June 30, 2012

A Geisha in Kyoto

One of the classes I'm taking at Kansai University is geisha culture, where we look at the history of geisha, how they are represented in film and media, and how they live their lives in the 'flower and willow world'. Last weekend we went on a field trip to Kyoto, where we did a walking tour through the hanamachi (geisha districts), and had lunch, which was attended by a real geiko.

When it comes to Kyoto, I think a lot of foreigners often have this romanticised image in their heads of temples and tea ceremonies, untouched traditional culture. If you happen to arrive through the huge modernist monster that is Kyoto Station, this image is promptly shattered (at least it was for me). That's why it's sort of a relief to go to Gion, or Miyagawa-cho, and find that the way you imagined Kyoto to be actually does exist, even if you have to look closely to find it. The narrow, maze-like streets, cobbled alleyways, and boarded up houses don't reveal too much about the mysterious geisha world, but every now and then you'll catch rare glimpses of it - whether it be hearing the sounds of a shamisen drifting through an open window, or seeing a maiko or geiko shuffling from one tea house to the next.

The geiko our class got to meet was named Miehina, and she was lovely. At lunch, she came around all of our tables so we could talk to her and ask her questions, which she would answer in strong Kyoto-dialect. Our table was last, and we were all kind of nervous and giggly and couldn't think up many questions. But she didn't seem to mind. In many ways she was just like a normal girl. One of the students at my table had a tiny toy camera, and Miehina was very interested in it, and started playing around with it, taking funny pictures and doing the 'peace' pose. Speaking with her, she was much less formal than I'd imagined a geisha to be - she smiled and laughed a lot. Then she performed a dance for us, and it was like a different person - so very poised and controlled. You could tell how seriously she takes her art.

When I went home and googled Miehina, I found countless photographs, posts, and even a documentary about her. It seems that within the geisha world, she's like a celebrity. I guess if I had the chance to talk to her again, I'd ask what it feels like to be photographed all the time, to constantly have people's eyes on you? Being a geisha is a beautiful job, but also, I imagine, a tough one.

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