Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Memoirs of meeting a Geisha in Kyoto

Move over Tokyo – the cultural capital of Japan boasts geisha, samurai and karaoke

Tomi-Tae the Justin Bieber loving maiko

She looked like she’d stepped straight out of the pages of Arthur Golden’s award-winning novel. With her white face, crimson lips, Nihongami bun, and violet antique kimono, Tomi-Tae was the double of Chiyo Sakamoto, the heroine of the historical 
best-seller, Memoirs of a Geisha.

But while Golden’s geisha was a work of fiction, this exotic apprentice was standing in front of me, waiting to perform in a traditional okiya house in Gion, the geisha district of the former imperial capital of Japan, Kyoto.

The maiko – a geisha in training, literally translated as ‘dance child’ – bowed so low that the flowers pinned into her hair fluttered, trying to escape her elaborate hairstyle. Then she knelt down, careful not to sit on her obi (sash), which was tied around her kimono and hung down to her ankles, and began to play a koto 
– a traditional string instrument.

Sad, lilting notes filled the small room, conjuring up images of the water of the Kamo River rushing through the city, and Tomi-Tae and her friends hurrying along the narrow streets of Gion on their high-heeled okobo.

The song ended, and the mood changed as the maiko performed a mesmerising dance – her hands creating stories of their own, while her body swayed gently, like one of the fragrant cherry blossom trees outside swaying in 
the wind.

As she twisted, I caught a glimpse of her bare neck. Maikos don the same white make-up on the nape, which is considered sensual, leaving just a tiny patch of skin exposed. 
It’s part of the rich history of the geisha and their coveted role in Japanese culture.

The role of geisha can be traced as far back as 794 when the Imperial Court moved to Kyoto and the Japanese became obsessed with beauty. Geishas were considered 
the epitome of Japanese femininity, and entertained the elite.

Now they play a pivotal part in tourism as well as entertaining rich businessmen with their musical and dancing skills. Tourists flock to Gion to see the geisha of Golden’s novel and subsequent Academy Award-winning film, starring Suzuka Ohgo.

But it’s rare to get a private audience with a maiko like this. 
And so after showing us how to 
play a parlour game that involves clapping, singing and trying to outwit your partner – she won every time, which saw her giggle in delight – the 18-year-old sits down to talk.

'I wanted to be a geisha since I was a little girl,' she explained through her translator. 'My parents weren’t very happy at first as they knew I would have to leave home, but they supported me when they realised how serious I was. I came to Kyoto aged 15. I now study very hard, especially at music and calligraphy.'

She explained how she works for Okaa-san, the mother of the house, who chose to train her because she was a gifted musician, and because she is so pretty.

'I love to wear make-up and dress up,' Tomi-Tae said. 'But I have to be careful about my hair and sleep on 
a special pillow so I don’t mess it up.'

As she spoke the maiko looked much younger, her hands flying in front of her mouth when she laughed, or tried to find the right word to explain her life: how she gets to see her family only twice a year, and how she likes going to the cinema with friends and has seen Memoirs of a Geisha on YouTube.

Everything took a while as my questions were translated into Japanese, and her replies explained to us in English. 'Have you heard of Justin Bieber?' I asked the teenager, and suddenly she didn’t need the translator. 'I love him,' she replied 
in perfect English. 'I’m a big fan. 
My favourite song is Baby. I would 
like to meet him one day.'

It was strange to think of this maiko relaxing in jeans and a T-shirt on a rare day off, devoid of make-up, listening to the biggest pop star on the planet in her bedroom, just like other teenagers.
But now it was time to leave, and she escorted me outside, where we posed together for pictures while curious tourists and Japanese stared.

Before she could take her leave, she bowed not just once, but twice, then again, and I found myself caught in the complicated social and cultural code that I simply did not as a Westerner understand.
So I bowed every time she did, and finally, after about 10 minutes of this, the mother rescued Tomi-Tae and ushered her back inside the okiya.

Walking away – head and shoulders above the local residents – it was the first of many pinch-me moments in a country that is abundantly rich in heritage, history and culture.

Next stop Tawaraya Yoshitomi 
for a Japanese sweet tea ceremony, 
an elaborate ritual where a female 
tea master made a bowl of green tea – a task so ritualistic it took around an hour.

