A modern look at a world of traditions
A quiet part of town, though just a stone’s throw from the heart of downtown Kyoto, the Miyagawa-cho area began to develop around 1666. During the colorful and prosperous Genroku period (1688-1704), when a succession of playhouses, chaya (tea rooms) and theater people set up their businesses there, the neighborhood grew dramatically.
The area became the early center of the kabuki world, when the dancer Okuni (from Izumo, in Shimane Prefecture) did her first kabuki-like dances along the Kamogawa River banks. Kyoto’s Minamiza, the only theater remaining from that time, was perhaps Japan’s first kabuki theater. The area became increasingly popular in 1751, when the Tokugawa shogunate allowed the first tea houses (home to the legendary geiko and maiko) to be built on the south end of the Miyagawa-cho district, on land that belonged to nearby Kennin-ji Temple, a quiet, exquisitely preserved Zen temple complex.
The name Miyagawa, which means purifying river, comes from the fact that the hand-carried mikoshi used to transport the Yasaka Shrine deities during the Gion Festival were washed (or purified) with water from the Kamogawa River south of the Shijo bridge.
Today, roughly 44 tea houses, home to 40 geiko and 20 maiko, are still active in Miyagawa-cho, making it the second largest hanamachi* (flower town) in Kyoto. This article features a conversation with Fumie Komai, the 5th generation mama-san of the Komaya tea house, the oldest in the Miyagawa district. Over its long and colorful history, the Komaya has been home to nearly 100 geikos and maikos.
JV: What is it like to be a mama-san and what are the most important things in your business?
Komai-san: To begin with, I feel that I am very lucky to be a mother of a tea house. I think that I am truly fortunate to be able to live in this unique, traditional entertainment world. I take a great deal of pride in what I do, which is essential for preserving the old ways of our culture. Because of the way Japan has changed, I have to try very hard to keep this tea house and the girls (geiko and maiko) that I, in a way, inherited from my ancestors, alive and happy. This has never been an easy business and as a newcomer I will have to work just as hard as the generations of my family before me to keep this unusual business alive.
I always tell my girls that heartful, essentially sincere communication is the most important thing in our business. Our type of service is much more complicated and difficult than any service industry you could imagine. But, like any service industry, the most important thing is to keep the customer happy and coming back again and again.
A good geiko or maiko has to be gentle and disciplined. And they have to dance and sing well. However, being a good entertainer is not just about excellent traditional dancing and singing skills. It is more about understanding what the customer wants the instant he walks in the door. Our clients are men and this make our business special. Women in this business have to become experts in sensing a man’s mood or personality when he walks through the door. Some clients, especially if they come in a group, want us to be quiet and stay in the background. Other customers want us to create a lively, bright mood to entertain them or their guests. To get the atmosphere right from the beginning is not something that can be learned easily. It takes years and years of training.
JV: Are today’s geiko and maiko different from a generation or two ago?
Komai-san: Absolutely. Today’s young people, and women in particular, have a totally different attitude to older people. And most of our clients are older. When I was young, our teachers, both at school and in training for the traditional arts, commanded absolute respect. And many of them were very powerful and dignified. Today, that absolute respect seems to be missing. Younger people seem to be less warm-hearted and less willing to work really hard with and for a teacher or a client.
In tea houses, the older women traditionally made suggestions and gave advice to younger women about everything: their work, their attitude and even their personal life. This was the way to maintain discipline and firmly establish our unwritten, but clear rules of conduct. It is our role to tell our girls, 'In this world you can not do that or think like that'. Nowadays, it is becoming harder to communicate like that. Young people still listen, but they seem to be listening in a manner that is less sincere and heartful. They especially do not want to listen openly to what older people tell or say to them. And because of this it is becoming harder and harder to pass valuable experience and wisdom from the old to the young. I feel this could have very disturbing consequences in the future, but I also think that we can adjust to the times. We really don’t have any choice.
Tea houses are organized in a way that is very much an imitation of a family. I am the mama-san or oka-san (mother) and the senior girls are referred to as older sisters (oney-san). The youngest, those in training, are the younger sisters (imoto-san). And we all live together under one roof. So getting along like any family makes perfect sense. In our world, we can never say to a customer, ‘I am sorry, but that is not our fault.’ Everything is our responsibility when it comes to conducting our business properly. And if a younger girl makes a serious mistake, then both she and her older sister will go to the customer and apologize. It’s not like the PTA, where parents can say that their children’s bad conduct is not their fault. Here everything reflects on the house we live in and do business from. We are a team and the team is responsible for everything, no matter what.
JV: What is the schedule like in your "family"?
Komai-san: Our young girls train in the traditional arts for five or six hours every day, usually from around ten in the morning to sometime in the afternoon. At around three, everyone begins to put on their makeup and get their hair ready, which usually takes about ninety minutes. Then they put on their kimono, often with the help of a professional. Guests start arriving from about five in the evening to around midnight. After work they go to the bathhouse and then they are on their own until morning. The girls usually have two days off a month.
JV: What do you think about the idea of foreigners going to tea houses and experiencing the traditional entertainment of Japan’s geiko and maiko?
Komai-san: I once took two of my maiko girls to England, as part of a cultural exchange mission. I was astounded how little foreigners knew about Kyoto and Japanese culture in general. The maiko is a symbol of Japan, and I would be very happy to introduce people to this world. But this is a very private world. All tea houses still enforce the ichigen-san policy, which means a new customer can only be welcomed if he has a proper introduction. Nowadays, we accept requests from certain hotels or ryokan who wish to entertain their clients with our maiko or geiko. But even in those cases, we have already established a relationship with the management of those establishments. Any one who goes to a traditional teahouse knows enough to know that proper behaviour is expected. So we don’t ever really have any problems. Every one is happy here, and that is the way we like it.
*Note: Kyoto has five geisha districts or 'flower towns': Gion Kobu, Miyagawa-cho, Ponto-cho, Kamishichiken, and Gion Higashi .
Written by Ian Ropke, founder and owner of Your Japan Private Tours: Japan-wide travel expert since 1992. Ian and his team offer personalized quality private travel services all over Japan. To learn more, visit www.kyoto-tokyo-private-tours.com or call us on +1-415-230-0579 | +81-5534-4372