Drinking with Japanese Geisha
Japan used to be full of geisha – there were thousands. But as one of our guides said: “That was before TV.” These days geisha are a rare thing – there are still a small number working, playing instruments, and doing tea ceremonies, but their numbers continue to shrink as fewer young women join their ranks. And it is understandable – being a geisha is a huge commitment. Young women begin training as “maiko” (apprentice geisha) at either 15 or 18 and train for several years before debuting as full-fledged geisha. Most geisha (and all maiko) are required to live in special geisha houses, and they cannot marry and maintain their geisha status (though they can go back to being a geisha if the marriage ends). Knowing how rare they are, and how difficult it is to become a geisha, we felt especially lucky to get to spend an evening with Kochiyo and Aki in Kanazawa. (Another treat courtesy of my sister and brother-in-law, Heather and Zack, who also took us along on their sumo adventure.)
We got a lot of conflicting information from tour guides as to what distinguishes a geisha from a maiko (wigs vs real hair?), what the experience of seeing a geisha is like, and the history of geisha. One thing that all the tour guides agreed on though (and one thing they all said up front): geishas do not get up to any funny business with the customers. Ok, then. And they also agreed that geisha can drink. If our geisha are a fair representation of the group as a whole, this is certainly true.
Kochiyo and Aki joined us for dinner at Kinjoro Ryokan, one of the most beautiful and longest standing hotels in Kanazawa. It originally opened in 1890, and it was one of the most beautiful places that we stayed in Japan – with nearly impeccable service. There was a (very minor) slip in service when the servers brought only 5 sake cups – one too few to accommodate the four of us and both geisha. When the sixth cup finally arrived, Aki “caught up” by shooting two glasses of sake. In a very lady-like way.
The drinking ritual of sake is pretty straight-forward – there are no long, Russian-style toasts – but there a few quirks. First (in the more traditional ryokans and restaurants), they offer you a selection of different sized and shaped sake cups to choose from (this is excellent if you are trying to monitor how much you want to drink). Second, you should not refill your own cup. Our geisha did an excellent job of keeping our cups filled.
And Zack returned the favor.
Kyoto is the more typical spot to meet up with geisha, although we had heard that geisha experience there is more packaged, and that there are often 50 tourists in the room with a handful of geisha, so it is not very personal.
Kanazawa has the second highest geisha population after Kyoto, but still does not have very many young women entering the profession. When we met Kochiyo, she introduced herself saying: “You can see that I am very old, but there is no retirement age for geisha. So here I am.” And we could not have been more pleased. The primary role of the geisha is as an entertainer, through traditional music, dance, and – most importantly – conversation. Our geisha were great company: they were clever, quick, and charming (and all that came through with the help of our translator, as Kochiyo and Aki only spoke Japanese).
We had heard that geisha also play drinking games, but we were drinking enough on our own that games were unnecessary. They did perform traditional music though. First, Kochiyo sang and played shamisen – sort of like a three string guitar – while Aki danced, and then Aki accompanied her on the drums.
As the evening progressed, and we all started playing the drums, everything got more hilarious. And – despite every guide warning Dmitry that there was no way a geisha would let him touch her shamisen – Dmitry even got a chance to play. He wasn’t ready to be a geisha, but maybe a maiko?
It was an incredibly fun time, and we were all very sad to see the ladies leave. In memory (and in consideration of my hangover the next morning), I created this educational limerick:
When partying down with two geishas
Don’t choose a cup that’s too spacious
Because a geisha can drink
Much more than you’d think
And you have to keep up to be gracious