Japan’s geisha (also called as geiko in Kyoto or geigi in Kanto area near Tokyo) are referred to by most as ‘living pieces of art’ and their world is seen as elusive. Nonetheless, one thing is for sure: they practice a certain discipline and embody a certain elegance that can enamour just about anyone!
Because of their beautiful appearance as well as their awe-inspiring culture, a lot of people dream of meeting a geisha up close in a formal ozashiki (dinner banquet); however, the price for that could be quite expensive. It starts at about ¥20,000 yen (about $175~ or Php 8,600~) per geisha per person… and that’s only for 1 hour! That doesn’t even include the high dinner costs yet at a ryotei (restaurant) or ochaya (teahouse) — one of the few places where geisha can accept ozashiki bookings.
That being said, a lot of people just resort to visiting Kyoto to try their luck and catch a glimpse of geisha on the streets as they make their way to work (a rather difficult feat because they choose NOT to be spotted by the crowd; plus, there are even tourists who dress up like geisha so they’re easily confused for the real ones). When that doesn’t work, others just settle into watching them dancing from afar on the stage in Gion Corner for a few minutes.
…So, what if I told you that I know of a rare opportunity where you can meet, play, watch, and even talk to a geisha for about an hour for just ¥3,000 yen ($26~ or Php 1,300~)? Yes, I do! You simply need to go to the city of Niigata which is just less than a 2-hour train ride away from Tokyo!
Niigata’s Furumachi Geigi
Niigata, a leading port town back in the Edo period, is absolutely one of the amazing underrated destinations in Japan that holds a LOT of exciting activities and landmarks, one of which would be the program: Niigata Hanamachi Chaya.
This program offers locals and tourists alike the chance to be entertained by Furumachi geigi — the geisha of Niigata — up close in the refined Saitou Villa for an hour at very affordable cost. The style of the affair would be much like a dinner banquet but less the meal as they would instead be serving tea and sweets.
I had the chance to experience this myself and I absolutely recommend it!
Furumachi which literally means “Old Town” is the name of the central business district in Niigata and it is actually also regarded as a hanamachi or geisha district.
In fact, for years it has ranked alongside Gion in Kyoto and Shimbashi in Tokyo as one of Japan’s three (3) main geisha entertainment districts, and that remains to be true up to today.
If you are someone who’s more into visuals, you can also just watch this video / vlog first that covers my whole experience with the Furumachi geigi:
Niigata Hanamachi Chaya Program
I arrived at Saitou Villa around 2:00PM together with my Japanese guides from the Niigata Tourism Board. After talking with the receptionist who checked our booking, we were quickly told to go into a hall at the 2nd floor of the villa.
The moment that I stepped into that room, I saw the view of the gorgeous garden below from the windows and it just took my breath away — there were such striking splashes of red, orange and yellow! My companion must have seen my expression so he assured me that I will have time after the program to explore the garden.
With a smile on my face, I looked at the rest of the people who were sitting down on the tatami floor. There were about 20 of them and all of them were Japanese… right then and there, I realized that this wasn’t a well-known activity yet for foreigners like me. With such a thought, I truly felt like a found a pot of gold that I wouldn’t mind sharing!
Within minutes, the receptionist downstairs came up to the front of the room and talked more about the geigi that were performing that day. My companion translated it all for me and I found out that the Furumachi geigi’s traditions date back to 300 years and there are currently about 12 geigi in their okiya (geisha house).
The geigi that were going to perform for us that day were named Kahori and Yoshino, and they
walked (more like “floated” since they were so graceful!) into the room each wearing a beautiful furisode kimono, the iconic geisha hairstyle, and white shiro-nuri makeup.
Since I’m such a sucker for Japanese culture, I identified them both as senior maiko (geisha-in-training) given the style of their lipstick and hair ornaments.
After a brief introduction, they swiftly launched into graceful performances of several dances which they call Nihon-buyo. All throughout those dances, they were being accompanied by shamisen (string instrument) music and by traditional singing of 2 other senior geigi who were in simple kimono, sitting by the side of the ‘stage’ (referred to as jikata).
