Kimono and geisha

Kyoto - Gion Geisha District

Arriving at Tokyo’s Ueno Park for the cherry blossom festival, I spotted a woman in a kimono. “Is that a geisha?” I wondered. Then I saw kimono-clad women and girls everywhere. Ever more curious, I questioned our guide and learned some interesting facts about kimonos and geisha.

“Oh no,” she said. “Geishas are elusive and we’ll be lucky if we see any. Many of these are Japanese celebrating the festival and graduations. But most are tourists who have rented a kimono for the day.”

Looking closer, it was obvious. The Japanese women wearing kimono carried themselves with ease and grace. The non-Japanese? Not as much. Our tour offered an opportunity to wear a kimono but I knew I, like them, could never pull it off!

The word kimono simply means a “thing to wear” (ki = wear and mono = thing), kind of ironic for something so beautiful. There is a basic version for everyday but most Japanese now only wear kimono for special occasions, i.e. graduations, weddings and local festivals like the one we were attending.

The geisha kimono is even more ornate and has a unique characteristic — the back is open to expose the neckline. In Japanese culture, this is considered the most sensual part of a woman. The length of the kimono and associated shoes differ with the level of training.

Aside from the kimono, a trademark of a geisha is their white make-up. Did you know that at one time, it was lead-based and poisonous?! Now, of course, it’s harmless.

In the 1920s, there were 80,000 registered geisha. Today, there are fewer than 1,000. Frank was an honored guest at a genuine geisha house twenty-some years ago. Even at that time, it was a rare opportunity as most Japanese are unable to afford the very costly and unique experience. Frank always tells people that, “It’s not what a lot of people think; geisha are NOT prostitutes.” They are highly skilled entertainers who have trained for years in traditional Japanese arts.

This exclusivity, along with their dwindling numbers, has created a practice of “geisha spotting,” particularly in Kyoto, which has the highest concentration of geisha. Sometimes things get carried away. We heard horror stories of lone geisha aggressively mobbed by groups of tourists angling for a photo. Many are now hesitant to go out. Japan has begun a campaign to encourage tourists to treat the geisha, or person of art, with respect and to give them space.

I have to admit, I was super exited when I came across not one, but three(!), during a walk through Kyoto’s Gion district. Naturally, I took photos — but no, I didn’t crowd or block their way!



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