The Geisha Paparazzi

almost-geisha.jpgIn downtown Vancouver, British Columbia, especially in the Gastown area, which is the oldest part of the city, we always like to laugh at the Japanese tourists.  There is an historic steam clock on one corner which to me seems a very modest tourist attraction but appears to be a major tour destination.

A troop of Japanese tourists like elderly asian Scouts will come trailing behind a determined leader who raises a baton or small flag high above her head. She shouts in Japanese or may even use a small megaphone to rally her following over the sound of traffic.  Pairs of tourists take photos of themselves in front of streetlamps, for some reason; perhaps the local streetlamps are exotically different than what can be found in the home country.

So it was with some chagrin that my wife and I found ourselves in the exact same situation in Japan a few weeks ago, following a tour leader, keeping that precious flag in sight, weaving on foot through downtown Kyoto, a party of mostly Chinese tourists on the loose.  That has to be poetic justice, or ironic, or something.

It’s not very polite to make a lot of public noise with a megaphone in Japan, so we had to keep close to our guide.  The Japanese were polite enough in turn not to smirk or laugh at us out loud, although I’m sure we compared favorably on the scale of ludicrous with respect to where we liked to take photos.

The Japanese are extremely polite, at least to us paying customers, so much so that it made me, a country boy from the northern hamlet of Quick, British Columbia, a little uneasy.  It’s like when the bar goes too quiet.

But I am happy to report that we were very well taken care of, even though, with my near ignorance of both Mandarin Chinese (the tour language, since we got a deal and my wife speaks Mandarin) and Japanese, my perpetual smile may have lost its freshness from time to time.  But it was a good tour and very professionally handled. 

On this evening in Kyoto, which is the historic old imperial capital of Japan, and which seeks to keep alive many of the traditional customs, the tour guide left us for a couple of hours to explore on our own after first leading us to a place to eat. 

It was a much more casual restaurant than where we were typically fed, the kind of unpretentious urban establishment you might find in most any city, anywhere.  It had of course the standard Japanese fare of noodles and rice, seafood and seaweed, but it also had a kind of deep-fried, almost tempura-like porkchop dish that was ordered for us.  Before we could have it, though, we had to take the wooden mortar and pestle that was on every table and grind roasted sesame seeds, add some kind of soy-sesame oil sauce, and grind some more, until we got a moist paste.  And that was the dip for our pork chops. It was really good.

Leaving there, early evening, still light out, we began our stalk of the geishas of Kyoto.

I must preface the rest of the account with an aside about geishas, about whom I knew little before this trip.

The tradition of the geisha is in decline in Japan, and most of the true geisha who still remain, perhaps fifty or so, we were told, are in Kyoto.  Geisha are female professional entertainers whose knowledge of traditional arts, skill at verbal repartee, and ability to keep secrets makes them attractive to the well-heeled and often influential male clients they entertain.

This profession, which dates from the 1600s, is not about prostitution or sexual innuendo, although there are similar women called onsen geisha who have blurred the boundaries.  Kyoto’s geisha prefer the term geiko, “child of the arts.”  In Kyoto, alone in all Japan, there is also an apprentice class called maiko. 

The maiko girls wear their hair in a distinctive style while wearing a long hanging obi, tall koppori clogs and an under-kimono with an embroidered collar.  When graduating to geiko, they exchange the embroidered collar for a white one, in a ceremony known as eri-kae, or collar change.  One interesting cultural point is that the sensual, erotic area of a woman’s body is considered to be the nape of the neck, so this area is left untouched by cosmetic paint.

kimono-girls.jpgTo become a geisha, a girl must specialize either in dance or master a musical instrument such as the three-stringed shamisen, the Japanese lute.  Public dances and performances are held each spring and fall.  Otherwise, the only way to see a true geisha is to attend private functions held at upscale restaurants, teahouses, and supper clubs.

So after our meal, my wife and I, and other members of our tour, eventually made our way to a straight, spacious alley off a major Kyoto street, where many of these teahouses and supper clubs conducted their business.  Our tour guide had let it be known to the women of the tour that we might, possibly, no guarantees, if fortune smiled upon us, glimpse a real geisha in this area.

