Kanazawa’s geisha tradition gets boost with new blood

by Marie Kobayashi

Kyodo

The geisha tradition lives on with a touch of modernity in Kanazawa, the historic castle town on the Sea of Japan coast in Ishikawa Prefecture, as an increasing number of young women are attracted to the beauty surrounding the ancient profession of female entertainers.

Momotaro, a geisha at the Nakanoya teahouse in Kanazawa, is one of the young women who have plunged into the world of geisha in recent years after graduating from school or quitting office jobs.

Momotaro, which is her stage name, was unable to find an interesting job after graduating from Kanazawa College of Art. One day, she saw a live performance of “subayashi,” a genre of ancient music performed using traditional Japanese instruments. She was captivated by the geisha.

“That was a beautiful sight,” Momotaro said. “It was quite different from watching a performance on TV or in a cinema.”

The origin of the geisha profession is said to date back to the late eighth century. Wearing elaborate kimono costumes and makeup, geisha perform traditional arts such as classical music, dance and games as hostesses at high-class social gatherings.

The beauty-obsessed world naturally attracts young women. But in addition to the years of hard training needed to master the skills of various arts, the costs of costumes and performance lessons, which amount to millions of yen annually, weigh heavily until they find patrons.

Geisha largely depend on fees paid by patrons for their performances, causing many rookies to turn to moneylenders — a factor that limits the number of women willing to enter the geisha world. Besides, the number of patrons can be affected by the economy.

In Kanazawa, there are three major teahouse neighborhoods, Nishi, Higashi and Kazuemachi. The latter two districts have been designated by the government as special zones for preserving traditional buildings, the environment and scenery.

Teahouses provide a stage for the geisha. There are 28 teahouses in the three districts, whose history dates back to the first half of the 19th century.

In 1984, a year after the female teahouse managers in the districts organized a local teahouse association, there were 80 geisha, but the number continued to decline thereafter, falling to a low of 42 in 2000.

The number has now recovered to 50 thanks to various local initiatives and public subsidies.

The managers said that after the downfall of the economic bubble in the early 1990s, the teahouses lost much of their patronage.

They responded to the crisis by cooperating with the municipal government and the chamber of commerce and industry in Kanazawa to launch initiatives to attract customers as well as geisha trainees.

The teahouse association also started giving visitors the privilege of watching geisha taking performance lessons for free and arranging occasions to have the hands-on experience of drumming to traditional music.

Meanwhile, the city government launched a subsidy program intended to lure group visitors by covering up to two-thirds of the performance fees paid to geisha.

In 2009, restaurant operator Kenjotei, which owns the Kaikaro teahouse in Higashi district, started offering geisha dancing performances at wedding parties held at the teahouse as a new service.

“It’s my job to expand the scope of activities while preserving the dignity of our district,” said Hanako Baba, the manager of Kaikaro.

A teahouse association official also said the perception that geisha is a nightlife job is changing as the range of geisha services has broadened.

Momotaro, typical of a new generation of women, is not averse to trying novelties. On off days and during some of her free hours, she takes flamenco lessons and posts her thoughts on Twitter.

As a geisha, she not only entertains guests with her artistic performances but also puts a lot of effort into playing hostess for them, giving sightseeing tips and recommending her favorite wines.

Entertaining people as a geisha is a satisfying job, she said. “This is not easy. But it is a job that enables me to exercise my potential.”

Momotaro is eager to broaden the geographical horizon of her entertaining career as well.

“I can perform anywhere, as long as there is a tatami floor. I would be willing to go to Tokyo and Osaka,” she said.

In other regions around the country, there are also initiatives to support the tradition of geisha.

In the hot-spring town of Beppu, Oita Prefecture, a nonprofit organization opened a geisha training school in June, providing a free two-year course.

Reflecting the need to accommodate foreign tourists, trainees take foreign-language lessons, including English and Chinese, as well as practice singing and playing the shamisen.