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Geisha prepares to bloom in Tokyo

Manten in kimono
Manten in kimono

TOKYO (TR) – Not far from the banks of Tokyo’s Sumida River, below a towering expressway, is Sumida Ward’s sleepy district of Mukojima, the largest of Tokyo’s six remaining geisha quarters, or hanamachi (literally, “flower towns”).

The area is home to roughly 120 of Japan’s iconic traditional entertainers, who, in the evenings, regale well-heeled guests with performances of classical dance and music, lighthearted games and conversation as they dine at the 16 traditional ryotei restaurants scattered within the packed district’s hodgepodge of aging wooden buildings.

One of the youngest of the local geisha is Manten (her geisha name), 20, who decided to enter the profession after realizing that she was not well versed in Japan’s traditions following two visits overseas as a teenager.

“I met some foreigners and I was unable to explain much about my own country’s culture,” she says, sitting with her legs folded neatly beneath her ahead of beginning work at the Sakurajaya ryotei. “That was the motivation for me to learn more. Plus, I love to wear kimono.”

Technically speaking, Manten is an apprentice geisha, or hangyoku (referred to as a maiko in Kyoto). Right after graduating from high school in her hometown in the country’s northern Fukushima Prefecture, she moved to Tokyo to enter the karyukai, the so-called “flower and willow world.”

Now, a year and a half later, she is on her way to becoming a full-fledged geisha, an occupation that, while slowly fading from modern society, still requires the same diligent study of a century ago. During the daytime she is taught etiquette, drumming (narimono) and dance by the elder geisha at a kenban, a building that doubles as an office for taking ryotei bookings.

Manten strikes a pose
Manten strikes a pose
It took Manten three months from her arrival in the capital to reach her current position, and, if all goes well, she will become an ippon-san, or official geisha, in about a year.

“At a regular job, there probably wouldn’t be anything remarkable about it,” she says, dressed in an elegantly patterned red kimono, with a whitened face and elaborate flower decorations in her hair—an ensemble that takes an hour and a half to put together. “Here, I can learn to dress myself and understand Japanese culture and always continue to learn.”

Her customers, who pay around 50,000 yen each to dine and be entertained, are often business executives. To ensure she is able to converse on a range of subjects, Manten regularly reads the newspaper and watches the news on TV. “I think it is best to try to read the client first and then determine the most appropriate way to entertain,” she explains. “That could mean taking the conversation a certain direction or maintaining a particular atmosphere.”

Foreign clients can provide a challenge, however. “Some foreigners will not bring an interpreter,” Manten says. “And oftentimes they will ask a lot of deep questions about Japanese culture. It is very difficult for me to explain. A lot of geisha will then resort to using gestures. I am always very impressed with people who can communicate well through body language.”

Before becoming a hangyoku, Manten watched the 2005 Hollywood movie “Memoirs of a Geisha,” which was criticized in some quarters for its unrealistic portrayal of the geisha culture. “I knew about the geisha world, the job, the hanamachi areas from TV programs I watched in junior high school,” she explains. “After I became a hangyoku, I realized the film was an exaggeration. I was still a little worried about bullying, but I found that doesn’t exist.”

In the few hours Manten has off (she says she could work seven evenings a week), she is indistinguishable from most young women her age in what she does: she shops for cosmetics in nearby Asakusa, listens to the Western pop of Avril Lavigne or the enka ballads of chanteuse Hibari Misora and cleans her small apartment.

Manten at Sakurajaya ryotei
Manten at Sakurajaya ryotei
The area in which Manten works, however, is a shadow of its past glory. Seventy years ago, more than 1,000 geisha entertained at more than 400 geisha houses in Mukojima. Yet the past still lingers, and Mukojima is considered by many to best represent the true geisha spirit of Tokyo.

“Mukojima is a true shitamachi area,” says Sakurajaya manager and former geisha Kazuko Amemiya of the old-town feel still prevalent in Mukojima, a characteristic that has somewhat disappeared within the sprawl and development of the Asakusa hanamachi. “People regard the women here as being friendly and having the traditional traits of being a geisha.”

To ensure its survival, Mukojima is changing, with local businesses targeting tourists and many geisha taking English classes to be able to communicate with the foreign visitors who come to Sakurajaya once or twice a month. What’s more, Mukojima hopes that the nearby Tokyo Sky Tree, a replacement broadcasting tower for Tokyo Tower that is set to open in 2012, will attract new business-oriented customers to the area.

For Manten, she remains focused on her training, often finding herself looking to her “older sisters” for guidance. “We have very strong relationships in this community,” she says of the bonds between geisha, one of whom is in her 80s. “Hierarchy is very important. Young people must respect their elders. But, generally, everybody is very friendly. Sometimes the older geisha are very strict, but I understand that is really love — they want me to become more successful.”

Note: This article originally appeared in the March issue of iNTOUCH, the magazine of the Tokyo American Club.