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Kyoto gardens
Kyoto gardens
Jamie tours around Kyoto

Kyoto geisha

Thursday, November 13, 2003
Jamie visits Japan’s Kyoto Geisha district for some traditional food, dress and tea!

Jamie Durie was in Japan on a garden assignment and was happy to join the Getaway crew in Kyoto. The 1200-year-old city, Japan's fifth largest, is the cultural epicentre of the country and was home to imperial rulers for more than a thousand years. It has more than 2000 shrines and temples and 14 world heritage sites. Kyoto was spared destruction from WWII bombing and houses 20 percent of Japan's national treasures. It has 1.5 million inhabitants and unlike the rest of Japan, its birthrate is declining. But Kyoto is not only about gardens and architecture — it is also the home of the geisha.

There has always been an air of mystery surrounding the kimono-clad beauties. Geisha, which means "person trained in the arts", originated in Kyoto during the 17th century. There are five geisha areas, with 250 registered girls.

Peter MacIntosh is a Canadian settled in Kyoto who is an authority on geisha. He can guide visitors around the Gion and provides deep insight into the culture.

The walk begins in the early evening, when you usually see a real Kyoto geisha on her way to her first evening engagement.

After your walk, you go to a traditional Japanese drinking house in the Gion district, to meet and chat to a geisha. Peter is your interpreter and as the meeting is with a foreigner rather than a Japanese man, they tend to be more relaxed.

As the typical Japanese home is small, most Japanese feel they are not worthy of visitors. It is not unusual for business people to commute one-and-a-half hours each way every day, so the convenient place to entertain and discuss business is close to the office.

Japan is largely a patriarchal society and the place of the wife is at home. The geisha is the only woman who can have contact with men when they are out on the town.

The biggest misconception is that geishas double as prostitutes. This stems from WWII, when prostitutes dressed as geishas to appear exotic to servicemen.

The girls usually live in an Okiya, a traditional-style Japanese house run by an elderly woman, often a retired geisha herself. Qualified geishas are expected to play older sister (onesan) to a young maiko (apprentice) and this bond stays for life.

Current law says a girl cannot leave school until she reaches 16 years of age and an apprenticeship lasts five years.

A young maiko wears more flamboyant outfits than a geisha. Her kimono will have elaborate decoration, with long flapping sleeves reaching the floor. Her collar is usually of red and white material and her obi much longer at the back, tied in an ornate style. Maiko shoes are ornate, lacquered, large-platformed wooden shoes, tapering to a point at the sole. Her hairstyle shows the stage of her apprenticeship. Maiko use their own hair, whereas fully-fledged geishas favour wigs, usually with a small bald patch as evidence of a hard and productive apprenticeship. Hair ornaments are more pronounced and ornate with a maiko and matched to the current season.

Her face is painted white, with a line of bare skin around the natural hairline and a greater amount of pink blush around the cheeks and eyes. Eyes and eyebrows have a noticeable amount of red. Lips are partially painted.

The geisha leaves no bare skin on her face when wearing make-up, but with less red and pink blush. It is believed that the stark white face was introduced in the Heian era (794-1185) by travellers who had been to China and was adopted by ladies in the Japanese court. Rice flour or lead-based powder mixed to a paste with water was used and eyebrows tweezed away, with a straight one painted high on the forehead.

Application of the make-up is a time consuming and daunting task. It is applied before donning the kimono and done in stages, methodically and slowly.

Tours are popular and should be booked well in advance.


The south of Japan's main island


Kyoto Sights and Nights evening walk and private engagement with a Kyoto geisha or maiko costs around $530.
Qantas flies daily to Tokyo, with prices starting at $1854 from Darwin, $2134 from Perth, $2136 from Melbourne and Brisbane, $2156 from Adelaide and $2157 from Sydney, per person. Prices include charges/taxes and are current at time of writing, but may vary at time of booking. Seasonal surcharges and conditions apply.

More information

Kyoto Sights and Nights
Ph: 0011 81 908 573 8220

Qantas: 13 13 13

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