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A Foreigner’s Guide to Enjoying Kyoto’s Geisha Performances





At the Gion District in Kyoto, geisha performers and apprentice geisha called maiko behave in an elegant manner and move in a rather languid fashion. In this early February event, however, after a breathtaking transformation in costume, they move from one up-tempo dance to another. It is because of this contrast that the celebration of Setsubun obake is particularly interesting.


Setsubun, the “bean-throwing festival,” is February 3, the day preceding risshun, which is the first day of spring according to the old Japanese lunar calendar. On the day of Setsubun, the celebrations include the custom of throwing roasted soybeans while chanting “Out with evil! (Oniwasoto)” and “In with Fortune! (Fukuwauchi).”



As in the past years, I joined the throng of visitors to the Yasaka Shrine in the Higashiyama Ward of Kyoto this year to watch the dancing and bean throwing by the apprentice geisha, followed by a visit to the Kanoya Tea House, a traditional restaurant in the Gion District.


This was, of course, to see what the maiko performers would be doing this year as their obake skit. This year the themes were from kabuki: Dango Uri (a play, Selling Dumplings) and Ninin Wankyu (a dance). The former pairs Hinagiku and Tomitae, and the latter Miharu and Ryoka. These four then perform in two pairs.


People who are seeing this for the first time may laugh just at the appearance of the four apparitions, although perhaps those who see the performance every year and are familiar with the sudden costume change may simply take the surprises in stride.


But when you have seen the stylish dancing of Madona or, even more, the attention-getting dancing of the Osaka Tomioka High School kids, you realize the Setsubun performers need something more—such as the contrasts in their performances—to attract attention.


Another source of laughter, especially for people used to high-level kabuki performances, was the unexpected movements that came from the Gion maiko dancing in kabuki costumes.


At the end of the performance all four maiko were breathing heavily. Since it is said that they had given more than 20 performances at different venues, it is probable that the demons were cowering in the face of their strength and stamina.


The maiko called Kanohiro also showed off an unusual hair style for the event, incorporating a special type of kimono knot called a fukura suzume, which means a “plump sparrow” in Japanese. The upswept mage part of her hair was raised like the shape of sparrow and decorated with what appeared to be a good fortune charm.


I also had my photograph taken with the maiko Kanotomo so that the good fortune would stay with me.


Kazuhiro Sonoda is a veteran reporter of the Sankei Shimbun Kyoto Bureau.


(Click here to read the original article in Japanese.)