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Elderly 'geiko' continue to preserve, pass on Kyoto's geisha district culture

Kanae, right, participates in a rehearsal for a "Kyo Odori" stage performance at Miyagawacho Kaburenjo theater in Kyoto's Higashiyama Ward, on March 27, 2019. (Mainichi/Ai Kawahira)

KYOTO -- Two geiko entertainers in their 80s continue to perform traditional dance, music and the art of conversation here in Japan's ancient capital, in hopes of drawing young people's attention to the culture and essence of the "hanamachi" (literally "flower town") geisha district.

Geiko, called geisha in eastern Japan, entertain customers during gatherings and parties called ozashiki. Kanae, 84, and Tae, 86, both stage names, are jikata-type geiko, who focus on playing musical instruments including the three-stringed shamisen and nagauta-style music, as opposed to tachikata, who specializes in dancing. Jikata are especially valuable, though the ranks of both types of geiko in the five active hanamachi in western Japan's Kyoto Prefecture are aging and growing sparser.

Tae shows her middle finger and pinky on her left hand, bent by decades of playing the traditional three-stringed Japanese shamisen, which she says is her "honor," at the Miyagawacho Kaburenjo theater in Kyoto's Higashiyama Ward, on April 23, 2019. (Mainichi/Ai Kawahira)

Hanamachi are said to reflect era and economic shifts, and geiko are considered living witnesses to history as they watch over the joys and sorrows of their customers over the years. The two geiko continue to protect the hospitality and tradition of their hanamachi, though the district has changed with the passage of time, and the transitions from the Showa to the Heisei and now the Reiwa era.

-- Kanae: Protecting Kyoto's traditional culture

Kanae was born to a family running a traditional Japanese "ochaya" eatery, literally meaning "tea house," in the Miyagawacho district of Kyoto's Higashiyama Ward, and was raised there by her grandmother. She began to practice dance and playing the shamisen on June 6, when she was 6. Upon graduating from junior high school, she was recommended to become a maiko, an apprentice geisha, but she objected and entered high school.

"I heard that an unexpected person from my hometown was going to become a geiko, which really made me want to compete," she recalled. Kanae had intended to go to a vocational college, but chose to become a geiko in 1953.

Kanae poses for a photo during a dance performance she joined in her 50s. (Photo courtesy of Kanae)

According to the 84-year-old, she had the impression that geiko and maiko were quiet and gentle, as most of them came to work in hanamachi to escape poverty. But now, young people wish to wear geisha attire and come to hanamachi because they want to. Such people have positive outlooks and good communication skills.

"Many of them are from wealthy families and all their parents look dignified when attending their daughters' misedashi maiko debut ceremony," explained Kanae.

She recalled that the open-air seating by the Kamogawa River, created by restaurants and tea houses, used to be the best place to cool off in the summer, but tatami rooms are more pleasant now thanks to air conditioners.

The 84-year-old feels that customers have also changed. She explained, "Some of the customers back then were like nagauta and shamisen experts. When we were told to perform a particular dance, we had to. I learned many dances so I could perform them anytime."

In over 60 years working as a geiko, Kanae experienced falling in love and considered getting married and retiring, but she could not leave her parents and hometown. She has entertained many customers including executives of a major retailer, politicians and famous foreign singers with her performances and conversation skills.

Kanae was given a certification for geiko aged 60 or above with at least a 30-year career who have been credited with improving or preserving traditional arts and skills. Kanae took a break from work several years ago due to a severe illness, but she returned to work as a jikata and now looks after young maiko, who are like granddaughters to her.

For the 84-year-old, Showa was an economic boom era when the hanamachi was crowded with higher-ups and movie stars. Kanae saw changes in entertainment as the late 1980s and early 1990s "bubble" burst and Japan's economy stagnated in the Heisei era. She intends to protect Miyagawacho's traditions as a geiko, though she doesn't know what will happen in Reiwa.

Tae, left, teaches nagauta-style music while playing the traditional three-stringed Japanese shamisen, at the Osaka Club in Osaka's Chuo Ward, on April 25, 2019. (Mainichi/Ai Kawahira)

-- Tae: Passing down tradition in Kyoto, Osaka and the surrounding areas

Tae was born and raised in Osaka Prefecture but evacuated to the Kagawa Prefecture city of Takamatsu, both in western Japan, to escape the burning of Osaka from airstrikes during World War II. She returned home after graduating from high school and helped her mother teach dance.

She admired the beauty of a student who was a geiko, and made her own debut as a geiko with the stage name Fukuemi, at a restaurant with a long history in Osaka's Minami hanamachi district, when she was 18.

The eatery called Nanchi Yamatoya, which closed in 2003, was a former geisha house that established a training school for geiko in 1910. It was known as a major ochaya with a theater frequented by Japanese author Ryotaro Shiba and other cultural luminaries as well as political and financial world figures. Nanchi Yamatoya became an outlet for the culture of areas including Kyoto and Osaka.

Tae was a promising dancer and initially became a tachikata. She even performed the famous "hera-hera odori" dance that features acrobatic stunts such as handstands.

Tae, right, participates in a rehearsal for a "Kyo Odori" stage performance at Miyagawacho Kaburenjo theater in Kyoto's Higashiyama Ward, on March 27, 2019. (Mainichi/Ai Kawahira)

Prosperous people flocked to Minami, where numerous ochaya were operating during the 1950s and 1960s. "When I heard that a regular customer was in an ochaya next door, I would rush to greet them and immediately return. It was fun," recalled Tae.

But businesses began to shift to Tokyo in the 1970s, and ochaya closed one after another. Tae commented, "Osaka gradually failed after shinkansen bullet trains started operations. It's sad but they (ochaya) came to a natural end."

Tae became a jikata when she was 50. After retiring at age 60, she taught nagauta and played the shamisen. She visited Miyagawacho two years ago as a customer and was invited to help out as a jikata. Fumie Komai, head of Miyagawacho's ochaya association, stated, "I hoped she can pass down the culture of Kyoto, Osaka and neighboring areas to young people."

Even though the 86-year-old sometimes faces difficulties due to the difference in geiko rules between Minami and Miyagawacho, she smiled and said, "I like the ozashiki. I'm happy now."

Minami has turned into a downtown district with hotels and office buildings, and now only a few people know about Osaka's hanamachi. Instead of lamenting the changes, Tae intends to support Miyagawacho's hanamachi as long as she is physically fit, in a bid to pass down the nature and tradition of Kyoto, Osaka and the surrounding areas.

(Japanese original by Mai Suganuma, Kyoto Bureau)

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