Geisha Banquet: then and now

[STUDENT POST]

     Hello Everyone! I’m Rumi, a Waseda University SILS student taking a Geisha seminar class, and I will be working  alongside Haruka in creating Facebook posts for the Sayuki Geisha Facebook page for this fall semester.

As we slowly approach the end of this year and marvel at being surrounded by brilliant hues of autumn leaves, let us also dive into the equally fascinating world of Japan’s cultural icons-the Geisha.

The charming Geisha and Maiko, contrary to popular belief, are not as elusive as many think they are. It does not require breaking the bank or being extremely lucky to see one, and even more so to meet one. Some people may expect that geishas are all over Japan, but this is not the case. If you’re living in or visiting the hubbub of modern-day Tokyo then fear not; these traditional entertainers can be easily found even in this big city.

Here in Tokyo, there are many activities that provide opportunities to meet and spend time with a geisha. These tourist-friendly options range from reasonable prices to quite expensive ones. Some of these activities are traditional private banquets and performances, dinner shows, tea house entertainment, walking tours, makeovers and photoshoots, and plenty other variations. They all offer an up-close and personal chance to meet, converse, and interact with geishas. A wide range of tour companies have recently began offering these activities due to popular and constant demand from a growing number of tourists who want to have the authentic cultural experience by meeting geishas. Many of these activities also offer English translation support.

The Fukagawa geishas plan on using Sayuki’s tea-house in Kamakura to cater to these tourists an authentic experience with professional geishas. They plan to introduce a style of banquet where they first watch a performance of geishas, and then have dinner separately. This option comes at a budget friendly price of 10,000 yen per person, compared to other traditional banquets that range from 30,000 yen to a whopping 100,000 yen or more.

The geisha world is highly mysterious and exclusive, as requesting a geisha’s services require an introduction or referral from an existing customer or venue. This was put in practice in order to maintain security and service quality. A traditional geisha banquet is done at a tea house and lasts for about 2 hours on average. The dinner cuisine have ingredients depending on the season and mainly fresh fish, but recently more options became available such as vegetarian, or addition of meat upon request.

The customers arrive at the tea-houses first, settle in and order drinks, and then followed by the entrance of the geisha. A performance of a traditional dance or song accompanied by traditional instruments: a shamisen, drum, and flute; is conducted halfway through the meal. Much like the meals, the music also differs depending on the season. This performance would last for about half an hour. Afterwards, if the guests are willing to participate, geishas will engage guests with drinking games and conversation.

Nowadays the formalities are being dropped and strict rules on requesting for banquets are being loosened. There are pros and cons to these new changes, both for the geishas and the guests. Traditionally, newcomers needed to be introduced by someone who is already a regular costumer of a tea-house. Otherwise, they would be turned away from banquets. Now, you don’t need to be introduced by another guest, thus opening doors for more first timers to experience it. Additionally, in the old system, customers would pay after the banquet, so the Geishas were not guaranteed whether the newcomers can actually foot the bill. Now, the payment system has been changed. The payment options now include credit card payments or online transactions such as PayPal; and it must be paid in advance. There are also payment/cancellation policies implemented. From these changes, newcomers can now join banquets and also increase the number of customers of geishas.

The downside, however, is putting the reputation and quality of service of trained geishas in a bad light. Growing tour packages that offer cheap banquets and services would hire under-trained maikos or younger geishas; and when they are inquired with questions about the geisha world, they are unable to answer because they themselves don’t know much about it yet. They are also unable to practice their skills in entertaining customers like they usually would in traditional banquets. The “new” banquet style is posing a problem for geishas because they need to work with smaller groups of customers, and since some tours are done with other groups they can only stay for 15-20 minutes with each group. Such are the challenges that come with reforming activities to cater to a new audience.

Traditional banquets can be considered as the pinnacle of Japanese culture experience. It has the elements of age-old ingenuous architecture seen in tea-houses, delicately arranged ikebana and classical art decorating the tea rooms, traditional dance and songs performed with a variety of instruments, exquisite Japanese cuisine and sake or green tea, all served in a hospitable and lively atmosphere created by the mystifying and skilled artisans dressed in the best kimonos. It is truly an experience one should not miss out on when in Japan.

Featured photos below are of the scrumptious meal served at a traditional banquet and a photo of Sayuki and other geishas in front of the tea-house in Kamakura.

Scrumptious-looking Japanese cuisine served in banquets
Scrumptious-looking Japanese cuisine served in banquets

Sayuki and other geishas standing in front of the tea-house in Kamakura as mentioned in the post.
Sayuki and other geishas standing in front of the tea-house in Kamakura as mentioned in the post.

Fukagawa Geisha Ouendan
Fukagawa Geisha Ouendan