Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Meet Ichimame

Ichimame enjoying the plum blossoms of Kitano Tenmangu shrine, in full bloom just in time for the Plum Festival (Baikasai) thanks to the unusually warm weather.

If you are a geisha enthusiast like myself, chances are you already know Ichimame, the beautiful young maiko blogging away from her okiya in Kamishichiken, Kyoto's oldest and most traditional hanamachi (literally 'flower town', where geisha live and entertain). I first saw Ichimame perform last spring, when a wonderful series of unforeseeable events resulted in a free front row seat to Kitano Odori (the spring dance of Kamishichiken), convieniently positioned directly infront of her. At the end of the show, she smiled down at me, tossing one of her signed handkerchieves into my lap.

When I first discovered Ichimame's blog, I was so excited I wanted to post a link to it here. Being written completely in the Kyoto dialect of Japanese, I figured very few people would be able to read it and so decided against it. Thanks to the incredible number of visitors her site has been recieving from all around the world, she has begun a professionally translated English version of the blog, although it seems to be slow going. I wish I could volunteer to do it for her! I'd have that smack updated post haste! Until they get caught up, I'll post my own translation of the most recent entries here:

Starting tomorrow! Must sleep...

Monday, February 26, 2007

Ichimame and I

Let's just say I had a very good weekend!

Geisha: Disney Style

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Geisha dressed up as Princess Arora, Snow White and Cinderella for their Setsubun engagements. Thanks to my friend for hooking me up with this picture to share with all of you! m(- -)m

Friday, February 23, 2007

Twilight in Gion

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A beautiful, first year maiko ready to cross the street on the corner of Shijo and the Hanamikouji.

Another first year maiko weaving in and out of traffic and tourists on her way to the evening's first appointment.

Ayakazu, now in her second year ,adjusts the long, flowing sleeves of her kimono as she heads off to work for the evening. A shikomi, or apprentice maiko, carries her bag for her. Note the traditional "Stich" handbag accessory (*^o^*)

Wednesday, February 21, 2007


Somewhere in Nagano...
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Am I prancing?

No. I`m jumping for joy, slightly over-excited about stumbling upon these snow-covered, terraced rice fields, the perfect excuse to take a break from the narrow, winding road we called "The Intestines".

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Rockin` the macket (macket = man jacket) with my broken wrists. Yes it is a man`s jacket, and yes we did actually see a man wearing the same one on our trip to Matsumoto. No, I am not a man.

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Nijia style! Hi-ya!

Abbey prepares for lift off...

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Operation Explore Gifu: Inuyama

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Hakutei-Jo, the White Emperor Castle. With less than six months to go here in Japan, and a rather willing amiga de viaje, I've been trying to make the most of my weekends by exploring something other than Kyoto: Gifu, my home for the past three years.

Standing proudly on a small hill 40 meters above the banks of the Kiso River, Japan's oldest original wooden castle keeps watch over the now concrete-covered plains and slowly rising mountains to the north. Below, hidden in the Urakuen tea garden (so well so that we did not find it), is the Joan tea house, considered one of the finest of its kind (which, for some reason, was brought from Kyoto in the 70's). Bushido, the way of the warrior, and Sado, the way of tea, have always existed side by side. The great warrior Toyotomi Hideoshi, who unified Japan and brought an end to the warring states period, once said that a fine tea cup was worth more than his castle and all its men. Of course, he also forced his loyal retainer tea master to commit suicide. Luckily we don't have to choose the castle over the cup, or commit seppuku if we never find the teahouse. With a little planning and a few directibles (also known as directions to those who speak proper English) we can have our matcha and drink it too, with time left over to savor the soba.

I should start by saying that, I have been extremely spoiled. The first Japanese castle I ever laid eyes on was Himeji, the king of Japanese castles. Once you see Himeji, everything else is just kind of, well, maa-maa. What remains of Inuyama castle is small, as are the castle grounds, but a slow and slipperless climb up the steep, unequally spaced steps is well worth it!

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Key word being "slipperless".

Gifu: A River Runs Through It. The Kiso River, that is. From the wrap-around balcony of the main tower, you can see it cut gracefully through the concrete covered plain as it makes its way to Ena (as seen in the picture of my beautiful mountain school: top right, under the page header).

Abbey Sensei braces herself for the brutal winds from atop the tower. Fly away Abbey! Be free!

Brilliant red torii (shinto's spiritual gateways) and crimson banners line the entrance to a small inari shrine at the foot of the castle.

Ema (from e:絵 meaning picture, and uma:馬, meaning horse) are small, colorfully decorated, wooden prayer plaques sold at shinto shrines for about 500 yen. After writing their wishes and prayers on the back, people hang them on racks in hopes that the kami (gods) will read them and grant their blessing. The pictures on the ema also have meaning. These were bought by junior high school students hoping for good scores on their high school entrance exams.

