Sunday, February 25, 2007


You know them as geisha and probably have a lot of incorrect ideas about them. But I don't even know too much about them either. Right now on Discovery Channel Japan, there's a documentary about a 15-year-old girl named Yukina who goes from the bumpkin towns of northern Japan to learn to be a maiko.

A maiko is an apprentice geiko. Geiko is the Kyoto- and perhaps preferred- term for what we know in the west as geisha. I had a student at Nova who is friends with many geiko and she corrected me pretty sharply when I said, "geisha."

"No!," she said, probably more forcefully than she intened, "Call them 'geiko.'"

It's interesting to see this girl doing something that's not all that common anymore. According to this documentary, there are fewer than 1000 geiko these days. School here is compulsory through junior high, and she's quit and moved far from home to do this thing that's her dream. Her sister Misato inspired her in her love of dance, but the decision to become a maiko shocked their mother.

It's also fascinating to see everyone walking streets I've walked, streets that even now seem exotic to me. At one point, Yukina is shopping in the very arcade my friend M took me to two years ago. I really want to spend more time in Kyoto. Maybe I can talk M into making another trip there when the weather's nice and she has some free time.

Memoirs of a Geisha, both the book and the movie, are more like the fantasy version of the geiko life. The romanticized version. It probably exists in the same fictional universe as Gone With the Wind and its vision of antebellum Georgia.

Many of the students I've met love Kyoto. M does, as she's made clear. I think it's a very special place for some Japanese people. Although to be honest, so is Tokyo Disneyland.

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