Japan’s little-known geisha centre

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“The prince was very friendly,” she recalled. “He cracked a lot of jokes. I’m not sure whether I’m supposed to mention this, but he was playing mahjong with the senior geigis. I watched them while I served sake and tea.”

While geisha activity ceased during World War Two, it quickly picked up again afterwards. Although it never regained the peak of its glory days, it still offers a fascinating glimpse into traditional formal Japanese culture and arts. Unlike the over-touristed geisha area of Kyoto, Furumachi is one of the few parts of Japan where travellers can still savour the authentic environment of a traditional hanamachi or Flower Town, as geisha districts are called.

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“Today perhaps one can only experience this in Kyoto, Kanazawa [the capital of Ishikawa Prefecture] and Furumachi,” said Aritomo Kubo, staff member at Furumachi Kagai Club, which helps preserve Furumachi’s traditional streetscape by maintaining its heritage architecture. “Moreover, many of Furumachi’s ryoteirestaurants are the original buildings, dating from the 1800s,” he added.

Furumachi has the additional advantage that many of its ryotei accept first-time visitors, while many other famous geisha areas require an introduction from a regular client. Niigata is also the home of the Ichiyama School of Traditional Dance, a style uniquely practised by Niigata geigis that has been the basis of local performances for more than 100 years and is designated as an Intangible Cultural Property. Geigis perform this dance style when singing songs like “Niigata Okesa”, which was brought to Niigata by mariners sailing the Kitamaebune trade route. 

However, with the advent of TV, cinema and other alternative forms of entertainment, demand for geishas declined drastically. By the late 1970s, Furumachi geigi numbers had dropped below 100. By 1985, just 60 remained. With no new trainees joining since the late 1960s, the youngest geigis in Furumachi were in their 30s. 

At that time, far fewer young women were interested in devoting eight years of their lives to learning the essential geisha skills: the shamisen; the songs; the dances; the manners. Consequently, the rate of new trainees failed to keep pace with the rate of retirement.

Furthermore, unlike Kyoto – the refined capital of Japan for more than 1,000 years (794-1868) – remote Niigata is a place few tourists visit, further limiting the demand for geisha performances. And by the 1980s, a lack of business forced many ryotei to close.

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