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Living Art of the Geisha





No other aspect of Japanese culture is as widely misunderstood as the geisha. First – and let’s get this out of the way – geisha are not prostitutes. Nor is their virginity sold off to the highest bidder. Nor do they have to sleep with regular patrons. To put it simply, geisha are highly skilled entertainers who are paid to facilitate and liven up social occasions in Japan.

The origins of geisha are subject to some debate, but most historians believe that the institution of the geisha started in the Edo period (1600–1868). At this time, there were various types of prostitutes who served men in the pleasure quarters of the large cities. Some of these ladies became very accomplished in various arts and it is said that some pleasure houses even employed male performers to entertain customers. Some believe that these male entertainers were the first to be dubbed ‘geisha’, which means ‘artistic person’.

Eventually, there arose a class of young ladies who specialised exclusively in entertainment and who did not engage in sexual relations with clients. These were the first true female geisha, and over the years they became prized for the accomplishments in a wide variety of Japanese arts. Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden is an entertaining fictional account of the life of a Kyoto geisha. Without a doubt, Kyoto is the capital of the geisha world. Confusingly, in Kyoto they are not called ‘geisha’; rather, they are called maiko or geiko . A maiko is a girl between the ages of 15 and 20, who is in the process of training to become a fully fledged geiko (the Kyoto word for ‘geisha’). During this five-year period, she lives in an okiya (geisha house) and studies traditional Japanese arts, including dance, singing, tea ceremony and shamisen (a three-stringed instrument). During this time, she will also start to entertain clients, usually in the company of a geiko, who acts like an older sister. Due to the extensive training she receives, a maiko or geiko is like a living museum of Japanese traditional culture. In addition to her skills, the kimono she wears and the ornaments in her hair and on her obi (kimono sash) represent the highest achievements in Japanese arts. It’s therefore hardly surprising that both Japanese and foreigners consider a meeting with a geisha to be a magical occurrence.

GEISHA MANNERS

There’s no doubt that catching a glimpse of a geisha is a once-in-a-lifetime Japanese experience. Unfortunately, the sport of ‘geisha-spotting’ has really gotten out of hand in Kyoto’s Gion district (the city’s main geisha district). It’s probably best to keep the following in mind if you join the ranks of geisha-spotters in Gion: » The geisha you see in Gion are usually on the way to or from an appointment and cannot stop for photos or conversation.

» You shouldn’t touch or grab a geisha, or physically block their progress.
» No one likes being mobbed by photographers or hounded as they walk down the street.
» If you really want to get close to a geisha, private tour agencies and high-end ryokan or hotels can arrange geisha entertainment.
» Finally, if you are intent on getting a few photos of geisha, you will find plenty of ‘tourist geisha’ in the streets of Higashiyama during the daytime. These are tourists who have paid to be made up as geisha. They look pretty much like the real thing and they are usually more than happy to pose for pictures.

While young girls may have been sold into this world in times gone by, these days girls make the choice themselves, often after coming to Kyoto to see one of the city’s famous geisha dances. The proprietor of the okiya will meet the girl and her parents to determine if the girl is serious and if her parents are willing to grant her permission to enter the world of the geisha (the okiya makes a considerable investment in terms of training and kimonos, so they are loathe to take girls who may quit).

Once a maiko completes her training and becomes a geiko, she is able to move out of the okiya and live on her own. At this point she is free to have a boyfriend, but if she gets married she has to leave the world of the geisha. It’s very easy to spot the difference between a maiko and a geiko: geiko wear wigs with minimal ornamentation (usually just a wooden comb in the wig), while maiko wear their own hair in an elaborate hairstyle with many bright hair ornaments called kanzashi . Also, maiko wear elaborate long-sleeve kimonos, while geiko wear simpler kimonos with shorter sleeves.

Maiko and geiko entertain their clients in exclusive restaurants, banquet halls, ‘teahouses’ (more like exclusive traditional bars) and other venues. An evening of maiko/geiko entertainment usually starts with a kaiseki (Japanese haute cuisine) meal. While their customers eat, the maiko/geiko enter the room and introduce themselves in Kyoto dialect. They proceed to pour drinks and make witty banter with the guests. Sometimes they even play drinking games, and we can tell you from experience that it’s hard to beat geisha at their own games! If it’s a large party with a jikata ( shamisen player), the girls may dance after dinner.

As you might guess, this sort of entertainment does not come cheap: a dinner with one maiko and one geiko and a jikata might cost about US$900, but it’s definitely worth it for a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Let’s face it: ‘I had dinner with a geisha’ is a pretty good entry in any ‘been-there-done-that’ contest.

It’s impossible to arrange private geisha entertainment without an introduction from an established patron. However, these days geisha entertainment can be arranged through top-end hotels, ryokan and some private tour operators in Kyoto. Knowledgeable sources estimate that there are perhaps 100 maiko and just over 100 geiko in Kyoto. Geisha can also be found in other parts of the country, most notably Tokyo. However, it is thought that there are less than 1000 geisha or geiko and maiko remaining in all of Japan.

