Geisha establishments begin wooing women

by Hiroshi Inoue

Kyodo

Faced with flagging demand from their usual customer base of wealthy male patrons, a number of establishments employing traditional geisha entertainers are enthusiastically courting interest in their services from women.

Last summer, Hamacho, a “ryotei” (traditional high-class restaurant) in Kochi, began offering a women-only group dinner plan accompanied by “ozashiki asobi,” or private games with geisha. The two-hour plan is available at the bargain price of ¥5,000 per customer.

In a sense, the plan is an attempt to cash in on the emerging trend of “joshikai,” or women’s drinking parties, by breaking out of the traditional mold of ryotei.

Ryotei restaurants are known for their air of exclusivity because they are expensive and provide the rare, male-centric experience of ozashiki asobi, in which customers mingle with female entertainers trained in a variety of traditional arts.

Hamacho launched the novel dinner plan after Misako Hamaguchi, 49, the manager, came across a string of comments by women on Facebook stating that they were interested in taking part in ryotei dining and entertainment experiences.

Miki Nishizawa, 51, held a yearend get-together at Hamacho with three former high-school classmates last year. Halfway through the gathering, a geisha entered to chat, dance and play games with them.

“I will tell my friends to give it a try,” Nishizawa said, expressing her appreciation for the unusual experience. One of her former classmates said she enjoyed herself, although she still harbored the notion that mingling with geisha was mostly a male preserve.

Around 10 groups each month sign up for the dinner and geisha event. “I hope more women will feel free to come through our door,” Hamaguchi said.

The “hanamachi” entertainment districts that represent the last bastion of the geisha tradition have slowly been disappearing across Japan, and the number of geisha is also continuing to decline.

In an effort to reinvigorate the waning hanamachi culture, the Japan Ozashiki-Asobi Association organized dinners involving geisha entertainment in Tokyo last July. The charge was ¥9,500 per head, but perhaps because of the ¥3,000 discount offered to visitors wearing kimono, women outnumbered men seven to three.

As well as providing entertainment, geisha are gaining women’s attention as models of elegance, an official of the association said.

In other regions as well, women’s interest in the geisha world appears to be growing.

Sightseeing programs organized in Atami, Shizuoka Prefecture, to give tourists a glimpse of the geisha world have recently started attracting more women.

Meanwhile, Kyoto’s “miyako odori” festival, which features dance performances by geisha, has long been drawing droves of female fans, the festival’s organizer said.

Historically, being entertained by geisha was not always exclusively for men, although only a small coterie of cultured women in wealthy families had access to this pastime, according to Yuko Tanaka, a Hosei University professor who studies Edo Period culture, something that thrived during the Tokugawa shogunate.

“It is good that more and more women mingle with geisha and grow more interested in traditional Japanese culture,” Tanaka said.