By Steve John Powell and Angeles Marin Cabello October 13, 2021 For most people, the word "geisha " conjures up visions of Kyoto's Gion district. But there is another great geisha hub, that not even many Japanese people know.
The dancer glides noiselessly across the tatami mat floor, a branch of blushing maple leaves in her right hand. The long sleeves of her kimono indicate that she is a furisode, or an apprentice geisha. Behind her, a onesan (senior geisha) dressed in a tawny kimono sits on the floor, playing a singing rhythm on a three-string shamisen with a large wedge-shaped plectrum.
A scene typical of Kyoto's Gion district, you might think. But it's over 500 km northwest of Niigata, a historic port city on the west coast of Honshu.
The tradition of Niigata geishas dates back over 200 years to the Edo era (1603-1867) when the city was a major port on the Kitamaebune Sea Route (literally, "northbound ships ") that connected Osaka to Hokkaido. Thousands of freighters made this trip every year. As the capital of Japan's largest rice producing area, Niigata has become the busiest port on the Sea of Japan coast. At the start of the Meiji era (1868-1912), Niigata was one of the wealthiest and most populous regions in the country.
A neighborhoodA flourishing disruption has grown into the city 's furumachi district to accommodate countless wealthy traders and other visitors. geishas (or geigis, local dialect) began to occur in many furumachi tea rooms, ozashiki (banquet halls) ryotei (luxury restaurants). politicians even members of the imperial family were among the clientele. By 1884, nearly 400 geigis were producing furumachi.
Nobuko, the shamisen who played the singing song while the apprentice danced, has been a Furumachi geigi for 64 years. She remembers having
Although little known compared to Kyoto, the geisha tradition of Niigata dates back over 200 years (Credit: Niigat a Visitors & Convention Bureau)
"The prince was very nice, " she recalls. "He made a lot of jokes. I don't know if I'm supposed to mention it, but he was playing mahjong with the senior geigis. I watched them while I was serving sake and tea. "
While geisha activity ceased during the SecondWorld War, it quickly resumed thereafter. Although it has never returned to the peak of its glory days, it still offers a fascinating insight into traditional Japanese culture and arts. Unlike Kyoto's overly touristy geisha area, Furumachi is one of the few areas in Japan where travelers can still savor the authentic surroundings of a traditional hanamachi or Flower Town, as the geisha quarters are called. .
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"Today, perhaps it cannot be experienced in Kyoto, Kanazawa [capital of Ishikawa prefecture] and Furumachi, " said Aritomo Kubo, member of the Furumachi Kagai Club staff , which helps preserve the traditional streetscape of Furumachi by maintaining its heritage architecture. "Additionally, many of the ryotei restaurants in Furumachi are the original buildings, dating back to the 1800s " he added.
Furumachi has the added advantage that many of its ryotei accept first-time visitors, while many other famous geisha areas require an introduction from a regular customer. Niigata is also home to the Ichiyama School of Tradi National Dance, a unique style practiced by Niigata geigis which has been the basis of local performances for over 100 years and is designated as Intangible Cultural Property.The Geigis perform this style of dance by singing songs like "Niigata Okesa ", which was brought to Niigata by sailors sailing the Kitamaebune trade route.
However, with the advent of television, movies, and other alternative forms of
At that time, far fewer young women were interested in devoting eight years of their lives to learning essential geisha skills: shamisen; songs; the dances ; the mores. As a result, the rate of new interns has not kept pace with retirements.
Also, unlike Kyoto - the refined capital of Japan forover 1,000 years old (794-1868) - Isolated Niigata is a place few tourists visit, further limiting the demand for geisha shows. And in the 1980s, a lack of activity forced many ryotei to shut down.
Visitors to Niigata can make a reservation at a ryotei in Furumachi district to see the geigis play (Credit: Niigata Visitors & Convention Bureau)
However Things started to improve in 1987, when an enterprising company decided to help keep Niigata 's geisha tradition alive. Ryuto Shinko Co , Ltd has become Japan 's first geigi recruiting company, aiming not only to train new geigi but also to act as a go-between, connecting them with ryotei and other establishments. Supported by sponsorship from 80 local businesses, Ryuto Shinko engages geigis as full-time salaried workers, providing health care and other benefits. They also hope to raise awareness and boost tourism through products such as t-shirts, calendars., fans and even pictures of Furumachi Geigi carrying sake.
Yui - the apprentice who danced on the tatami - is one of their recruits. “I enrolled after graduating from high school. This is only my ninth year, ”she said. "I started to learn traditional Japanese dance when I was little, so I was already passionate about kimonos and the sound of classical Japanese instruments.
Ryuto Shinko a introduces an attitude of innovation into the traditional world of geishas. They abolished the rule of mandatory retirement after marriage and reached out to families, women and tourists to broaden their audience from the traditional Japanese male clientele. Nowadays, the Furumachi geigis dance and teach their culture at conventions and perform at weddings and even funerals, where they perform the favorite song of the deceased. Although it is quite shortant to see geigis in the streets of Furumachi, walk to ryoteis or their courses, visitors to the city can make a reservation at a ryotei restaurant to see them perform or go to one of the many. annual festivals held in Niigata throughout the year.
The company has also developed new ways to
"customers in the old days were regulars and knew how to run us, ", Nobuko said. "They would often start to sing traditional songs, and the geigis would follow their example, playing the shamisen and dancing to their song. This was before the karaoke. The customers today 's.'hui are mostly new and need some guidance. Taruken is a good way to
Yui (right) was recruited by Ryuto Shinko Co after high school and has been a geigi for nine years (Credit: Sakura PR)
However, Furumachi's fragile recovery has taken another blow with the coronavirus outbreak. In the months following May 2020, when the Japanese government declared a state of emergency, advising people to avoid bars and restaurants, the number of ozashiki banquets fell by 90%. . Currently there are only 24 Furumachi geigis.
"I 've not experienced anything like it. The pandemic is like an invisible war " said Nobuko, who has seen the geigi scene survive two major earthquakes. "After the earthquakes, Ryuto Shinko sent geigis to hospitals and nursing homes to perform for free, to boost patient morale. We can't even do it now.
But Ryuto Shinko came up with an ingeniously contemporary way to save the age-old culture of geigis: online crowdfunding. They set an ambitious goal of 10 million yens (around £ 66,000) and 52 days until June 30, 2021) to meet it. Surprisingly, they exceeded their goal in just 11 days, receiving 15 million yen, contributed by a wide variety of people keen to help preserve this intrinsic part of Japanese culture. They then raised 30million yen (around £ 191,000).
In light of this wave of popular support, there is reason to be happy about Geigis 'future once Japan will reopen to international travel.
"I think geigis will stay the same, but our customers may change," Nobuko said. "There are many uncertainties ahead ... We must be prepared to adapt to any new demand.
Whatever the future holds, Nobuko does not regret his career, even if it does not was not her choice. "It was my mother 's idea. She had been a geigi in her hometown. I had a lot of siblings, so Iguess the reason was financial. "
Nobuko remembers being frequently scolded by her elders during her apprenticeship time, but that never took her away from the geigi world." Y Is there any other job that gives you the opportunity to meet so many people, including a prime minister, and talk to them on an equal footing? "she said. " I don't I've never been happier in my life than when I meet and learn from guests. "
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