Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Katsuyuki: Kawaii!

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Katsuyuki, originally from Nagoya, is in her second year of service in Gion Kobu.

Remember how I said I was off to Kyoto to see Gion Matsuri, and then disappeared of the face of the blogsphere with only an image of Katsuyuki and I to keep you company? Well, despite all my best intentions of photographing what may have been my last Gion Matsuri, fate had other plans for me. Instead I ended up spending an incredible evening with Katsuyuki and a good friend of mine, who shall be henceforth referred to as Shacho-san (Company President).

The day of Yoiyama (the night before the Yamahoko Junko procession of floats) was grey and rainy as a typhoon tip-toed up the coast of western Japan. I had planned to spend the day walking around, photographing the floats and festivities, but ended up seeking shelter beneath the tiled eaves of a narrow Gion sidestreet. I found myself at Gion Maru Ume, a small teahouse/bar that doubles as a venue for tourists to meet maiko during weekend and holiday afternoons.

I recognized it immediately as the place where Lindsay and I had been given our private audience with Mamechika over three years ago, and where I had met Mamechiho last year! Intrigued, I splashed across the puddled pavement to the covered entrance where a few flyers featuring Mamechiho's coy smile were displayed on a small table. The slow rumbling sound of the door sliding open caught my attention as I turned to see an old friend pop his smooth, silvery head of hair through the noren (Japanese door curtain). He seemed just a suprised to find me standing there, soaking wet, as I was to see him.

"Well! My English teacher from Gifu! It's been a long time hasn't it! How are you?" We stood outside the door chatting as a few customers arrived for their appointment. As he ushered them in through the sliding door and split, hanging curtain, I began to back away, sensing my time to leave had come. "Won't you come in? Or do you have another plan? Are you busy?" He asked. I assured him that, umbrella-less as I was, I was in no hurry to get back out into the pouring rain. I humbly accepted his invitation and hurried into the traditional Japanese entrance, slipping out of my shoes and into the sitting room where I took an empty space around a low, Japanese table.

It wasn't long before Katsuyuki arrived, making a poetic entrance as she gently lifted one side of the noren curtain, bowing her head slightly as she floated through it. She positioned herself in the center of the table, sitting upon her knees and smoothing her kimono. She bowed her beautifully adorned head to the tatami mats, raising up again with a sweet smile as she smoothed her kimono once more.

The guests were given a breif introduction to the life and work of the maiko of Gion and encouraged to ask any questions they may have. The room was very quiet, as I believe everyone was struck by adorable smile and overwhelming opulent powder blue kimono. I, on the other hand, was eager to learn more about her. I tried to restrain myself, limiting myself to a very few, well-timed inquiries, hoping to inspire the other guests to make their own. The breif silence must have made Katsuyuki as nervous as it had I, because as soon as I spoke she turned gratefully toward me with a smile of relief.

I quickly learned, to my suprise and delight, that she is originally from Nagoya. Not only had she heard of Ena, she had actually eaten our beloved goheimochi. We giggled about how delicious it was while other guests were left to wonder what on earth we were talking about. At 17, she has been a maiko for just two years, as her beautifully embroidered collar, emblazoned with threads of crimson, gold and silver, would suggest. She showed us this year's specially designed Gion Matsuri hanakanzashi (flowered hair ornament), embellished with Japanese fans and silvery summer blossoms is sweet, pastel shades of pink and violet, complimented with cherry. Hidden among her crown of flowers I spotted the emerald ring of linked dumblings, the tsunagi dango emblem of Gion Kobu, worn only by maiko of Gion Kobu under the age of 18.

Katsuyuki served us matcha (Japanese powdered green tea whipped with a bamboo wisk into a frothy green deliciousness) with charming Japanese sweets shaped like dancing fans and okobo (the tall, wooden sandals worn by maiko) before treating us to a single dance. Despite her relative inexperience, she moved with a captivating grace and elegance. I was so captivated, in fact, that I forgot to take any pictures. That, in itself, should say it all.

Before I knew it, our time was up. Katsuyuki led us into the entrance, where she bowed to each of us as we disappeared through the noren. My friend called after me, asking me to wait a moment if I had the time. The rain was still coming down, so I was in no rush. After a few minutes he popped his head back out through the noren. "Are you busy? Do you have any plans?" He asked again.

"My only plan was to walk around the floats tonight..."

"Well, how about if we walk around seeing the floats with Yuki-chan?"


"Katsuyuki-san. If she's free. Just wait a moment, OK? I'll see."

Again he disappeared into the teahouse. It wasn't long before I heard Katsuyuki make her way into the entrance, slipping into her tall, wooden sandals. Her pale white hand gently raised the hanging noren as she stepped out, followed by Shacho-san. "Let's walk her back to her Okiya. She'll meet us a bit later." He said, handing her her oiled paper umbrella. I stepped out of the way, planning to follow behind them, but Katsuyuki called "Walk with me, Oneesan!"