It was starting to get dark by now.  The middle-aged Chinese women of the tour were very excited, the men rather less so.  Cameras were gripped tightly.  My wife, who just loves fashion and elegant clothes, although not much of a clotheshorse herself, was all aflutter too.  Around her neck hung a big black professional looking digital SLR.  She checked its settings nervously.  The streetlights came on.  A few lights went on in front of the teahouses.  A taxi deposited guests for one of them.  Then another taxi pulled up… Geisha!

Shouts went up.  The white-faced traditionally clothed women hurried inside the nearby supper club without a glance around.  Photos were snapped, flashes speared the night… but it was too late! 

Now the women of the tour prowled the alley with anticipation and disappointment, inspecting each oncoming taxi in the dark for the sought-for precious occupants.  While this is going on, normal street traffic to all these restaurants or teahouses was also in progress.  I don’t know what the residents thought of this minor furor, but they must have become used to the strange, excited foreigners after all these years.

More cries! Oh, a false alarm.  And then… two geishas stepped carefully from a taxi and took their short little steps down a side alley where another teahouse was located.  Yelling commenced.  In the darkness, my wife and another woman, cameras held high, ran after the poor geisha.  My wife hoped that they might stop and enjoy a photographic moment, but no…  They were not like the mock-geishas of the daytime who made a point of stopping for photos with tourists in the narrow back streets of Kyoto.  These geishas scurried away to their destination as quickly as they possibly could, flashes lighting their backs briefly as they entered a doorway and disappeared.

Shortly we had to return to the tour bus.  The women compared their digital trophies.  One of the group had captured a good shot of a geisha with her point and shoot camera, the flash catching the startled subject like a deer in the headlights.  There were congratulations all around.  My wife and I shared a good laugh about the geisha paparazzi, of whom she was certainly one, and we made our way to our hotel.


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4 Comments on “The Geisha Paparazzi”

  1. Eliza Says:

    I don’t know whether to laugh or to relay my sympathies! But I like that first snapshot. Have never met a geisha in real life. The services they give makes this woman ponder. Food for thought!

  2. fencer Says:

    Hi Eliza,

    Yes, very traditional, patriarchal way of access to and influence upon “important” men.

    Feminine wiles!


  3. sputnki Says:

    Yup, we laugh at the tourists and their habits, but do the same thing ourselves. Something I noticed once when I was in Washington D.C. were the Japanese tourists would take pictures of each other next to the signs pointing the way to a famous attraction. Maybe they looked exotic to people with such a different written language and they wanted to impress their friends. I couldn’t speculate for long tho, I was busy with my own rubberneckin’!

    I remember being on a tour in Austria that was being held in German. I could count to ~100 in German and knew the polite way to ask where the bathroom was. So there was a lot of striding behind a 6 foot Brunhilde waving a flag, stopping every once and a while in front of another church and hearing a short oration in German.

    My favourite tourist-Goshen experience was a train in Norway. We thought we were going to miss it so we jumped on the last car (which was closest). Each car as we moved forward looking for a free seat had a different group from a different country. I felt like I was in a Monty Python sketch. The German car was full of loud boisterous red-faced tourists talking over each other, the Japanese car had more camera’s in it than the local photo store, the Norwegian car was full of people reading the newspaper (Norwegians LOVE to read, even outside in the snow!). We were getting desperate and then reached the Italian car. It was like walking into a beach party, everybody laughing and carrying on. The door forward from that car was locked and the gentlemen in the front seats invited us to join them.

    What does this have to do with geisha? Every culture brings something different, but the levelling effects of globalisation make each tourist destination seem so similar to the next. We are, I think, are desperate for something that uniquely defines that place and time in their mind. Reconciles it to what they read or heard about the country or people. I loved the book “Shogun” when I was younger, so I’d be looking for signs of that, and probably would get quite excited by the prospect of seeing a real Geisha, or a samurai sword!

    That’s why tourists tromp out to Peggy’s Cove and try lobster here in Nova Scotia, and probably why it’s so exciting to see a real Geisha in Japan. It ties that place to the country in your mind.

    keep yer stick on the ice!


  4. fencer Says:

    Hi Doug,
    Hey, you’ve travelled quite a bit.

    I really like that train experience you mention. That would make a great short story or play or something… at least a blog post! So how did things go in the Italian car?

    I think that’s a great point about wanting to get something unique from each place, something real and human, yet characteristic of a different way of life. That’s why so many photos, hoping to carry something of what you describe away.

    Come on up to northern BC and see a moose!

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