It takes 10 to 15 years to become a certified tea master, and I can see why, as every part of the ceremony involves complex and complicated movements, almost like a dance.

The green tea has to be brewed and filtered, but simply touching the crockery involves a series of movements, and when the tea is finally ready, it looks like a frothy green soup and cannot be consumed until the tea bowl has been rotated halfway round.

After I finisheded my tea, which was strong and didn’t taste at all like tea in the West, I was reminded to spin it back round to its original position so as not to cause offence.

Sweets are offered with the tea, and we were invited into a confectionary room to make some. It sounded like fun, and I thought it was going to be easy as I followed the chef, but it was much harder than it looked.

At first I thought we were creating flowers and pretty shapes out of marzipan, like petite fours, but in fact we were using dough made out of beans and vegetables.

My sweets looked ugly and misshapen and tasted unlike anything I’d ever had before 
– it was like eating a very doughy 
and chewy semi-sweet jelly – and 
I could only manage one.

Besides, I was too busy watching the delicate movements of the tea master, who was every bit as graceful as the geisha, with her intricate ritual involving myriad bowls and a whisk.

I was fast learning that everything in Japan has some deeper meaning. The entire culinary world, and tea, is not simply about satisfying one’s thirst or hunger – the experience is 
a cultural one.

Kyoto reigned as the capital of Japan for more than 1,000 years after Emperor Kammu made the city the centre of his Imperial Court and Japan’s political world.

Having escaped most of the destruction of the Second World War, it now has more than 2,000 shrines and temples, and 17 Unesco World Heritage sites.

Kyoto residents are proud of their noble heritage and traditions, which include kaiseki ryori – food beautiful enough to be called art.

Four styles of cooking relating to the imperial court, the Buddhist temples, tea ceremonies and formalised samurai events developed Kyoto’s most sophisticated culinary culture, Kyo-ryori.

So it was no wonder that I spent as much time taking photos of meals during my stay in Japan as I did consuming them.

I fell in love with tofu, which is served in different ways, and which I discover is part of the authentic Buddhist vegetarian cuisine, Shojin-ryori, which came to Japan from China with Zen Buddhism in the Kamakura period from 1192 to 1333. But the stand-out meal, apart from the must-try bento boxes, is lunch at Misoguigawa, a fusion of French and Kaiseki-style food.

It comes in delicate bowls with dishes so beautifully presented that 
I hardly dared touch them, and instead stared at them as if they were paintings before finally tasting them.

An explosion of flavours danced 
in my mouth, a sumptuous blend 
of French and Japanese coming together in harmony.

The chef Teruo Inoue looked like he’d stepped off a runway with the smartest chef’s whites I’d ever 
seen and a tie so impeccably 
knotted that it’s no wonder his 
dishes are as visually appealing 
as they are delicious. All the dishes were served by a waitress who looked more like a Japanese supermodel, and so I just had to take pictures of her as well as the food.

Later, I collapsed on the bed back in my room at Hotel Granvia, a modernist homage to glass and steel, directly in front of Kyoto Central Station, where bullet trains speed past en route to Tokyo.
The ultimate in modern Japanese chic, the hotel is part of the JR Kyoto Station building, and houses a theatre, underground shopping mall, museum and department store.

The rooms are small by Western standards, but big for Japan, and have all the mod cons and then some – I had to call downstairs to the concierge to ask how to work the shower, which comes with a bucket.

The patient concierge explained that it’s normal in Japan to wash using the bucket and soap before you go into the shower. It doesn’t make any sense to me, but neither does the heated toilet complete with musical options. They’re de rigeur in Japan, and have so many buttons on them that I’m sure I’m going to be launched out of the cubicle into space if I press too many.

So I indulged my passion for music over the road in a karaoke bar, which has private booths for parties of friends and colleagues, who dine, drink and sing their favourite songs.

Our guide, Ted, along with the management of Hotel Granvia Kyoto, took us along for another pinch-me moment when I found myself hogging the microphone wailing along to Jon Bon Jovi’s Living on a Prayer and Madonna’s Material Girl.

