All You Need to Know About the Unique Experience of Meeting the Legendary Geisha of Niigata

  • NIGATA
  • At the mention of geishas, Kyoto’s Gion District (祇園) is probably the first place that comes to mind. Set against the backdrop of traditional buildings with a nostalgic atmosphere, the beautiful geishas walking around the district is a sight to behold by locals and tourists alike. However, do you know that there are two other places in Japan which are regarded together with Gion as the top 3 areas where geishas ply their trade? Read on to find out about the little-known Furumachi Geigi (geisha of Niigata) from Niigata City in Niigata Prefecture!

    History of the Furumachi Geigi
    Along one of the streets in Furumachi’s Kagai area

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    The term Furumachi Geigi (古町芸妓) refers to the female entertainers who are currently based in Niigata City’s Chuo Ward, Furumachi (新潟県新潟市中央区古町). At the time when the area was at its prosperous peak, there were about 400 geigi who were working there. As a result, the Kagai area i.e. entertainment district (花街) in Furumachi was jointly known as the top 3 geisha areas along with Gion in Kyoto and Shinbashi in Tokyo.

    The origin of the Furumachi geigi can be traced back to as far as 1616 when the female entertainers then were called Niigata Yuujo (新潟遊女). It was only until the late Edo era that they began being referred to as Furumachi geigi. Later, with the opening of the Niigata Port during the Meiji era and the port becoming the most-visited port along the Sea of Japan coast, this led to the development of the Furumachi Kagai. By the Taisho era, there were as many as 300 geigi working in Furumachi and there was even a survey conducted by Niigata Shinbunsha (新潟新聞社) i.e. Niigata News Company to select the top 10 beauties of Niigata among them. During World War II, the geigi in Furumachi stopped working and focused on supporting the military in various activities.

    Even though the geigi returned to the Furumachi Kagai after the war, the industry saw a decline in the number of new geigi to the extent that there were no new trainees from 1968 onwards. By the time it was 1985, the total number of geigi had dwindled to just 60 with the youngest at 36 years old and the average age being 53 years old. As it takes at least 10 years to 20 years to train someone to become a full-fledged geigi, the replacement pace is clearly too slow for the newcomers to take the place of those who retire. Coupled with the increasing range of alternative entertainment options and the reduced demand for geigi to perform at high-class ryotei restaurants, this has dealt a double whammy to the geigi trade. Last but not least, even the locals in Niigata City hardly know about the geigi and its glorious history thus further raising concerns about the sustainability of this traditional art form and its performers’ future.

    The Ryuto Shinko vending machines

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    Fortunately, there are already steps taken to stem the downward decline of the geigi trade and boost awareness of the Furumachi geigi. Ryuto Shinko (柳都振興), a company set up 1987, set out to cultivate and train new geigi and be the middlemen in linking the customers and dining establishments with the geigi under their management. In addition, the company also designs and sells various merchandise such as postcards, books, bookmarks, cups, oil blotter sheets, fans, T-shirts and even sake which bears the images of the Furumachi Geigi. One interesting thing to note is that Ryuto Shinko is collaborating with Coca Cola East Japan where they have come up with Furumachi Geigi-styled vending machines so part of the proceeds earned through these will be used to develop and sustain the geigi industry. Do keep a lookout for these items while you are in the area!

    The Furumachi Geigi
    A description on the Niigata Furumachi Geigi

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    In Furumachi, the geigi are broadly categorised as Neesan (姐さん) i.e. elder sister and Ryuto-san (柳都さん) who are managed by Ryuto Shinko. The term Neesan usually refers to the veteran geigi who are in their 50s and 60s and had been trained and belonged to a geisha house (okiya 置屋). At present, there are 12 Ryuto-san managed by Ryuto Shinko as listed on their website.

    Compared to Kyoto, the names used to describe the geigi at varying stages of their careers differ. In Kyoto, the full-fledged geigi are called geiko (芸妓) while those who are still apprentices are called maiko (舞妓). However, in Niigata, they are called tomesode (留袖) and furisode (振袖) respectively. In general, it takes about 7 to 8 years before a furisode can become a tomesode. In addition, a woman must be at least 18 years old at the time she begins her training to become a furisode.

    During a dance performance by the Furumachi Geigi where the tomesode wore blue while the furisode was in a light-coloured kimono

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    There are some key differences in the way a tomesode and a furisode dress which you can keep a lookout for next time you meet a geigi in Furumachi:

    • Type of kimono worn: A tomesode wears a tomesode which is usually black and worn by married women with designs on the bottom part of the skirt. The hemline is longer than the usual kimono so it is dragged along on the floor. In June and September, she wears the hitoe (単衣) which is a kimono without the inner lining while in July and August, she wears the lighter ro (呂). Between October and May, she will wear the kimono with the lining called awase (袷). A furisode wears a furisode which is a long-sleeved kimono and has brighter colours than a tomesode. Just like the tomesode, she wears the hitoe, ro and awase depending on the season.
    • Hairstyle: A tomesode wears her hair at the back raised and tied up in the style called chuushimada (中島田). On the other hand, a furisode wears the momoware (桃割れ) where the fringe and hair on the top of the head pulled to the back and split into two parts like a peach cut into two.
    • Hairpins: Depending on the season and occasion, the hairpins worn would differ. In the case of the tomesode, the hairpins worn in summer are usually made of ivory and in green while in winter, they are made of tortoise shells and in red. In contrast, the furisode wears flower-style hairpins to coincide with the four seasons theme i.e. plum and pine during New Year, wisteria during spring and willow during summer. The hairpins used in front are made of silver while those used in the back are usually painted red.
    • Decorative collar: The tomesode’s decorative collar is always white while the furisode’s usually comes with red embroidery or is entirely in light pink.
    • The obi sash: The end of the obi for the tomesode is tucked into the centre on the back but in formal situations, the end is left dangling on the outside. For the furisode, the pattern of the obi is the same as her decorative collar and it is tied in the back in the shape of an arrow.
    How to meet the Furumachi Geigi and things to take note of
    During a performance by the Furumachi Geigi

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    Engaging the geigi in providing entertainment during a meal or party is often seen as an activity reserved for the rich and famous. Moreover, some ryotei restaurants tend not to entertain first-timers nor do not provide any guidance on how to do so thus there is understandably some reservation about engaging the geigi. However, in recent years, there has been a trend where group customers such as friends, housewives or married couples invite geigi to perform during their meals at ryotei restaurants so the “barriers to entry” are considerably lowered now. Ryuto Shinko recommends that first-timers try the popular Geigi no Mai Course which is available during summer (July to Summer) and winter (February) where people can have a meal at the ryotei and have the geigi perform in front of them at a price of 15,000 yen.

    Alternatively, you can choose to engage the geigi separately through the ryotei restaurants by specifying the length of time you wish for them to be around. Depending on the ryotei restaurant you go to, the price can differ by at least double so you may wish to choose those which are members of the Niigata Sangyo Kyodo Kumiai (新潟三業協同組合). Note that the prices quoted usually do not include the transportation fees of the geigi yet and are charged on a per-person basis. You can choose to engage a geigi for at least an hour to three hours.

    For example, if you hire a geigi at a ryotei under the association, you will need to pay at least 9,720 yen. On the other hand, if the ryotei you are at is not part of the association, the price climbs up to 18,792 yen. For non-member shops, a surcharge of 500 yen per geigi is also applicable. Please note that these prices are based on Ryuto Shinko’s website thus they may differ if you are engaging a Neesan rather than a Ryuto-san. The choice of your dining venue would also be a key factor since there may be additional surcharges. Nonetheless, if you are in a group, the amount you have to pay per person will be considerably lesser than if you are alone. Otherwise, opt for the course set during the summer and winter months which is more affordable since it already factors in the meal cost.

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    If you are unsure of the manners and what is involved during a geigi performance, fret not because you can always ask the staff at the ryotei or the geigi themselves. Here are some pointers which will be helpful for first-timers who don’t know what to expect:

    • Arrive earlier than the stipulated time. It is suggested that you arrive at least 10 minutes before so that you can settle down and take in the atmosphere at the ryotei.
    • Once the geigi arrive, they will introduce themselves one by one to the customers. They will start with pouring drinks for the customers and engage in small talk with them until the dance performance starts.
    • After the dance performance, the geigi will usually present their name cards to the customers. They will then play various finger-guessing games with the customers so as to keep them entertained.
    • The geigi will address male customers as Anisama (あにさま) which means elder brother and female customers as Anesama (あねさま) which means elder sister. As such, don’t be surprised or offended if you are actually younger than the geigi and are being called an elder brother or sister.
    • The geigi will usually include some Niigata dialect as they talk. For example, when they ask you to drink something, the standard way of saying it is “o-nomi ni natte kudasai” (お飲みになってください) but in Niigata dialect, it will be “nomi naretee” (飲みなれてぇ). If you are unsure about the meaning of what has been said, feel free to ask and clarify.
    Geigi rehearsing for a performance during the Niigata Odori

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    If engaging the geigi might be of a concern in terms of cost, you may wish to catch them in action for free as they perform at various events and festivals throughout the year:

    • Furumachi Furisode-san Odorizome Kai in February (ふる町振袖さんおどり初め会)
    • Yanagi to Hana no Kai in March (柳と華の会)
    • Niigata Sake no Jin in March (にいがた酒の陣)
    • Furumachi Dondon in May (古町どんどん)
    • Furumachi Niigata Odori in June (ふるまち新潟をどり)
    • Niigata Matsuri Sumiyoshi Gyouretsu in August (新潟まつり・住吉行列)
    • Meiwa Gijin Matsuri in August (明和義人祭)
    • Furumachi Dondon in October (古町どんどん)

    During these public appearances, there may be opportunities for you to take photos with the geigi. As such, it’s been said that the Furumachi Geigi are those who you can go and meet and not have to resort to taking pictures of them secretly as they walk along the streets.

    How about visiting Niigata next time to see the Furumachi Geigi in action and experience Japanese traditional entertainment for yourself?

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