Happy Chinese New Year everyone! Inoshishi: The Wild boar.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Handarari: Gion`s Soon to Be Maiko

Meet two of Gion`s newest, soon-to-be Maiko. They are minarai ( 見習い ), apprentice maiko who have graduated from their study as a shikomi, the first step in becoming a maiko.Minarai means to watch and learn, and that is exactly what they do: they begin to dress and become accustomed to the full, formal regalia and make-up of the maiko, accompany their big sisters to ozashiki (banquets and parties where geiko entertain), watch, and learn, preparing them for their debut as maiko, when they will begin to entertain customers. It is during this time that their professional name will be decided, and announced at their debut.

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Minarai look a lot like maiko, but their most easily recognizable trait is the length of their obi. Known as hadarari (半 han meaning half and darari refering to the long, flowing obi style of Kyoto`s maiko) a minari`s obi hangs to only half the length of that of a maiko.

The long, trailing darari obi exclusive to Kyoto's maiko. The sight of a maiko's magnificent dangling obi swaying as she walks is supposedly one of the famous sights of Kyoto.

Making their way down the Hanamikouji to the Ichiriki teahouse for their first engagement of the evening. I believe the young minarai on the right is from Okinawa, and was recently featured in a NHK documentary.

The Ichiriki.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Happy Valentine's Day!

Pucker up! A very young Donald Rumsfeld playing a Japanese game with a young maiko during President Ford's trip to Japan in 1974.

Here's to two things I love about Japan: Geiko and...


Monday, February 12, 2007


Two geiko dressed as a town girl and man from the Edo period.

Risshun Setsubun, the parting of winter and spring, was traditionally somthing like a New Year's Eve and Halloween combined. To start the new year off right, Japanese people performed a number of rituals to cleanse the old year of evil and misfortune, and keep it away in the year to come. People even dressed up in costumes to trick the evil spirits into thinking they were someone, or something, else.

This tradition carries on in the hanamachi, or geiko districts, of Kyoto. Once a year, geisha dress up in costumes and entertain their customers as Disney Princesses, Playboy Bunnies, samurai...Whatever they wish.

A feudal princess and samurai.

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Remember Mamechika? Here she is as a geiko (purple kimono), enjoying Setsubun with her boombox (^-^)/

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Geiko dressed in white wedding kimono.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Sure, She Can Smile...

She hasn't gotten four flat tires in the past two months.

Sound strange? Impossible, even?

I had never gotten a flat tire before, so when my neighbor called me at 7:00 AM one morning to warn me that my front right wheel was flat as a pancake, I was suprised, but I figured I was over due. After school he helped me change it and put on the spare. I chalked the whole ordeal up to experience and hoped I would make it back to the states without having to test my newfound knowledge. Sadly, it was not to be.

Over the weekend, I escaped to Kyoto, as is my custom (^-^). When I returned, the front tire was flat again, only this time, it wasn't alone. The back right tire was flat, too. "That's impossible!" I screamed out loud when I saw it. I hadn't driven it even once since we had changed the tire. I rolled down to the gas station on the corner, who's attendents kindly tried to find an extra tire to give me for free so I could make it out to the car shop. "Did I run over something? A nail? Glass? I just had a flat in the front a few days ago..." I explained.

"No, nothing like that," the mechanic said. He pulled out a squeeze bottle and sprayed the wheel down, and soon a buch of bubbles became visible over a small puncture in the side of the tire. "Something cut it, right there," he said, pointing at the bubbles. "You had a flat yesterday, too? That's so strange."

When I explained what had happened the next Monday at my beautiful mountain school, even the teachers reacted the same way. "What? Are you serious? Someone must be messing around with you!" I had been thinking the same thing, but I told myself I was being paranoid and that, of all places, that would not happen in Japan, let alone Ena.

A month passed. I forgot all about it. Then, after coming back from Kyoto last Sunday, I woke up with a grumbling tummy and an empty fridge. I ran out to my car to make a quick food run when I noticed the right front tire was flat again. My dealer sent someone out to change it immediately, but I ended up having to buy a new tire, since this was my fourth flat in two months. I asked the mechanic if by chance I had run something over this time, but he looked uncomfortable.

"Well, you see, um, no. It's not that. Someone had been playing tricks on you..."

"I knew it!" I shouted, almost relieved. " I mean its so strange that I have had so many flats. They're always wholes in the side of the tire...How could I do that? Right?"

"I'm not sure, but I think this happens in Ena quite a lot. My deepest apologies."

