La Niigata Geigi: the “other” geishas of Japan

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“The prince was very sympathetic,” she recalls. “He made a lot of jokes. I don’t know if I’m supposed to mention it, but he was playing mahjong with the senior geigis. I watched them while I served sake and tea.”

While geisha activity ceased during World War II, it quickly resumed thereafter. Although it never returned to the peak of its glory days, it still offers a fascinating insight into traditional Japanese culture and arts. Unlike Kyoto’s overly touristy geisha area, Furumachi is one of the few areas in Japan where travelers can still savor the authentic surroundings of a hanamachi or Flower Town, as the geisha quarters are called.

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“Today, perhaps we can only experience it in Kyoto, Kanazawa [the capital of Ishikawa Prefecture] and Furumachi, ”said Aritomo Kubo, staff member of the Furumachi Kagai Club, which helps preserve the traditional streetscape of Furumachi by preserving its heritage architecture. “In addition, many of the ryoteirestaurants in Furumachi are the original buildings, dating back to the 1800s,” he added.

Furumachi has the added bonus that many of its ryotei accept first-time visitors, while many other famous geisha areas require an introduction from a regular customer. Niigata is also home to the Ichiyama Traditional Dance School, a unique style practiced by Niigata geigis which has been the basis of local performances for over 100 years and is designated as Intangible Cultural Property. The Geigis perform this style of dance by singing songs like “Niigata Okesa”, which was brought to Niigata by sailors sailing the Kitamaebune trade route.

However, with the advent of television, film, and other alternative forms of entertainment, the demand for geishas has declined dramatically. By the late 1970s, the number of Furumachi geigi had fallen below 100. By 1985, there were only 60. With no new trainees since the late 1960s, the youngest geigis in Furumachi were in their thirties.

At that time, far fewer young women were interested in spending eight years of their lives learning essential geisha skills: shamisen; songs; the dances ; the mores. As a result, the rate of new interns has not kept up with the rate of retirement.

Plus, unlike Kyoto – the fancy capital of Japan for over 1,000 years (794-1868) – remote Niigata is a place few tourists visit, further limiting the demand for geisha shows. And in the 1980s, a lack of activity forced many ryotei to close.


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