s geisha house; and hōkan, the male equivalent of a geisha. No questions were out of bounds, and I asked questions like “Is it true that Japanese know English but refuse to engage us in English?”
Kimi-cho also taught us a drinking game called konpira funefune. It’s harder than it looks!
When we were about 3/4 into the meal, and relatively full, Kimi-cho performed 3 traditional dances for us. The dancing demonstrated without a doubt that Kimi-cho is a true geisha. Her expression is amazing, oblivious of her surroundings, totally immersed in the stories of the dances.
The first dance was called “Momeiji no Hashi” or Crossing a Bridge of Autumn Leaves. It’s about a young girl who crosses a bridge with falling red leaves around her. (That’s why there is stomping in the dance.) Halfway through the crossing, she feels a wistfulness as the first wintry wind brushes her face. There is a metaphor in the story of the dance.
The second dance, an Omori folk dance, pays tribute to the district where the geisha house is. Omori, besides having geisha houses, used to be seaside area, famous for their seaweed. (It’s now reclaimed land.) The song is similar to a tourism song, telling people how amazing Omori is, and asking them to come and visit. You’ll see Kimi-cho sunning the seaweed.
The last dance, “Sun Sagari,” is to wish the audience good luck.
This is one of the most awesome experience we had in Tokyo. You can book the activity on Voyagin, and if you have any questions, I’ll be glad to answer.
Written by A. Nathanael Ho.
Photo credit: Photos without RERG watermark are taken from Voyagin website.