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Japan: Being a Geisha in the blog age

One of the most ancient professions in Japan, geisha are masters of all kinds of skills, from music to poetry, and from traditional dance to conversation. But today's geishas do more than this. Just as geisha in ancient times noted down everyday life happenings and thoughts in their diaries, modern maiko (apprentice geisha) and geisha artists today write diaries as well. Nowadays, however, they are also able to share them with their clients and fans, by posting them online at their blogs.

“Geisha wanted” (芸者さん募集中) is the title of an announcement posted at the geisha house Chikada's blog (芸者置屋 千佳田のブログ) a few months ago:

芸者さんになるには、どうしたらいいですか?
芸者さんになる道は、普通あまり知られていないので、これはとてもよく聞かれる質問です。
じつは、芸者さんになるには“資格”は必要ありません。年齢についても、さしたる制限はありません。
芸者さんになるために必要になってくるのは"人としてのマナー”と"おもてなしの心”です。
マナーは後からいくらでも身につきますが、芸者さんにとって最低限のマナーというのは一般の方のそれとはレベルが違います。
芸者さんになるための基本的な面接を通過した後、マナーについては徹底的に訓練して身に付けていくことになるでしょう。先輩や男性の立て方、返事の仕方、話し方から広範囲にわたって基礎を身に付けていただくことになります。おもてなしの心とは、日本人の美意識とも言えるもので、これは生まれ持ったし才能やセンスが大きく影響しています。

“How can I become a geisha?”
This is the most frequently asked question, as the path to becoming a geisha is obscure to many.
Actually, you don’t need any particular “qualifications”. Also, there is no age limit.
What you need is “manners as a human being” and a “sincere heart”. You can learn as much as you want about manners later, but the minimum level of manners required of a geisha is different from that of ordinary people.
After you pass the basic interview to become a geisha, you will be thoroughly trained in manners so that you know all about them. You will learn a wide range of fundamentals: how to place men and people who are older than you on a pedestal, and how to respond and speak properly. Spirit of hospitality may be said to reflect the sense of beauty of the Japanese people, and is deeply influenced by inborn talent and taste.


人気の舞妓さんも登場=芦原温泉で奉納の踊り posted by (C)ふるさと福井ビデオレター

Making use of the potential of the Internet, geisha are able to preserve their traditions by letting other people (their customers and fans, and other net surfers) know about them online, bringing alive an artistic profession that many people, especially in foreign countries, believe belongs to the past or to a “postcard-like” Japan, or even mistakenly consider the same as prostitution.

To clear up this confusion about the role of the geisha, here is how Sakukazu (さく一), at the blog of the geisha house Kita Shinchi(北新地) to which she belongs, describes the job of the geisha, and what a “teahouse” is:

仕事

私達芸者は 名前の通り お座敷などで踊りを踊ったり・三味線を弾いたりもしますが・・・
お席で お客様とお話をしたり お席を盛り上げたり またその場の雰囲気をみて お座敷を進めるのも私達芸者の仕事なんです。

The profession

As you can guess from the name [gei: art, sha: person], we geisha dance or play the shamisen [traditional stringed instrument] at private parties, but we also converse with the clients and create an atmosphere to entertain them. Basically, making the show go on is the geisha's job.

お茶屋

お茶屋と言っても お茶を売ったりしているお店じゃありませんよ。
お茶屋と言うのは・・・ 説明するのが難しいんですが
お茶屋で お客様が 芸者を呼んでお酒を飲まれり お座敷遊びをされり・・・
又 お客様から 宴会やイベントなどに 芸者を呼んで欲しいと 連絡を頂いたら 手配をしたり・・・

The teahouse

Although we call it a “teahouse”, it is not a shop that sells tea.
It is a bit complicated to explain what exactly it is, but at the “teahouse” clients come to be in geisha's company and enjoy the party…
Or we may be asked by the clients themselves to arrange parties and events for them and call other geisha to join.

Geiko schedule in Kyoto
Schedule of geiko and maiko banquets in Kyoto.

Sakura (さく良), of the same geisha house as Sakukazu above, explains to us how reading the blog of another geisha was the start of her career in that world:

私、高校の時から舞妓さんに憧れていたのです。ですが、舞妓さんは15~およそ20歳までの限定。私がなりたいと思ったのは17歳の時で、親も「高校は卒業して」の一点張り。
京都の置屋さんや組合に問い合わせてみましたが「無理」か「芸妓さんからなら」との返事でした。
一度は諦めて普通のお仕事をしていたのですが・・・やはり諦められないものですねぇ。
なんとかならないか、と色々探していたところ・・・とあるブログを発見
それが、今私を引いて下さったお姉さんのブログだったのです
高級クラブ街だと思っていた北の新地に芸妓さんがいるのかーっ、と目から鱗。
そして、素敵なお着物姿のお写真に・・・一目ぼれ
早速連絡させて頂いて、お会いして頂いて(あまりにお姉さんがお綺麗なので、「私のような小娘がココにいていいのかーっ」恐縮 笑)、見習いさんさせて頂いて(素敵なお茶屋さんに感動 )、芸妓:さく良となったのです。