Welcome to Japan

Japan Is Open for Travel

Since 11 March 2011, one cannot talk about or consider visiting Japan without the devastating earthquake and tsunami that struck northeast Japan coming up. Yet, rather than focus on the immediate horrors and lingering fears of the tragedy, one should focus on the beauty and accessibility of Japan today. One should note how the Japanese people, resilient and steadfast, behaved after the waters receded: they gathered calmly in evacuation shelters, set off bravely on rescue missions, began the task of rebuilding.

Every image from those first weeks reflects some of the culture’s highest virtues: the ability to gambaru (do their best) and to gaman (bear suffering without complaint). They also capture the famous Japanese thoroughness and civility. This spirit will allow the Japanese people to rebuild northern Japan faster than anyone expects. And it is this very same spirit that makes travelling in Japan such a joy.

Do not avoid Japan because of fear. The March 2011 disaster was of once-in-a- lifetime proportions, and even at the height of the crisis most of Japan was perfectly safe for travel. At the time of writing, only a small area of Fukushima Prefecture was off limits

apan is wide open for travel. If you have been considering your first visit to Japan or returning to re-experience the unique magic of the country, the perfect time to go – and to celebrate Japan and its people – is now.

Japan Is Approachably Exotic

Japan hits the travel sweet spot. It’s unique enough to give you regular doses of ‘Wow!’ without any downside. Indeed, travelling in Japan is remarkably comfortable, even with the language barrier thrown in – but it’s never familiar. Staying in a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) is marvellously different from staying in a chain hotel. Soaking naked in an onsen (hot spring) with a bunch of strangers might be a little odd at first, but it is beyond relaxing. Sitting in a robe on tatami mats eating raw fish and mountain vegetables may not be how you dine back home, but it is unforgettably delicious.

Japan Makes You Think

Perhaps more than any country on earth, Japan makes you think. It is a country that took a good, hard look at the West and said ‘We’ll take your technology, but we’re keeping our culture’. It was never extensively missionised or colonised. It practises an ancient animist/pantheist religion while pushing the boundaries of modern technology. It is a country where tens of millions of people can cram into crowded cities without ever losing their temper. And while you explore Japan, you will regularly find yourself awed by how the Japanese do things – and perhaps, just as often, wondering ‘Why don’t we do it that way back home?’



Kyoto Temples & Gardens

With more than 1000 temples to choose from, you’re spoiled for choice in Kyoto. Spend your time finding one that suits your taste. If you like things gaudy and grand, you’ll love the retina-burning splendour of Kinkaku-ji. If you prefer wabi-sabi to rococo, you’ll find the tranquillity of Hōnen-in or Shōren-in more to your liking. And don’t forget that temples are where you’ll find the best gardens: some of them are at Ginkaku-ji, Ryōan-ji and Tōfuku-ji.



Japanese Cuisine

Japan is a food lover’s paradise and the cuisine is incredibly varied, running the gamut from simple soba noodles to multi- course kaiseki banquets. In a city such as Tokyo or Kyoto, you could eat a different Japanese speciality cuisine every night for a month without repeating yourself. There’s no doubt that a food tour of Japan will be memorable, but there’s just one problem: once you try the real thing in Japan, the restaurants back home will pale in comparison. The only solution is another trip to Japan!



Onsen

There’s nothing like lowering yourself into the tub at a classic Japanese onsen. You can feel your muscles relax and the ‘ahhh’ that you emit is just an easy way of saying ‘Damn, I’m glad I came to Japan!’ If you’re lucky, the tub is outside and there’s a nice stream running nearby. The Japanese have turned the simple act of bathing into a folk religion, and the country is dotted with temples and shrines to this most relaxing of faiths.

Staying in a Ryokan

Eat in your bedroom. Spend the day lounging about in a robe. Soak in a bath while looking at a garden. Don’t lift a finger except to bring food to your mouth. Sounds relaxing? Then we highly recommend a night in a good ryokan. The Japanese had the whole spa thing figured out long before they ever heard the word ‘spa’. From first-class place to the most humble ryokan, they will all give you a taste of how the Japanese used to live.

Hiking in the Japan Alps

Close your eyes and picture Japan. If all you see are geisha, Zen gardens, bullet trains and hyper- modern cities, you might be in for a real surprise when you get into the Japan Alps. Hike right into the heart of the high peaks here and you’ll be in awe of so much mountain splendour. You can go hut-to-hut among the peaks for a week with nothing on your back but a solid day pack.

Castles

Japan’s castles have about as much in common with their European counterparts as kimonos have in common with Western dinner dresses. Their graceful contours belie the grim military realities behind their construction. Towering above the plains, they seem designed more to please the eye than to protect their lords. If you have an interest in the world of samurai, shōguns and military history, you’ll love Japan’s castles. Now that the castle at Himeji is under wraps, try the one at Matsuyama or Hikone

Tokyo’s Modern Architecture

Japan may be known for its traditional temples, but Tokyo’s cityscape is a veritable open-air museum of contemporary structures. The capital has come a long way from copying the Eiffel Tower – these days you’ll find dozens of inspired and original works by a pantheon of the world’s greatest designers. Fill up on such architectural eye-candy as the chic boutiques in Omote-sandō, the quirky postmodern projects on Odaiba, or even the new army of office towers in Marunouchi.

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