As soon as I hear about the evening facilitated by the fantastic team at the Kanazawa Ryokan & Hotel Cooperative Association (they also coordinated my Zazen meditation day) I jumped at the chance. Sometimes it is sooo difficult to find out about cultural activities and events in Kanazawa and these folk make these types of things accessible to foreigners living in Kanazawa (like myself) as well as tourists.
So after work I met the girls at the Matsumoto Ryokan (Ryokan is a Japanese style hotel/B&B), a deceptively big place, and were greeted by a super friendly guy from the Kanazawa Ryokan Association who ushered us up 3 flights of stairs (hard to master in slippy indoor slippers) and to a bustling tatami mat room housing guests around those low Japanese dinner tables (called chabudai)
I have to admit I was expecting a room full of businessmen and although the majority of guests were in fact men there was a few women in there including another table of gaijins (foreigners) so we thankfully didn't stand out too much.
True to the Japanese' "on time" reputation the evening started bang on 6.30pm with the "house master" introducing us to our hostesses for the evening, 2 white faced younger geishas and 3 older non painted faced geisha. It took me straight back to a very hot day in Kyoto when mum and I spotted two maikos (training geisha) scurrying down the street with me on their tail trying to look at them. It was the same starstruck type awe I had then that I had at the moment these geishas walked in the room. WOW!
Trying my best to look comfortable sat next to a geisha
After a brief introduction, the geishas split up and each came to our tables. I was in such shock I couldn't stop staring at them for the first few minutes in disbelief that I was in such proximity to a real geisha. Whilst busy trying to get a grip of myself the geisha had come over to sit next to us, aggh asking Ayako where we were from etc. At first I sat there in petrified silence but then was totally put at ease when I realised she was so genki, down to earth and friendly that I joined in after a while. I guess I had a preconceived idea (and I'm not the only one) that geishas would be so quiet and submissive but this must be a complete Western misconception.
Geishas moving from table to table pouring drinks
The geishas moved from table to table pouring us beer and confidently chatting away. I tried so hard not to be the stereotypical tourist pointing a camera lens in their faces at every opportunity but they surprisingly welcomed photos. We were really intrigued to ask questions about their lives as geisha so had Ayako ask a few questions on our behalf.
Are there real geishas in Kanazawa? We'd all been to the old chaya districts in Kanazawa and the geisha house/museum but we were never really sure whether geishas still practiced in Kanazawa. Well the answer is yes! These geishas worked for a small geisha chaya operation in Nishi Chaya district. I even got given their business cards. They are generally hired to attend hired to attend parties and gatherings, traditionally at tea houses (茶屋) or at traditional Japanese restaurants.
She also pointed out that in this area (as well as the whole west coast of Japan) they are better known as "geikos"(芸子) . I've just discovered that "geiko" is the Kyoto dialect of the word geisha and "geisha" is the Tokyo dialect of the word. I'll refer to them as geikos in this post from now on.
We also wondered why two of them had their faces painted white and the other ladies' aren't?We immediately presumed this had something to do with their ages and level of training, perhaps the younger trainees (maikos) are the ones have to have painted faces. I think this is true for the Kyoto based geikos where maikos have to wear the heavy make up constantly but we were told that here it was just because the younger girls were dancing and the make up is seen as part of the dancing attire.
After a lot of chatting we tucked into our beautifully prepared starter (the best I have seen in Japan to date) which consisted of petite kamaboko pieces (like a steamed fishcake) and other fish pieces.
Next came these huge steaming pots of Nabemono (see my other post on Nabe dishes), full of meat balls, fish and veggies. What a wonderful winter warmer and no doubt the best I've tasted to date.
After dinner it was time for the performances.
First one of the older geikos played a beautiful high pitched tune with a tiny wooden flute which apprently takes years of training to master. Then the two white faced geikos danced whilst the other two ladies played the shamisen (a banjo type Japanese instrument) and sang.
We sat there in a silent awe. There was something so mesmorising about their performance as they flipping their fans in perfect unison and moved gracefully to the music, as though they were practicing tai chi. Each dance apparently tells a story and each dance move dictates it exactly.
One of the geikos then performed on two small taiko drums. I'll let the video performance and photos speak for themselves.
After it was our turn! The geikos wanted volunteers and of course I was straight up there. It was so much fun (although I was crap) especially when they all tried to sing along to my missed beats, see the video.
Next they introduced the rock, paper, scissors (Janken in Japanese) game and boy I thanked my lucky stars that I'd already had my stage debut and didn't have to go up again. Basically you played janken in time to the beat. If you lost you had to turn around and if you won you had to beat the drum. If you won 3 times in a row you're the winner and move onto the next geiko. Sounds easy? Errrrr no! Everyone struggled to get it.
I volunteered my friend Ayako (much to her dismay) and she played like a pro beating all the geikos until it was the final showdown with the head geiko and yep you've got it, she won!
It was so funny to watch especially when she had all the geikos on their knees bowing at her with respect. See the video above.
Now for the last bit of fun for the evening. We were each given a paper bowl (o-chawan) and a plate (sara) each leaving us a bit puzzled as to what this was all leading to. The master then started singing "O-chawan sara" to the tune of "Oh when the saints go marching in". "O-chawan" sounding like "Oh when" (sort of...) and "sara" sounding like "saints" (not really...) Very funny and he had us all up from our seats beating our plates and bowls in time to the words.
Alas our night was drawing to an close. One night in a lifetime evening with our geikos. I didn't want it to end. We had some pictures taken (yes again!), see below.
Our new best friend, the master of the house, then booked us a taxi and waited outside with us like a true gentleman.
An evening with geikos in Kanazawa can be organised through Kanazawa Ryokan & Hotel Cooperative Association The cost is ￥10,000 (about ₤65) which includes dinner and a drink. Definitely worth every penny and a must do if you're in Kanazawa.