Search This Blog

Monday, May 3

Checking Off Another Dream: Time With a Geisha

One thing I had desperately wanted to do when I first moved to Japan was to hang out with a geisha.  Little did I know that this task would be more than a little difficult to accomplish.  Literature told me that there weren't many left around, but what it didn't tell me is how hard it is to get yourself to an event with one of the few that do still work in their unique cultural field.  When the Kamakura chapter of Ikebana International announced their April program would include a visit with a geisha, I told Kimono Hubby that come hell or high water, I would be going to the program that day.  He's a good guy.  He made it happen.  Even in the midst of an extremely busy week at work, he took the entire day off so I could catch the early bus to Tokyo with the other ladies.

A little rain did not dampen a single spirit that climbed onto the chartered tour bus that morning.  Little did I know at that early hour, but most Japanese women have never seen or been around a geisha either.  We all chatted away as we passed around basket after basket of baked goods to satisfy our stomachs until we arrived in the Asakusa part of Tokyo where we would have lunch.

Gardens are the thing to do here in Japan.  Particularly in Japan and during the spring when the cherry blossoms are in bloom and the hanami party is the thing to do.  But this spring has been the rainiest and coldest I have known in my four years here.  I have lamented over this many a day these past months as my kid stands with his face smashed into our glass doors wailing 'side, side,' his special way of telling me we need to go outside.  We've spent most days standing side-by-side at the window and staring longingly at the rain-soaked blossoms and budding trees wondering when it will end.  The ladies of I.I. have watched the rain come down with the same sadness in their hearts that the Peanut and I endure.

What made our collectively rain-drenched blade even sharper was the fact that the rain caused our travels to Tokyo to be slowed so much that we were late to arrive at our first spot, the Edo Period Hamarikyu Onshi Garden.  This did not stop several brave gaijin women from taking a quick stroll around the very damp and yet still very beautiful garden, one of the largest traditional gardens in Tokyo which had originally been laid in the 17th century for the 4th Tokugawa Shogun (feudal lord) and later used by the Shogan as a hunting ground.  The garden even served a spell as being a Detached Palace for the Imperial Family during the Meiji Restoration, but after World War II, the family gave the park to the City of Tokyo and opened it to the public.  Inside the garden, we found a serenity completely unlike the bustling city area of Odaiba  and the Shiodome that lie just across the moat of Tokyo Bay sea water surrounding the quiet garden.  Strolling the grounds we found numerous cherry, plum and quince trees, a 300 year-old pine tree, and rock paths that led to the garden’s tidal pond with a teahouse perched at its center.  If time had not been under such an extreme crunch, I would have loved to have stopped there for some matcha and sweets.

As it was, the Japanese ladies were already huddled up under the awning at the park's front where we caught a quick cruise on the Sumida River.  The cruise took us under a dozen historic bridges, each one being unique and architecturally appealing in some way.  The cruise is also generally a great way to see the old and new buildings of Tokyo and lines of cherry trees along the banks, but the rain was causing problems yet again as it darkened the windows of the boat with too many splatters to see clearly through.  The cruise is famous for being the place to being during the Tokyo Bay Fireworks Festival held in August, but we will be long gone before then to catch that view.  when the cruise ended, we were pulled up onto the banks, just across from one of the most eye catching buildings in Tokyo, the Asahi Beer Building.  It is meant to resemble a glass of beer, but I can't help but to think it more resembles a big old sperm.  Sorry, Japan friends for this observation.  Moving on.

We now found ourselves in the heart of Asakusa, where we would be having lunch at the long-established Asakusa Tanbo Kusatsutei.  It was here that the day really began to fulfill some of the dreams I long entertained of what my time in Japan would be like.  We began with the first of our seasonal kaiseki lunch, an elegant wooden bento box that held various vegetables and fish cooked in traditional Japanese fashion.  A second course brought my favorite, sashimi.  A third, some type of crab in a ball placed in a clear broth.  A thin slice of daikon disguised itself on top of the ball making the dish look like a jellyfish floated inside.  A fourth course, the expected miso soup.  And finally a fifth course of sweets and fruits.  Each course fought hard to be more exquisite than the one that had come before it.

It was during this superb gluttony that our highlighted guest made her entrance.  Norie is a local geisha, fourth generation in her family, and has long lived in Asakusa previously with her family and now at her established Okiya.  She came to us well educated, speaking several languages, which thankfully included a perfect grasp of the tricky English language.  She and her accompaniment, another traditional geisha, who specifically plays shamisen (a type of Japanese string instrument) and therefore does not wear the white make-up, started with a short introductory speech before proceeding into their first song and dance performance.  Of course, the singing was not done in English, but whatever she said was certainly quite funny as several times there were titters and more amidst our Japanese ladies.  Norie did a second short dance number and then sat down as well to play a taiko drum while singing, which sounds more like chanting to my untrained ear, along with the shamisen player.

After these performances, she paused a bit to stroll around the room and chat with several of us.  Of course, we had about sixty women in our crowd so I wasn't counting on getting too much alone time with her... but I was hoping beyond hope I was wrong.  Thank you God, I was!  She actually sat with my two American friends and I for several minutes and let me barrage her with question after question.  Just from this brief conversation, I would say she is quite sharp and surely is the life of the party she is supposed to be after a few drinks are in her evening customers. 

After she moved on from us, I couldn't help but stare at her as she floated around the room.  I simply loved when she would get lost in telling a story to a group.  Without knowing it, every inch of her was completely animated and into the story and the ladies that swarmed around her leaned in even closer, hanging onto every witty word of whatever secret story she was sharing with them.  It was simply marvelous to see!  Damn.  Now I sound like I am turning into some little old lady, but I swear I loved it that much.