Since I was a high school student I've always wanted to become a maiko, but you can only be a maiko if you are between the ages of 15 and 20 years old. I realized that I wanted to become a maiko at the age of 17, and my parents absolutely insisted that I had to finish the school first.
I tried to contact several geisha houses and organizations in Kyoto but the only replies I got were “Impossible!” or “Only if you start as a maiko”.
Then I gave up and started a normal job, but… no, I couldn't give up. And just when I was considering other ways to make it… I found a certain blog.
It was the blog of an older geisha who eventually drew me in.
I couldn't believe to my eyes when I realized that there were geiko in the north of Shinchi, an area full of classy clubs. And when I saw their pictures in those splendid kimono… it was love at first sight!!
So I asked them to contact and meet me (I couldn't help feeling embarrassed, with such beautiful women, wondering to myself, “Will they accept a young girl like me here?”).
They took me in with them as an apprentice in that wonderful teahouse, and that is how I became Sakura, the geiko.

Another geisha, Naosuzu (尚鈴), describes in the typical Kyoto dialect the tricks of the trade, in the pages of her official site:

舞妓さんの髪は地毛で結います。
1週間、2週間と結ったままになるので、
寝るのも函枕ですし、お休みの日も髪の毛はそのままです。
でも芸妓の日本髪は鬘ですから随分違います。
芸妓に比べ、舞妓のほうが有名で
華やかなイメージかもしれませんが、
花街の主役はやっぱり芸妓、お客様を愉しませたり、
場を盛り上げたり… そんなことも要求されますし、
もちろん舞妓時代よりも舞や鳴り物(楽器)、
唄などすべて上を求められます。
難しいことではありますが、
特別大変というわけではなくて、
毎日のお稽古とお座敷の中で
徐々に培われていくものだと思っています。

Maiko do their hair using only their real hair.
As they keep the same hairstyle for one or two weeks, they sleep on hard pillows and never change their hairstyle, even on days when they don't work.
However, the Japanese hairstyle of geiko is a wig, and so it is quite different.
Maiko are more popular then geiko, perhaps because their image is showier, but the geiko are the real stars of the geisha quarters. They bring their customers pleasant times and animate the scene. That is what customers expect from them and, of course, they are expected to dance, play instruments and sing better than the younger maiko.
It is not so easy.
Which is not to say that it is particularly stressing, but it is an art that must be cultivated little by little, through everyday lessons and at parties.

[…]

舞妓さんは年齢制限がありますが、
芸妓は一生続けていける仕事です。
今は女性でも「手に職」なんて言いますけど、
芸妓はその先駆け、女性ならではの部分を生かしながら、
一生働ける、ホンモノのキャリアウーマンだと思います。

There is an age limit on being a maiko, but geisha is a profession that lasts a whole lifetime.
Nowadays, women speak of “having marketable skills”.
Well, geiko are in a sense pioneers in this idea. While they make use of their feminine talents, they are also able to work for their whole life, and in my opinion, they are real “career women”.

Ichimame (市まめ) a popular maiko, whose blog has been wrongly quoted as the first of the genre by several foreign newspapers because it is written also in English, used to write about her job and her private life. Unfortunately, last year she decided not to continue her blog. Some of her posts, however, still remain online:

I have at least two days of vacation every month.
However, on my days off, I sometimes voluntarily visit local parties, so I mostly keep my hair dressed in Maiko style even on those days.
When my hair is dressed on my day off, I go out in the kimono that I wear for lessons.
Sometimes, when I let down my hair, I go out in Western clothes.
I rarely wear Western clothes on my days off, so I usually spend my days off with my friends, shopping, or talking about many things while eating our favorite sweets.

As a proof that blogs have become part of the job for many geisha from the beginning to the very end of their career, Onsen Geisha (温泉芸者), announcing her retirement at her blog Onsen Geisha no Kokoro no Hikidashi (温泉芸者のココロのひきだし), summed up a few months ago what being a geiko meant to her:

突然ですが今回芸妓を引退することになり、そのためこのブログも更新を停止することにしました。

20歳という芸妓としては遅がけの出発から16年、ブログを始めて4年弱…
一言では語りきれないほど色々な事がありましたが、人の縁に恵まれたことが今、私の最大の財産になっていると思います。
芸妓をやってきて一番良かったと思うことは人として成長出来た事、これは置屋のお母さん、お姐さん達、そして何より今まで出会った沢山のお客様に感謝しております。

I'm sorry for the unexpected announcement, but I am going to retire, so I decided to stop updating this blog.

I had a late start as a geiko at the age of 20, and since then 16 years have passed, less than 4 years since I started this blog…
I have plenty of things to say and that cannot be expressed in a few words, but my biggest treasure is the bonds that link me to the people I met.
The thing that makes me the most happy about having been a geiko is that I was able to grow as human being, and I am grateful to the mistress and the other colleagues of the geisha house I belonged to for this. But, above all, I am grateful to the many clients that I have met so far.

Thanks to Ayesha for suggesting to us this topic.

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