Lincoln Tan is the New Zealand Herald’s diversity, ethnic affairs and immigration senior reporter.

Kyoto: The graceful art of the geisha

Tourists flock to Kyoto to learn ancient Japanese traditions, writes Lincoln Tan.
People enjoy the spring season by partaking in night-time Hanami festivals. Photo / 123RF
People enjoy the spring season by partaking in night-time Hanami festivals. Photo / 123RF

Kyoto is famous for its many shrines and temples and for night-time Hanami festivals, coinciding with the seasonal blooming of the cherry blossoms. But an increasing number of visitors are going to the former capital of Japan to learn the art of being Japanese.

Many are visiting shops and studios that offer opportunities to dress in a kimono, and others are signing up for lesssons to behave like a maiko, the young entertainers of the city's entertainment districts.

A maiko is an apprentice geisha, or geiko as they are called in Kyoto, known for their elaborate clothing, graceful movements and trademark white made-up faces.

Suri Kwan, 22, a bank executive from Hong Kong, paid ¥5500 ($73) to a studio near the Kiyomizu-dera Temple for a "full kimono plan".

It includes having her hair arranged, wearing makeup and kimono of her choice, and a traditional Japanese dinner.

"I feel beautiful, like somebody else and a real Japanese lady," said Kwan, a first-time visitor to Japan. "Walking about dressed in a kimono makes me feel like I am Japanese, and that I am part of this culture, not just a tourist."

Rental kimono packages cost between ¥3000 and ¥5500 for women, and about ¥4000 for men.

Kimono studio owner Yuki Ikeda said business had doubled at her shop in the past two years.

"Our Japanese history and culture come alive to those who dress up in beautiful kimonos," she said.

"They take many photos, and by doing so take a little bit of the culture home with them."

Near the Gion entertainment district, a basic course to learn the graceful art of being a maiko starts at ¥16,000.

Faces are transformed with glamorous white makeup and clients are given tips on the maiko's sophisticated movements and how to achieve beautiful posture.

Cindy Chan, 24, a secretary from Malaysia, said reading Memoirs of a Geisha inspired her to sign up for the course.

"I wanted to master the feminine grace of the geisha and learn the art of how to charm men like they do," she said.

"This is also something unique to Japan, and one holiday experience that you are not going to forget easily."

Sessions, which take about three hours, start with hair arrangements, followed by the application of the signature white makeup.

The lips, eyes and eyebrows are then touched up to complete the look.

Participants are then taught posture through Kyomai traditional dancing and maiko etiquette.

"It's really so cool to be learning about the secrets of maiko and geishas," Chan said.

But if learning all those secrets make you hungry, many of Kyoto's shrines and temples also house unique and exquisite restaurants and dining houses.

Daitokuji Ikkyu started as a canteen for monks living at Daitokuji shrine, but today serves temple vegetarian cuisine.

Shimogamo Saryo, a designated Unesco heritage site, serves traditional kaiseki multi-course meals in Japanese-garden surroundings.

Checklist

GETTING THERE

Korean Air flies daily from Auckland to Kyoto via Seoul.
koreanair.com

DETAILS

For information on JTB Tours in Japan, go to jtboi.co.nz

ONLINE

osaka-info.jp
jnto.go

- NZ Herald

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