So, down the narrow side street and out to the Hanamikoji, full of tourists in town for the famous Yoiyama Gion Matsuri, I brushed shoulders with a maiko beneath her umbrella.

Luckily the rain stopped as we arrived at her okiya. Shacho-san followed her into the entrance, but I stood shyly outside waiting, trying to decide whether or not the entire scenario was just a dream. Katsuyuki emerged while our friend chatted with the mother of the house, and began talking to me. Everyone in the street was stunned, first by the sight of maiko in all her breath-taking regalia, and then again when they realized she was talking to some strange foreigner.

Thankfully the Shacho-san soon followed and we began walking towards Shijo, closed to traffic and full of festival-goers in colorful yukata. The camera-toting toursit crowd, of whom I admit I am a card-carrying member, had started to swarm, and I was amazed at how rude and brazen many of them were. Some, assuming I was not with her, pushed me out of their way, held their camera up in front of her face and tried to get a picture of themselves walking with her. Some ran in front of us, stopping directly in our path to take pictures until we had to trip over them or stop and wait for them to move. Any time we did stop we were surrounded, and so we tried are best to keep moving. It was her first time to the festival, so Katsuyuki had brought her camera, tucked in her obi, hoping to get a shot of the lantern-lit yama and hoko floats. It was impossible. I felt so sorry for her, but she handled it all with grace. I never heard her say an unkind word.
"Are any of your 'sisters' coming to see the floats tonight?" I asked.

"No, they can't. I think there are too many people."

On our way back to the okiya we stopped at a Haagen Dazs stand to buy omiage, or souveniers, for Katsuyuki's sisters. When we arrived back at her okiya, I once again lingered outside the door unitl Katsuyuki invited me in. First we were greeted by a maiko in casual kimono who chatted with the Shacho-san until the mother came. She kneeled on the tatami mats thanking the Shacho-san, and even thanking me. They were all very excited about the tiny, one-serving ice cream cups we had brought, and soon another maiko in a beautiful midnight blue kimono fluttered by the shoji (papered screens), peeking her head over the kneeling okaasan to choose her cookie-and-cream delight. "Neesan, what would you like?" Katsuyuki asked me.

"Me? No, that's OK!" I assured her, refusing out of rudimentary good manners and a nasty intolerance to dairy. "Please, I want to be sure there is enough for all your sisters."

"That's Ok! We got one for you, too. You like strawberry, right?"

"Yeah! Strawberry! That sounds delicious!" I said excitedly, realizing that there is no way to say no to a maiko.

And just like that, my magical evening came to an end. I have no pictures of yoiyama or Katsuyuki and I flashing peace signs in front of the impressive festival floats, but I have memories that will last me for as long as I live, as maukish as that may sound. I must admit that walking past the enormous wooden floats, hung with softly lit paper lanters and antique tapestries and loaded with yukata-clad boys playing the famous wooden flutes of Gion Bayashi (festival music)with a maiko at my side, I couldn't help but feel I was living a dream. Kyoto has been so kind to me in so many ways. The thing I'll miss most about being in Japan is being able to go there whenever I wish.

I've always felt that Kyoto and I have a fate. Perhaps this will not be my last adventure there.


Justine said...

You always have the best luck with the Maiko in Kyoto! I hope that you had an awesome experience :)

Abbey said...

She really is kawaii. And at 17, it's so nice to see her dressed in beautiful kimono instead of a revealing seifuku mini-skirt.

Jenny said...

She is so pretty <3 her kimono is lovely too^^
You are so lucky

Melissa said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Wonderful story! I really enjoyed the tidbit of the gion - kobu hair pin. I didn't know they had to be under 18 to wear it! Thanks for that, I'm always trying to identify who is who and that little hairpin comes in handy for least figuring out a district to narrow the search, especially on the first years! I hope you will return to kyoto, your photos are just beautiful!

alyson said...

Beautiful, Melissa. What a wonderful way to go out!

shigatsuhana said...

What a wonderful story! I have a feeling that you are right about Kyoto. You have a real attachment with that place and I think it won't let you go easily. Write a book with your brilliant stories and photos. Please!

Anonymous said...

wooow, how cool!! I shrieked when I read that you walked down the street next to a maiko! and then I got all nostalgic...I wish I could come visit for koyou season...I've been thinking a lot lately about Japan...

sukarabi said...

And the end of the story could be: and suddenly I wake up... you're so lucky to have friends like that.
For turist, I saw the same each time a maiko was there. They are rude and don't know any polite manner to ask them. Me I was dreaming to made a photo with them but I couldn't ask. My wife asked them politly and at my surprise they accepted. And suddenly I wake up... no it was real.