I took this photo of 17-year-old Tanefume, a trainee geisha playing drinking games with tourists at the Gion Hatanaka Ryokan in Kyoto. The delighted expression on her face contrasts strikingly with her formal attire and shows just how young and ingenuous she is!
The Gion District of Kyoto, with its wooden inns, restaurants and ocha-ya or traditional tea houses is the heart of the geisha quarter.
You might catch a glimpse of a geisha, dressed in an elaborately patterned silk kimono, her face painted in traditional white makeup and hair piled high with delicate decorations, as she slips through a doorway. It is, however, very expensive and next to impossible for foreigners to hire a geisha for an evening’s entertainment of singing, dancing and drinking games.
However the enterprising Gion Hatanaka Ryokan, or traditional inn, offers a traditional Kyoto kaiseki dinner in bento boxes and entertainment with two maiko, or trainee geisha.
It is an entrancing experience where you watch them perform several songs and dances to the accompaniment of a shamisen, which is a three-stringed Japanese guitar-like instrument. Next you get to play a few drinking games with the maiko such as konpir, a test of memory and reflexes, and tora, tora, tora (tiger, tiger, tiger) where we all had fun pretending to be either old women, tigers or samurai.
Finally, the maiko came to each of our tables to chat as hostesses and we learn a little about their lives as you chat through an interpreter. I learn, for instance, that Tanefume thinks that mobile phones and the internet are evil and that she loves feeling special and different as a maiko. The only problem is that she must sleep with her head on a hard wooden pillow to protect her intricate hairstyle.
If you would like more ideas on what to do in Kyoto, check out my Insider’s Guide to Kyoto: The Golden Temple and Other Highlights.
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