JAPAN

A Traditional Take

Looking for an authentic travel experience? Head to the heart of geisha culture.

WORDS KIRSTIE BEDFORD

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Training to become a geisha takes as long as it does to become a doctor, but for Koaki, an 18-year-old maiko (trainee geisha) from Kyoto, she can’t imagine doing anything else. Koaki (her performance name) is one of a growing number of young women in Japan who are making the choice to return to the highly regarded traditional art form as her livelihood. Prior to World War II, there were about 80,000 geisha, but that dwindled in the decades that followed to just a few hundred. However, in the past decade, it’s said to be slowly rising as a new generation reconnects with their culture.

Two maiko make their way to a performance in Gion district, Kyoto

A pause between performances at Kenninji Temple in Kyoto

Life as a geisha

Quite simply, a geisha (also referred to as geiko in Kyoto) and maiko, are highly-skilled traditional performers. This art form has evolved over the centuries, and given the time in training, it’s not surprising they are accomplished musicians, dancers and conversationalists. You can distinguish the two because maiko wear colorful kimono with long sleeves and extravagant hairpins, while geisha wear plain kimonos with shorter sleeves.

Kyoto is known as the heart of geisha culture in Japan, where there are five hanamachi (geisha districts), the largest being Gion and it's rare to see a geisha or maiko outside of these districts. The most traditional way to see them perform is in ochyaya (teahouses), where you are also served Kyo-kaiseki (traditional, seasonal Kyoto cuisine) and sake, and you need to book via a tour, as they only perform on customer request.

However, if you go to any of the five key geisha districts in the peak tourist seasons of spring (March/April/May) and fall (October/November), you are likely to catch a glimpse of them on the streets of Kyoto as they rush to an appointment.

A maiko in yukata in old town Kyoto, Japan

From the mouth of a maiko

Koaki performs at Kaden teahouse in the Gion District. Her dance is specific to Kyoto and differs depending on the season. When we meet, she is wearing a traditional kimono designed 200 years ago. Her black hair is pulled back in the wareshinobu style, with two wings and a bun in the front. She wears layers of snow-white makeup and scarlet lipstick. Koaki says she decided to be a maiko after encouragement from her mother. “My mother was a great fan of maiko, and she wanted me to do it. It will be a long task, but I don’t think it’s very tough.” She says, laughing.

Although, that’s debatable. It takes up to six hours a day to hone her craft and the preparation alone is a lengthy one. Close to one hour to put her make-up on, and dressing in the customary kimono is a job that requires assistance.

Maiko 'Koaki' says it's a privilege to share her culture with international travelers

“It is very important that international customers understand the dance... and when they do that, that makes me very happy.”

For Koaki, while she still has another five years to become a geisha, she is enjoying the experience and says it offers much for both her culture and for her personally.

“I am very happy to do this. I think it is a great way to ensure we keep the culture alive, and it broadens my mind to other cultures too."

I ask if she has any advice for international travelers to make the most out of the experience.

“It is very important that international customers understand what the dance is, and see that it’s specific to Kyoto and the season, and when they do that, that makes me very happy.”

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A culinary masterclass

Kyoto has a thriving dining scene. As well as ochyaya where you can experience the performance of maiko and geisha, there is a myriad of other experiences to be had. Dive down tiny alleyways framed by ancient temples to find upscale yakitori, slow fusion gastronomy, ryokan dining and exquisite Buddhist vegetarian cuisine. We take you to four of our favorites.

WORDS BELINDA LUKSIC

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Chef's Choice

It’s been open little more than a year, but newcomer Cainoya has already snagged a Michelin-star for its slow food ethos. Chef Yasushi Kawashita made his name in Kagoshima, creating haute Italian. For his new restaurant, near Nishiki Market, the focus is on seasonal, slow-cooked, farm-to-table omakase (chef’s selection) that packs an umami punch. There is more than a nod to classic Italian fused with Japanese flavors. Think snow crab arancini in kombu crab broth, Spanish mackerel simply paired with curry vegetable tempura or miso-infused yellowtail on a pillow of black radish puree. The wine pairing is excellent, as is the dramatic black space with its communal table and front row seats to all the theatre of the kitchen.

Live Like a Local

Yakitori (skewered chicken) is the star at Sumibi Torito, an upscale izakaya (informal bar) popular with locals. The buzzy dining room, with its large wooden counter and funky black walls illustrated with birds, is a bustling spot most nights. The sake and draught beer flows freely, the wine list is good, and the izakaya sizzles on hot coals until golden. Perch at the bar to watch all the action or snag a table and graze a neck-to-tail menu of traditional and more inventive yakitori.

Skewered chicken is a favorite regardless where you go in Kyoto

Think chicken thigh with quail eggs, liver paired with pickled garlic and jellyfish, or crispy skin wings. Adventurous palates can order the ‘popcorn’ chicken cartilage or raw chicken yakitori, a delicacy in Japan. Don’t miss the signature tsukune – two moist chicken meatball skewers served with raw egg yolk for dipping.

Go Zen

In a city with more than 1,600 temples, there are plenty of places to try shojin ryori (Buddhist cuisine) but Ajiro is one of the best. The Michelin-starred fine diner near Myoshin-ji temple complex has been around for more than 50 years, dishing up beautifully presented root to leaf degustation that is both seasonal and local. In any season that could mean a dollop of seafoam shiso sorbet, a tiny square of goma tofu (sesame ‘tofu’) topped with grated ginger and a sprig of pepper flowers, or a rich broth of shiitake mushrooms, ginkgo nuts and creamy silken tofu.

Kyo-ryori, a traditional cuisine developed in Kyoto

The bento lunch is a relaxed affair, but dinner is a highlight for its soymilk hotpot. The yuba (tofu skin) is a Kyoto speciality and a delicious bite between courses. Expect traditional tatami mat seating, though table dining is available on request.

Stay and Play

Yoshikawa Tempura is popular for good reason. The intimate 12-seat counter restaurant near the Imperial Palace fries up light-as-air tempura that’s as crisp as it is fresh. Wafer-thin prawn, hamo (sea eel), sweet figs, a harvest moon of creamy pumpkin, tender asparagus or baby corn make up a multi-course kasekei, served with a side of rice, soup and pickles. Part of a luxe ryokan hotel, Yoshikawa has history in spades. It was built from a tearoom salvaged from the 1964 Olympics and sits within a 100-year-old merchant building and ornamental garden that dates to the Samurai. The views are sublime, as is its old-world charm, but it’s the tempura that’s the real star – heavenly bites of seafood and seasonal vegetables fried to perfection by an artisan tempura chef.

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