Geisha in Kyoto Struggle to Protect Traditions in Face of Coronavirus

Geisha in Kyoto Struggle to Protect Traditions in Face of Coronavirus

by Cassandra Lord
Live Japan

Once part of a booming industry displaying the elegant traditions of Japan, Kyoto’s Geisha now find themselves at a crossroads with the spread of the Coronavirus and lack of visitors to the famous Geisha districts.

Falling on hard times

A Maiko (apprentice geisha) explaining the use of their special high pillow for sleeping.

Geisha in Kyoto are finding themselves having to adjust and re-evaluate how to continue to uphold traditions in these trying times of travel restrictions and social distancing.

In early February, teahouses immediately began to see sharp declines in bookings and sales, as customers worried about the spread of the virus in such closed spaces. The traditional annual dances that have continued for decades were also then cancelled due to precautions of congregating in large groups. Of course, the health of the Geisha and the clients were put first, and this was unavoidable. Then in March, each of the Geisha districts were put on high alert, and many cancelled events for the remainder of the year, and nearly all bookings were cancelled in a bid to protect elderly clients.

Gion Shimbashi during the coronavirus pandemic

Whilst all this was going on, most Geisha were forced to leave their lodgings and return home to their families. However, this does not mean the Geisha kicked up their feet and sat idly by while the country was on lockdown. The Geisha continued to diligently practice the arts online with their teachers, and many helped their local communities by sewing face masks with traditional materials. These traditional materials were made from the same <@Tenugui|@> (decorative cloths or hand towels) that the Geisha would normally have handed out during special celebrations, and over 400 of these masks were sewn by hand.

Closed for the first time since the war

The empty streets of Gion, once bustling with tourists and locals

In April, the government issued an emergency shutdown which closed the five Geisha districts of Kyoto*, and all businesses ceased to a halt. This is said to have been the first time that all the Geisha districts have been forced to close since World War II. The Geisha industry was really struggling.

The Kyoto Geisha Association (Ookini Zaidan) provided a stipend of 100,000 yen per person to support the Geiko and Maiko, but all expenses considered, such as training and high-quality clothing, this was but a small victory. Thus, locals began to set up separate crowdfunding campaigns to help the Geisha community, one of which is still running.

*The five Geisha districts of Kyoto: Kamishichiken, Gion Kobu, Ponto-Cho, Miyagawa-Cho, and Gion Higashi

Reopening of the Geisha districts

On June 1, the Geisha districts were opened once again. But now there are new rules for interacting with their esteemed customers.

The Geisha must now remain 1-2m apart from guests, cannot speak when pouring sake, have a limited time they can spend in one room, and must adhere to a 10pm curfew. In turn, guests from outside of Kyoto must be screened before even booking an appointment to meet the Geisha. Some regions of Japan have a particularly high concentration of coronavirus cases, and some guests from these areas are currently being refused entry to avoid further spread of the virus.

But, even with these new measures, with the second wave and renewed government statements discouraging evening activities and visiting entertainment venues, many events were still not held this summer in Kyoto. Most Geisha have continued to stay in their hometowns outside of Kyoto.

One Geisha who remained within Kyoto remarked “I think many of those who left may not come back at all and quit this profession if the pandemic does not end soon.”

How the Geisha are coping and renewing the Geisha scene

What was once a close, intimate, and decidedly traditional experience is now something that has been pushed into the modern, technological world. Geisha are taking their talents online and sharing the experience with people from all over the globe.

However, this presents an interesting opportunity for international guests. It was once nigh on impossible for first-timers to meet true Geisha in Kyoto, because of a rule known as “ichigensan okotowari,” meaning a personal reference is necessary for meeting a Geisha. Now, with these online meetings, for the first time ever rules are relaxing and people can meet real Kyoto Geisha online.

To facilitate this, the Kimono Tea Ceremony KYOTO MAIKOYA has started a reservation service where people can book a Geisha meeting online or face to face (or mask to mask) easily. Although the Geisha Museum run by the same company will close its doors indefinitely, instead, these sessions will feature apprentice Geisha, known as Geiko or Maiko, in their full outfits and accessories that often take 2-3 hours with assistance to put on. The Geisha will interact with the customer for one-hour sessions, having conversations, dancing, and even performing tea ceremonies online.

For those with more of an interest in the background and history of Geisha, guests can opt to speak with a Geisha house owner to learn about Geisha training, and what a day in the life of an apprentice Geisha is like. The course aims to cover the history, how Geisha learn the arts, how they must dress and prepare each day, and how they interact with customers of all ages.

Hair ornaments and outfits change with the season for Maiko.

These online Geisha experiences may be considered somewhat pricey in comparison to other online Zoom classes, but Mr. Acar of KYOTO MAIKOYA thinks that it would be disrespectful to the genuine Kyoto Geisha for a lower fee, especially given how much effort goes into preparation.

If you would like to book a session and support the traditional Kyoto arts, see below:

Via Live Japan

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