Once that was done, the geigi started to talk as they introduced a typical ozashiki asobi (party game) that they wanted to play with us. The game they introduced was called “taruken” — it was basically a ‘rock-paper-scissors’ kind of play that involves a drum placed between the players. The rest of the geigi will sing the rock-paper-scissors tune in Japanese and the winner for every turn has to beat the drum twice while the loser has to turn around once on the spot. If someone fails to turn around or if someone loses thrice consecutively, the round ends.
It might sound like a simple game but it was a lot of fun! You just simply get drawn in and anyone is free to go up against the geigi — just come forward. Don’t be shy! After all, it can be quite an experience.
I explained the rules very well now but I actually didn’t understand it much during that time because I was rather focused on documenting the event. When there came a point that they started to look for the next player, they ALL looked at me and urged me to go to the front (most likely because I was the only foreigner in the room, and I wholly know how the Japanese LOVE to make sure that they involve outsiders in their culture).
For sure I wouldn’t have hesitated at all — BUT like I said, I wasn’t really paying any attention at first! Still, I didn’t want to be some sort of party pooper so I went in front, ready to make a fool of myself (haha).
…Yet ‘lo and behold, after several successful turns, the beautiful geigi before me stopped and I looked at her in confusion.
She giggled and said, “You won!”
I was floored. For 2 reasons:
- The geigi before me CAN speak English!!!
- And I won without even knowing what the hell I was doing.
Right then and there, everybody started clapping and laughing.
Now how’s that for a win? :P
After this game, one of the geigi started to explain more about their get-up: from their elaborate hairstyle, to their makeup, to their obi (sash belt) and down to their kimono. You can learn more about that as well on a post I made before, found here.
When they’re done doing the explaining, everyone was free to ask more questions, so don’t hesitate to raise your hand if you come by here!
Before they bid farewell, the geigi told us that we’re free to take a commemorative photography with them and for sure, I grabbed that opportunity. Everyone fell in line and waited their turn as we watched fondly at how they elegantly positioned themselves and their clothes on the floor in such a glamorous manner… all in preparation for taking a photo with each of us. A part of me definitely felt that these geigi before me were worlds apart from me when it comes to femininity and grace!
Now, we had the time to enjoy the rest of Saitou Villa so we headed down to the first floor, and it was there that we were given matcha (powdered green tea) and Japanese sweets whilst we enjoyed the garden before us.
…It was so amazing! A definite great way to end the magical show that I had just witnessed!
TRIVIA: The Saitou Villa is a summer villa that was built back in 1920 by a wealth merchant in Niigata named Kijuro Saito IV. He was a zaibatsu (business conglomerate) who made his fortune operating kitamaebune (shipping route) cargo ships.
The whole of this villa’s land is about 4,500m2 — including the garden, the main house, a storehouse, and a teahouse. Today, it is a place used to welcome honored guest in Niigata such as public figures, and celebrities, but more as a place that’s preserved and revered as a valued cultural building.
I took my sweet time strolling through the garden, admiring the autumn leaves and gawking at the genius of the landscape’s design… The Japanese surely have a knack for aesthetics!
BOOKING & TRAVEL INFORMATION
Do you need to apply for a Japan Tourist Visa?
Even if geisha / geigi / geiko don’t number as many as they used to be, these culturual icons of Japan who are deemed as highly skilled in the arts still absolutely thrive today — and it’s surely a must to meet them when you’re visiting the country!
Sure enough, they may be mostly available only to that of the rich and the wealthy Japanese locals, however, there has been more opportunities lately that enable normal tourists like us to get a glimpse or a try of their amazing culture and practice. With that fact, I suggest that you grab hold of opportunities like this program in Niigata City! You definitely won’t regret it and it will be such a memorable experience for you.
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Hey there! I am Aileen Adalid.
At 21, I quit my corporate job in the Philippines to pursue my dreams. Today, I am a successful digital nomad (entrepreneur, travel writer, & vlogger) living a sustainable travel lifestyle.
My mission? To show you how it is absolutely possible to create a life of travel too (no matter the odds), and I will help you achieve that through my detailed travel guides, adventures, resources, tips, and MORE!
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CURRENTLY BASED IN: The Philippines
TRAVELING NEXT TO: Antarctica
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