'You’re a really good singer,' Ted told me, and I wondered if he was being sarcastic or if it’s part of that bewildering Japanese social code again. Either way, I bowed, and watched as he belted out Elvis’ Suspicious Minds pitch perfect and complete with jiggling hips and a Presley-style pout.

Then it was off to bed, because we were up early the next day to visit Kiyomizu-dera temple, in the east of the city, where a resident Buddhist monk greeted us for a guided tour.

Swathed in black silk robes and a golden sash, he was totally unlike any monk I’ve ever met. Well-travelled, fluent in English and married (as all Buddhist monks are allowed to be here), he had an aura of sophistication as well as tranquillity.

He guided us round the beautiful temple, which was built in the early 17th Century without using a single nail. The temple is named after the waterfall, which runs down into the complex from the nearby hills as Kiyomizu means clear or pure water.

I marveled at the bright orange 
of the temple, the intricate work inside and out, but refused to go 
down into a special, pitch-black corridor, which is said to leave 
people who enter it reborn when 
they come out the other side.

Instead I smiled at the Japanese visitors in their kimonos, and headed outside to the stalls and shops to stock up on Hello Kitty merchandise for my little girl and a gold and black Bieber-style baseball cap, complete with an ornate embroidered dragon, for my son.

Fashion is big business in Japan, and we ventured across the city to Hosoo, a traditional weaving studio that produced silks and fabrics for Dior and other top designers.

It was fascinating to see the gorgeous designs being created and then programmed into a computer, which works the weave. It takes ages to make – I was there for a couple of hours and only a few centimetres are made in that time – so of course the workmanship doesn’t come cheap. But the quality is incredible, and I drifted back to the hotel wishing I had a Hosoo keepsake to take home.

I consoled myself with the thought of the next day’s activity – a visit to the Toei Kyoto Studio Park – a theme park that also houses a real-life film studio. More than 200 Jidaigeki movies are made here every year, and walking down one of the streets, set in the Edo period, we came face to face with samurai performing chambara – a sword-fighting play – watched ninjas in the theatre, and smiled at the couples dressing up as a samurai, or geisha for a date with a difference.

As we were about to leave, a bunch of teenage school girls rushed up to me and thrust a letter in my hands. In perfect English, 13-year-old Nagisa introduced herself, saying she came from Innoshima, an island, and would like to have a pen pal.

She was so shy and sweet, giggling behind her hand, as I read her beautifully scripted note and agreed to write to her when I got back to Dubai. And then I was off to my final stop in Japan – a traditional inn or ryokan. These are the places we see on TV or in films, with rush mats and sliding paper walls – and great omotenashi, or traditional Japanese hospitality.

Our inn, Yoshida Sanso, was incredible – an authentic ryokan built on the hillside of Mount Yoshida in 1932 and the former villa of Highashi Fushiminomiya, who is the uncle of the current Emperor Akihito.

Designed in part by Tsunekazu Nishioka, who also restored Japanese national treasures including Yakushi-ji temple and Horyu-ji temple in Nara, the villa is made from Hinoki cypress with views over beautiful gardens, Mount Daimonji and the range of Kyoto’s eastern mountains.

Our hostess, Tomoko Nakamura, whose family owns the villa, let us decide between ourselves which rooms we wanted. I chose one with a balcony overlooking the gardens, complete with futon, which is a mattress on the floor. I was sure that meant an uncomfortable night ahead, but after feasting on kaiseki and being given a scroll with a waka poem written out with a brush to keep forever, I fell into a deep sleep.

I awoke in the morning feeling refreshed and ready for breakfast while watching the sun rise over the gardens. Sadly it was time to head to Kansai airport in Osaka, but I wouldn’t forget Kyoto in a hurry.
Luckily I already own a copy 
of Golden’s book, which I vowed to 
re-read as soon as I arrived home. 
It will be fascinating to revisit now that I’ve walked through Gion, met a maiko – and I now have memoirs of my own. Ones to treasure.

Inside info
I was lucky enough to be on a press trip which was probably the best I've ever been on. For latest prices for Hotel Granvia visit www.granviakyoto.com

For more info on Yoshida-Sanso visit www.yoshidasanso.com.

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