Thursday, August 04, 2005

My Favorite Maiko: Mamechika

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Lindz was always complaining that her job with NOVA left her with little time to do anything even mildly cultural, besides pass out on her futon after a hard day of Eigo-to-go. With her emminent departure looming, I decided to take it upon myself to rectify the situation by using my hook-ups to get us a private tea party with Mamechika.

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Of course this was no act of self-sacrifice on my part...This is something I have been wanting to do ever since I first came to Japan. Considering our history of wandering the streets of the ancient capital composing haiku, dressing up like maiko to admire the cherry blossoms, and running into maiko whenever we set foot in Gion (even in Starbucks), this was a fitting way to end this chapter in our Japan-land adventures.

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Thankfully, I was able to understand almost all of what she said, despite the fact that she was speaking Kyoto-ben (dialect), something all maiko must learn before they can entertain guests. Mamechika was born in Kyoto, so she is a native speaker, but today many maiko-wannabes from all over the archipelago come to Kyoto for a chance to become a living work of art. The fact that I could speak Japanese suprised her as well. She confessed how nervous she was when she entered the tea house and saw two gaijin (you can see the fear in the picture above), and how relieved she was when I started speaking to her in Japanese.

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At just 20 years old, Mamechika has been serving the richest and most powerful men in Japan in as a maiko for 5 years, and will become a Geiko in March. Even talking about it seemed to make her nervous. "I don't know if I can do it! I will miss my Onesan!" Onesan means 'big sister', but she isint talking about her actual paternal sister. She is referring to the Geiko that has trained her for the past 5 years, teaching her everything she needs to know and helping her make all the right connections to help her become a successful Geiko.Geiko is Kyoto dialect for Geisha. There is no difference between a Geiko and a Geisha, except that a Geiko or Maiko will never refer to themselves or anyone else as a Geisha.

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She was so charming and easy to talk to, after awhile we were laughing like old friends. She kept commenting on how good my Japanese was, and how cool it was that we could be understanding each other even though we were from completely different places. I asked her if she remembered any of the English she had learned in Elementary and Junior High, and she said she could remember a little. When foreign guests came to parties where she was entertaining she could understand little bits of conversation, like "Hello!", " How are you?", "Nice to meet you!" and ofcourse "Why is her face white?"

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Studying to become a maiko doesn't leave you much time to do anything else. When I asked her what she likes to do for fun she said go out to eat, go shopping, like any other young woman, but she also enjoys practicing dance and Ikebana (Japanese flower arrangement). I wondered if she liked foreign food, knowing the great Indian place across the street from the Hanamikoji, but she said usually they just go for stuff like soba or udon. Pop culture? She confessed she was clueless. "But you like dancing, so what do you think about hip-hop? Do you want to learn how to break dance?" I asked her laughing. "Break dance! Its so cool!" She giggled.

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When I told her we were going to see the PL fireworks, she said a patron had taken her last year. "It was so hot, and there were so many people!" she said her her soft, southern drawl. I told her we were going to try to wear yukata (try being the key word). "Oh, that's easy!" She assured me, waving her fan. Light, cotton kimono like yukata are nothing compared to even the lighter summer kimono that maiko wear. Kyoto's infamous, sweltering summer heat, thick with humidity and temperatures climbing well into the 90's, would not be complete without maiko rushing to their appointments bundled in 10 to 15 kilos of exotic silk. (Thats 20-33 lbs.)!

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Coordinating the extravagant ensembles of silk that maiko are famous for is no wasy task, either. Colors, patterns, degree of decoration, and even hair ornamentation must all be carefully considered and chosen appropriate to the season and rank of the maiko. Dressing a Maiko or Geiko is an art in and of itself. Mamechika explained that her Okasan, the mother of her Okiya, chose her kimono and obi each day. "Really, I want to wear pink," she whispered. "Everyday I go to mother (Okaasan) and say 'Pink would be good, dont you think?" but she says it doesn't suit me. But pink is so cute!" She pouted. "It is difficult to choose, though. There are so many!" For every month, her Mother must choose between 15-20 different kimonos designed with traditional seasonal motifs and colors. "Mother knows how much design is good," she said pointing at the blossoms swimming in a sea royal purple silk . "And where the design should be." Since Mamechika is a high ranking maiko, the majority of the design elements of her kimono graced her long, flowing sleeves, and the trailing skirt of her kimono.

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We were all amazed by her wonderful kanazashii, or hair ornament. We agreed it was beautiful and striking, but couldn't figure out what the design was based on. "Fireworks!" She smiled. "My big sister (Onesan) chose it for me. I really like it. I'm so sad that I won't be able to wear it anymore." It was the last day of July, and from August she would be wearing a new kanazashii. That night she was planning to take out her elaborate hair do, and have it restyled the next day for the coming week. "My hair is just about as long as yours, Onesan!" She said, smiling at me.