Norie made her way back up to the stage for the next part of our afternoon.  The fun was not over as she pulled out a low, traditional table on which she would be teaching us the traditional Japanese drinking games of goishi hiroi and konpira fune fune.  When she asked for volunteers, in the usual way the Japanese women hesitated.  Of course, they would never volunteer until they were overly encouraged to do so, even if they were surely dying to run up there in the first place as I know I was.  My friend fortunately is like me and did not want to miss an opportunity as such.  We jumped at the chance and pulled our other friend who was at her first I.I. program visiting along with us.

Somehow, the proper number of volunteers were acquired.  Norie asked for five on each side as she placed us into teams.  She told us the first and last person would have it the hardest.  She had demonstrated what we were to be doing and it seemed easy enough, but that was until you tried it.  When it was your turn, you rushed up and kneeled at the table in the proper Japanese sitting fashion, tie on a scarf around your neck, pick up the chopsticks and begin transferring these rounded, wooden 'coins' from the bowl they were in to the empty one beside it.  If you dropped one in the process, the person standing in turn behind you was to rush over, pick it up and put it back in the bowl to try again.  Shamisen music plays in the background which only adds to the intensity you feel as you try to rush your chips to the appropriate bowl.  Gaijin stood at the front of the line on both teams and while we are all pretty confident in our chopstick eating skills, this was much harder than we anticipated.  My friend managed to get through it without showing an ounce of the frustration she had to be feeling over being the first, the guinea pig, as we took in what she was doing and prepared ourselves to do the same, but faster.  I was third and I don't like to brag, but I was damn good.  Unfortunately our team lost, despite the two Japanese ringers we had at the end of our team who made up a world of time for our slow gaijin start.  All in good spirits though as we laughed our way back to our table and to watch another group try their hand at it.  I can imagine that playing this in the evening hours and with a lot of sake being pushed on the losers, that this game gets progressively harder and progressively funnier. 

The second game, konpira fune fune, I desperately wanted to take part in, but I thought it would be greedy to volunteer so eagerly again when there were so many other people there to try their hand.  Of course, my Japanese friends encouraged me, but I maintained my polite no-no-I-couldn't attitude.  My friend did go and try for a second round at a game.  She and I get along well as we both try to fully take advantage of every opportunity our lives have given us, so she didn't hesitate when encouraged to go again.

For this game, it's head-to-head as you do a tap and grab dance with a bowl in the middle of the table.  When the bowl is not on the table (as you have 'stolen' it) and your opponent doesn't make a fist instead of a flat palm, you win.  The ever present shamisen music plays faster and faster increasing the pace of the game.  Again, drunk, this would be increasingly difficult to say the least.  As it was, my friend won both rounds and won herself a tenugi (a decorative towel used for a variety of things) with little drunken businessmen playing games and drinking sake imprinted onto it.  Darn.  When I saw what she won, I wish I had pushed up there, but who is to say I wouldn't have sucked at the game.  Laughter filled the air as everyone took a turn at besting their opponent with one of my fellow Ikebana students falling in a pile of laughter as she was bested twice by a friend.

When the games ended, Norie took more time moving around the room and talking to everyone she could get to.  One of the older groups of ladies had bought several tokkuri (ceramic serving flasks) of sake and were doing their best to get Norie to down several choko (small drinking glasses that look like shot glasses).  Watching them enjoy meeting her was probably the highlight of my experience with a geisha.  They were just in hysterics from her stories and what could be better than watching friends have the time of their lives?

As that portion of the afternoon closed and we made our decent to reclaim our shoes (removed in traditional fashion as we had entered the restaurant and stepped onto the tatami mats), the laughter  continued as members strolled out onto the street for a little sightseeing and shopping in the honored Senso-ji Temple area of Asakusa.  I got a second opportunity to chat with Norie for a few more moments as we were leaving and made sure to tell her that she had made it a great afternoon... one my dreams were made of. She was so sweet to tell me that she then wishes she had spent even more time talking to me.  Trust me, Norie, I am so happy with the time we spent.

We had an hour of free time before we had to meet back at the bus.  On Nakamise-dori, I purchased some Chinese zodiac animal figurines that matched each of our birthdates.  They have little bells in them and my friend gave me the idea to make them into Christmas ornaments.  Considering I haven't really bought any in years (Japan is, as stated stated before, not so big on the holiday in the regular Christian way of celebrating), these will hold a lot of meaning to me and will be treasured for years to come.

We got some sweets and continued our aimless meandering for a bit more and then gathered back at the meeting point.

I can't believe I actually got to meet a geisha.  I kind of figured that if anyone did, it would be KH at one of the many events he attends in the city.  I feel like I finally one-upped him in this respect.  If you know the circle he runs in, you know how difficult that is.  I treasure of lot of days and memories of Japan, but this one will be one of the best.  God bless these amazing opportunities.


Heather Meadows said...

Wow, what an amazing experience! I hope I get to meet a geisha someday too :)

Did you take any pictures of the zodiac figurines?

Jill C. said...

Wow! Sounds like an amazing time! I'm jealous!

Anonymous said...

Sounds a fun day, BTW there was recently a British TV programme about a girl training to be a geisha.

And the best way to survive bad weather is to get out in it - buy an umbrella :-) (trust me, I'm British and we get lots of practice)

Great entry, keep blogging,

Kimono Karen said...

Wembley - It rains so much here that it drives me crazy. I can't imagine living in another place (like London or Seattle) where it rains so much. It just gets depressing to me. I guess you overcome it, though in four years, I still have not. And we have 8 umbrellas! Doesn't it drive you up a wall after awhile??

Heather - didn't snap the figurines. Guess I should do that!

Thanks, Jill c!