Discovering another Japan and the Niigata Geisha
The Furumachi neighbourhood of the city developed a booming entertainment district to serve the numerous wealthy merchants and other guests. Furumachi’s numerous teahouses, ozashiki (banqueting halls), and ryotei (reception halls) soon began including geishas (or geigis, as they are known locally) (luxury restaurants). Politicians and even members of the Imperial family were among the restaurant’s regular customers. Furumachi had over 400 geigi performers by 1884.
During the apprentice’s dance, the shamisen player Nobuko played an elegant tune on his one-man-band. He’s been a Furumachi geigi for 64 years. The former Japanese prime minister Kakuei Tanaka, who served from 1972 to 1974, was among the high-profile guests. Nobuko, a geisha, is only known by her first name, as are all geishas.
She remembers that the prince was cordial. She recalls that he had a lot of witty one-liners to share. He was playing mahjong with the older geigis, and while preparing sake and tea, she kept an eye on them.
Geisha culture was put on hold during World War II, but it swiftly resurfaced once the war ended. Although it was never able to restore its former prominence, it provides an intriguing window into traditional Japanese culture and the arts. Furumachi, in contrast to Kyoto’s overcrowded geisha district, is one of the few places in Japan where tourists may still see a genuine hanamachi, or Flower Town, as geisha districts are known, in its authentic atmosphere.
Furumachi Kagai Club employee Aritomo Kubo states that possibly only Kyoto, Kanazawa [the capital of Ishikawa Prefecture] and Furumachi can experience this, referring to the city’s historic streetscape and heritage buildings. There are also numerous ryotei eateries in Furumachi that have been around since the 1800s; he pointed out.
While many prominent geisha districts require an introduction from a frequent client, Furumachi has the advantage of having several ryoteis that welcome first-time guests. As a bonus, Niigata is home to the Ichiyama School of Traditional Dance, a type of dance that has only been performed by Niigata geigis for over a century and is therefore protected as an Intangible Cultural Property. Songs like “Niigata Okesa,” which seafarers on the Kitamaebune trading route introduced to Niigata, are sung by Geigis in this dance style.
On the other hand, the demand for geishas fell dramatically with the arrival of television, film, and different kinds of alternative entertainment. Furumachi geigi numbers had dropped below 100 by the late 1970s. There were only 60 of them left by 1985. Because of the lack of new enlistees since the late 1960s, Furumachi’s youngest geigi were in their 30s.
Geisha training took eight years of dedicated study to learn the shamisen, songs, dances, and demeanour of a geisha back then. As a result, the number of new trainees did not keep up with the number of people retiring.
Because few tourists visit distant Niigata, the demand for geisha performances is much lower than in Kyoto, Japan’s refined capital, for more than 1,000 years (794-1868). By the 1980s, several ryotei had to close due to a lack of customers.
The geisha culture in Niigata was threatened until an entrepreneurial company chose to assist in maintaining it alive in 1987. Geigi recruitment company Ryuto Shinko Co. Ltd. was established in Japan to train and link new geigi with ryotei and other establishments and function as an intermediary. Eighty local businesses sponsor Ryuto Shinko’s hiring of geigis as full-time salaried employees who receive health insurance and other perks. Merchandise like T-shirts, calendars, fans, and even sake carrying photos of Furumachi Geigi are also being considered to help spread the word and encourage tourism.
One of their new hires is Yui, the apprentice who danced across the tatami mat. “After high school, I became a member. I’m just in the ninth year of my life, “she informed me, quoting herself. “When I was younger, I began studying Japanese traditional dance. So, kimonos and the sound of Japanese classical instruments were already favourites of mine.”
Ryuto Shinko has brought a sense of modernity to the realm of geishas. They ended the custom of forcing married men to retire and began marketing to families, women, and visitors to reach a broader demographic than just traditional Japanese men. Furumachi geigis now perform at weddings and funerals, when they play the deceased’s favourite song while dancing and teaching about their culture. There are various opportunities to watch geigis in Furumachi, such as at ryotei restaurants where they perform for diners, or at annual festivals in Niigata where they participate in various cultural activities.
Modern audiences unfamiliar with geigi heritage have found new ways to be entertained by the company’s creations. It’s like the Rock Paper Scissors-inspired game of taruken, where customers get up and play with the geigi themselves. The loser is required to down a glass of sake. The fact that Niigata is a significant producer of sake means that the local brew will be promoted through taruken.
Customers in the past were loyal and trusted advisors.
According to Nobuko, customers used to be regulars and knew how to lead them. As he explains, the geigis started singing, the shamisen players and dancers would join in, playing along with their vocals. This was before the invention of karaoke. Today’s customers are primarily unsettled, and they require assistance. Taruken is a fun approach to keep kids entertained while you’re working.
With the outbreak of coronavirus, Furumachi’s already shaky recuperation took a new turn for the worse. The frequency of ozashiki dinners decreased by 90% in the months following the Japanese government’s declaration of a state of emergency in May 2020, advising that people avoid pubs and restaurants. There are just 24 Furumachi geigi still in existence right now.
A witness to the geigi scenario surviving two severe earthquakes, Nobuko agreed that the Ryuto Shinko company previously deployed geigis to hospitals and nursing homes after the earthquakes. They performed for free to cheer up frightened, worried patients, but unfortunately, due to the pandemic, that became impossible.
This is the first time something like this has happened to her, she exclaims. The epidemic is comparable to an undetectable conflict.
To help save the geigis’ centuries-old tradition, Ryuto Shinko came up with an innovative and cutting-edge solution: online crowdsourcing.
There was just a 52-day window (from May 10 to June 30, 2021) to raise the 10 million yen (about £66,000). Amazingly, they raised 15 million yen in just 11 days, thanks to the generosity of a diverse group of people eager to contribute to the ongoing preservation of an essential component of Japanese culture. On top of that, they managed to amass an incredible 30 million yen (around 191,000 pounds).
After all, there is cause to be optimistic about Japan opening its borders to the rest of the world, thanks to this groundswell of public support for the geigis.
The geigis, according to Nobuko, will remain the same, but consumers may change. The future may be bleek and they must prepare to face it.
Nobuko has no regrets regarding her job, although it was not her choice. She recalls that her mother had the idea, after all. Back in her native Japan, she worked as a geigi. It was a cultural decision more than a financial one.
Nobuko recalls being admonished repeatedly by her superiors when she was an apprentice, but it didn’t deter her from remaining in the geigi world. What other job allows you the chance to meet with so many individuals, including a prime minister, and talk to them as equals? She claims that guests make her the happiest.