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I asked her if she had been abroad, and where she hoped to travel to. "I went to Hong Kong with my clients once, and it was so different! Really amazing. I couldnt read the kanji at all," she blushed. "I hope some day I can go to America. It would be so cool to see New York!"

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And now for the answer to the question all you gaijin have been waiting for...Why is her face painted white?

"Long, long ago, when geiko began to entertain in dimly lit tea houses, there was no electricity. Geiko usually entertained at night, and the white paint helped to reflect what little light there was, illuminating their faces and making it easy for all the party people to see. It wasn't meant for bright flourescent lights. I can see how some people might think its a little scary. But in the low light of the teahouses, I think its beautiful."~Mamechika

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Before we left, she asked if we wanted to take our picture with her, but I was so nervous I was afraid to get too close to her. The Mother of the teahouse told me to move in closer, but everytime I moved she just smiled and said 'a little more.' "I'm sorry!" I apologized, "I'm just a little..."

"Nervous?" Mamechika finished my sentence.

"Yeah," I blushed.

"Don't be! I was nervous too!" She smiled.

As we slowly slipped through the noren of the teahouse, she sat, poised as porcelain, thanking us for our time. As I looked back to see her disappear behind the noren, I felt a sadnesss creeping through me. Luckily I had forgotten my umbrella, and I ducked back in to get it. She smiled as I came back in, and as I apologized and grabbed my umbrella, she rose both of her hands up to her shoulders and waved them in typical Japanese school girl fashion, like when they part with their friends on the train or leave school. " Bai bai!" She smiled, her long flowing sleeves gathered in puddles at her elbows. I excitedly waved back as I ducked out of the room, thanking her and hoping that someday, we'd meet again.

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Patrick Leong said...

i have never taken such close-up picture with a maiko-san. once i met a japanese lady dressed as maiko-san at some touristy spot. i asked her for pictures. she hesitated :(. as to your previous question, yes .. i do find little time to study and research. i love to take pictures and to travel. and i am sort of addicted to blogging. i will try my best :P by the way, you are from osaka ?

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Anonymous said...

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Melissa said...

Patrick: From Osaka? I wish! :) Actually before I came to Japan to teach English I studied at Kansai Gadai in Osaka for about 3 and a half months.It was my first exposure to Japanese, and thanks to all the great friends I made I was speaking Kansai-ben in no time! So whenever I go back to Osaka, it feels like Im going home. Everything is so familiar and all my friends are there. I like to think of it as my hometown in Japan, but really, I'm from the US.

Ceiling fans? I wish I had one here in Japan! Its so hot! :)

Thank you Lila!

Patrick Leong said...

by the way, have you ever tried dressing up like a maiko-san ? do you play the traditional music instruments, i see that you like the art of geisha do you ?(guessing).

Melissa said...

Patrick: Ofcourse! The picture of a maiko for my profile is me! I dressed up like a maiko for hanami in Kyoto. It was so much fun, but I look really scary. I would love to learn Kyomai (Kyoto style dance) and shamisen, but I havent had the chance...yet! :) Some people might say I like the art of the geisha, others might say I'm obsessed...:)

Mom said...

Precious pictures and memories of both you and Lindsey. I love your site. What great adventures.

hpeters said...

I read your blog and saw the lovely pictures you posted on Flickr.

It must be lovely working up in a little town in the mountains.

The only other comment I have is the history of the 'Kabuki Oshiroi' (Doran) white face paint as described by Mamechika.

I believe the practice dates back as early as the Heian period (794-1185 AD) in Japan when it was introduced from China.

The story goes that the emperor could not see people surrounding him in his court due to the bad light and asked that their faces be painted white to assist his identifications.

I can see why this origin is disputed in Japan as they would not like to say they had copied something from China aka (Make in Japan...Not inported from China)

Keep up the good work...

Claude Renault said...

very interesting Melissa,
A great blog you have

shigatsuhana said...

These are absolutely beautiful pictures. How long was your ozashiki? I would like to do one when I go to Japan next.

To wwps: Japanese have no problem giving credit to China for things. They certainly recognise that many parts of their culture originated in China.

Cristina said...

This is absolutely interesting! Thank you for these beautiful photographs and information. I wish I could see a real geisha or maiko. That experience must have been so beautiful!

Amira said...

But how did you get to the O-chaya to the close o-zashiki with her?

McAmy said...

WOW! I admire you and your blog so much! I am a high school student in australia and i study japanese at the moment. Last year i went to Japan for the first time on school exchange, and i'm really hoping to go back again, like you i think of Osaka as my Japanese home town, and i have to admit i'm slightly obsessed with kimono and geiko like you...your blog is really great!