I get it now. Or at least I have a much clearer picture.
Geisha, or geiko as they are called in Kyoto, are one of the great mysteries of Japan. The reason for this is that they are basically off-limits to gaijin (foreigners). If you are just visiting Kyoto, consider yourself lucky to encounter one shuffling through the streets of Gion. If you come during the spring or autumn you might pay to see them in an odori (dance) at a large theatre. But to witness them really doing their thing, performing in an intimate setting for a small audience is indeed rare and special.
My favorite cafe-bar in Gion, Rinken, was having a party to celebrate its second anniversary. This is the place where I first encountered a maiko (a geisha apprentice). Of course I had to go.
I arrived a bit early and was greeted warmly by Ken-san, the proprietor who by now knows who I am. It became apparent that I would be the only gaijin at this party. I knew that meant an amusing evening lay ahead. I grabbed a beer and waited.
In the small basement-level space a kimono-clad man was seated on the tatami mat floor playing a shamisen. An artist friend who used to work at Rinken was there. She introduced me to her friends and we chatted in the busted version of each other's languages. We ate tsukune (meatballs), tori no karaage (chicken nuggets), cabbage and rice from the buffet.
The maiko I met at Rinken that fateful afternoon last October showed up, this time in full make-up, susohiki kimono, hair done up with beautiful kanzashi (combs). Three other geiko arrived and the floor was cleared for their performance.
Their first number was a dance. One geiko and the maiko. They kneeled before us, bowed deeply and then went through their routine, a graceful choreographed piece remarkable for its efficient use of the tiny space. It simply wouldn't do for geisha to be bumping into each other or stepping on the audience seated at their feet. Another dance followed, this time with all four ladies and fans.
Then came what I will describe as sort of geisha parlour games. Here the personalities of the geiko were revealed. They were suddenly very human, still the epitome of elegance, but also witty, humorous, flirty. The word geisha translates as performing artist, and I was beginning to understand why. They were not inanimate objects, beautiful sculptures to be admired from a distance; they were proper entertainers in the pre-radio tradition of the variety show. The wall between performer and audience broke down as they invited us to participate.
There was a coordination game called konpira fune fune involving a small box on a table. Keeping time with the music the geiko and the participant from the audience had to alternately clap and tap and lift the box. Losers (always the audience member) had to drink a cup of sake.
There was a baseball themed dance that concluded with a janken (rock-paper-scissors) challenge. If the audience member lost they had to do a silly samba dance while drinking sake. If the geiko lost their penalty was a more romantic gesture: drinking while interlocking arms with the victor. I was the first to beat the geiko which met with much cheering.
As the night wore on everything got sillier, more exuberant and bawdy ending with the proprietor somehow stripped down to his boxer shorts.
Geisha are something like celebrities only without the massive media presence and PR firms promoting them. Everyone wants to meet them, everyone wants to have their photo taken with them, even the Japanese. For a gaijin like myself, to penetrate the enigmatic world of the geisha for one evening is beyond thrilling.