"...Happens in Ena a lot"? I remember when I first came to Japan, two or three cars had gotten flats in our city, so a memo was sent out to all the schools warning teachers to be careful because someone was throwing nails in the road. Since then, I hadn't heard of anyone getting a flat besides me, and when people heard about my misfortune, they all reacted with suprise. Even if it had been happening a lot in Ena, it had happened to my car four times in less than two months. The purps couldn't have just randomly picked out my car four times by coincidence, right?

Saturday, February 10, 2007

More Scenes from Setsubun

The maiko of Gion Higashi, in order of rank: Masayo, Tsunemomo, Umeha, Kanoaki, Miharu.

A priest summons the maiko of Gion Higashi (one of Kyoto's five hanamachi, or geiko entertainment districts) to the stage of Yasaka Shrine to be blessed before the mamemaki (bean-throwing) ceremony.

Before the mamemaki ceremony, Gion's Taiko group takes the stage.

Mission Mamemaki accomplished! The girls make their exit.

The mix of ancient tradition and ultra-modern technology: This is Japan!

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Masayo: Gion Higashi

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Masayo, the highest ranking maiko of Gion Higashi (one of Kyoto's five geiko entertainment districts), wearing the special hanakanzashi (flowered hair ornament) for February. The plum blossoms celebrate the end of winter and the coming of spring.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Tsunemomo and "Drink-Driving"?

Tsunemomo, Masayo, and the maiko of Gion Higashi descending from Yasaka Shrine after the Mamemaki (bean throwing) ceremony.

Japanese technology never ceases to amaze me, nor does unavoidable deterioration of even native English speaker's language skills after a prolonged stay in Japan-land. Case in point: The presumably foreign author's (Justin McCurry) repeated use of the term "Drink-Driving'". I, too, have been outside of my native English speaking habitat for quite a while, so perhaps I'm mistaken, but wouldn't the correct terms be "drinking and driving" or "drunk driving"? Does not "drink-driving" refer to actually driving a drink, as opposed to an automobile?


Drink-Driving is a perfectly correct term used in England. I apologize if I offended anyone. m(- -)m

"Motorists who flout the law by driving home after a few drinks will soon be up against a formidable foe: their cars.

Toyota is working on a system of sensors that will automatically shut down a car's engine if it thinks the person behind the wheel has had too much to drink.

Cars will use sensors on the steering wheel to measure the alcohol level in the river's sweat, the Asahi Shimbun newspaper reported. If it is too high the car will not start."

You can read the rest of the article here.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Friday, February 02, 2007

"Oni Wa Soto! Fuku Wa Uchi!"

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The Long-Nosed Goblin of Mt. Atago: Performed by the geiko of Gion Higashi. During setsubun, many people hang Okame masks (thought to bring good luck), like the one above.

According to ancient Chinese legend, a man-eating mountain-dwelling beast called the nian (年) silently slipped in and out of houses, preying on unsuspecting villagers. In time, people learned that loud noises and the color red seemed to repel the monster, and began to protect themselves with explosions, fireworks displays and the use of the color red in their homes and villages. Eventually these customs evolved into the first Chinese New Year celebrations. Even the kanji for Guò nián (Simplified Chinese: 过年; Traditional Chinese: 過年), which means to celebrate the new year, literally means 'the passing of the nian beast".

The legend of nian and the traditions adopted to repel him became so intwined with the idea of the new year that, when the Japanese began using chinese characters in their writings, the kanji for the nian (年) came to mean 'year'.

A long-nose oni (goblin, devil) mask.

In traditional Japan, the new year celebrations began with Risshun (立春) Setsubun (節分), the day before the begining of Spring (according to the traditional East Asian calendar). As with modern celebrations of the Gregorian New Year, special rituals were performed to cleanse the misfortune of the former year and drive away evil spirits in the year to come.

As in China, the celebrations were not without their hideously evil creatures. The devilish Oni were originally invisible spirits or gods which caused disasters, disease, and other general unpleasantness in the lives of humans, taking on a variety of forms to deceive (and often devour) them. The Chinese character (鬼) meaning "ghost" came to be used for these formless creatures. It was not until Buddhism arrived that Oni took on its present ogre-like form.

In Japan, these beasties were much easier to keep at bay. On this traditional New Year's Eve, the toshiotoko (man born on in the corresponding animal year of the Chinese zodiac or the head of the house) would throw pan heated soy beans out the door or at a family member wearing an oni mask yelling "Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!" (Evil spirits out! Fortune (blessing) in!" The beans were believed to purify the home, driving out the spirits of sickness and misfortune. To ensure that good luck would enter, the soybeans were eaten. In some areas, the number of bean one eats is the same as their age, but in some places an extra bean is added for good luck. Mamemaki, or bean throwing, still happens today.

I'm off to Kyoto to experience mamemaki myself! Happy Setsubun! Fuyu was soto! Haru was Uchi! (Out with winter! In with Spring!)