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Up-to-date and essential English tourist information about Nara for international visitors


Nara Explorer is Nara's first and only English tourist magazine.

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special feature

In the Elegant World of Nara’s Hanamachi

The History of Maiko and Geiko in Ganrin-in,& An Interview with Maiko, Kikuwaka

maikoGorgeous kimono with stunning, long obi sashes, beautifully set black hair with shining hair ornaments, traditionally made-up white faces with cute red lips... The image of “geisha” may come to mind with these words. Actually, you have to be careful in Nara not to call these women “geisha”. They are “maiko” (apprentices) or “geiko”(the Kyoto and Nara word for geisha) who are living in the very special world of traditional Japanese culture. Nara Explorer guides you through the world of Hanamachi in Nara, called Ganrin-in, where the tradition of geiko and maiko is still active.
Hanamachi, the culmination of traditional Japanese hospitality and entertainment
traditional JapaneseHanamachi, literally “Flower Town”, is the term for a district where geiko and maiko live and work. This area includes the Okiya (the house where maiko live and train under the supervision of the female owner), exclusive restaurants or ryokan (inns) where geiko and maiko entertain their customers, and other important places for their work.
Though the word “geisha” is known worldwide today, people don’t call them so in Nara. They are called “maiko” or “geiko”. A geiko is a mature independent entertainer who specializes in Japanese dance, musical instruments, tea ceremony, flower arrangement, and calligraphy. In other words, a geiko is a professional of traditional arts. A Maiko is an apprentice geiko, and is therefore younger in age and experience.
There are several other differences between geiko and maiko. Firstly, their appearance is different. A maiko has a longer obi sash wrapped around her waist and hanging down her back. She has her hair done in a classic Japanese hair style, while a geiko wears a wig. Wearing this hairstyle is difficult for maiko because they can’t release their hair when they go to bed or when they don’t work. They use a high and hard wooden pillow so as not to damage their hairstyle. A maiko wears high wooden clogs called Okobo which are about 15 cm high.
Though the world of Hanamachi looks exquisitely beautiful, to be a maiko or geiko requires dedication and perseverance. Before becoming a maiko, a girl must learn all the basic manners and skills of traditional Japanese culture and service for customers. It generally takes about one year and some girls give up their dream to be a maiko because the training is too demanding. However, the tradition will never change. Strict rules and respect for the tradition have helped to preserve this special world until today.
The Past and Present in Ganrin-in, Nara’s only Hanamachi
HanamachiOnly a few minutes walk to the southwest of Sarusawa Pond, there is an area where narrow lanes cross each other, with a very historical atmosphere. If you don’t know where and what it is you might not notice you are walking through Nara’s Hanamachi district of Ganrin-in. Ganrin-in is where Nara’s only Hanamachi still exists today.
It was in the Meiji period when Ganrin-in started to flourish as a Hanamachi. Later in the Taisho (1012-1926) and early Showa periods (1926-1988), Ganrin-in prospered and was as popular as Hanamachi in Osaka or Kyoto, which are much larger cities than Nara. Once, there were more than 200 geiko in Ganrin-in and official parties were held every night.
After World War Two, the Japanese social structure changed dramatically. In the 1940s, the number of girls who wanted to be maiko and geiko started to decrease. Additionally, the number of people who could afford to have a luxurious party in Ganrin-in also dropped. Sadly, since then Ganrin-in lost its prosperity.
Today, though many tourists visit Nara everyday, many don’t know there is still a Hanamachi in Nara. However, Ganrin-in quietly keeps its classic atmosphere. Though the number of geiko and maiko became very small (currently there are 12 geiko and maiko), they have the responsibility and pride of professionals who maintain the traditions of Ganrin-in today.
An Interview with Kikuwaka: Ganrin-in’s One and Only Maiko
Kikuwaka is the only maiko in Ganrin-in today. Since her parents were associated with the traditional performing arts world, she started learning traditional Japanese dance from 4 years of age. When she was 16 years old, her life changed. She encountered the world of Ganrin-in and decided to become a maiko in Nara.
Nara Explorer (NE): How did you decide to become a maiko in Ganrin-in?
Kikuwaka: My mother took Japanese hand drum lessons and Kikuno (a geiko in Ganrin-in) was a student there too. Kikuno talked about Ganrin-in and my mother asked me if I was interested in being maiko there. At that time, I had no idea how special this world is, but I was attracted to the uniqueness of this. I knew that at least I could perform traditional Japanese dance, which I have been learning since I was very little and really love. When I decided to become a maiko, I started to learn about Ganrin-in and was attracted to this uniqueness of this traditional world which doesn’t exist anywhere else.
NE: Where is your favorite place in Nara?
Kikuwaka: I love to watch the fireflies in Todai-ji Temple. I especially like to see the difference between early morning and the evening in Nara. It is very different and I can feel the seasonal beauty in the quiet air. I can be relaxed and feel comfortably at peace.
NE: Please give us an example of your working day.
Kikuwaka: Kikuwaka: Generally, I have lessons in the morning (dance, shamisen, calligraphy, etc.). Then, I have big lunch because I can’t eat until I finish the day, which is often after midnight. It takes a few hours to prepare for work; about 90 minutes to have my hair done by a specialist, I do my make-up by myself and another specialist helps get me dressed. Sometimes I work during the daytime but generally it’s at night.
NE: What is your goal as a maiko or geiko?
Kikuwaka: Kikuwaka: I am still learning a lot every day. I want to improve my dancing and other entertainment arts, and I want to learn something new as well. I often have chances to entertain foreign customers, so English is one of the things I want to try. Everywhere I go, people find me and recognize me as a maiko in Nara. I love to work as a maiko and I am proud of being so, but at the same time, I feel a strong responsibility because I am the only maiko in Ganrin-in at the moment. I want to make the best of learning as much as possible from the senior geiko and also local people who support me a lot.
Spend a Luxurious Traditional Evening with Maiko at Kikusuiro
KikusuiroKikusuiro is the most prestigious traditional Japanese inn in Nara with over 100 years of history. It preserves classic Japanese architecture and has welcomed a number of domestic and international VIPs. Kikusuiro can organize a special maiko performance by appointment (35,000 yen for 2 hours; a maiko will perform dance and music). Once you step into Kikusuiro, it’s a different world.
Even if you don’t arrange the maiko performance, you can enjoy superbly prepared meals in their restaurants, the Bekkan Kikusuiro (Annex) for Japanese cuisine and Kikusui for Western cuisine, (Western course: 3,500 yen or 5,000 yen; Japanese course: 5,000 yen, 7,000 yen or 10,000 yen; reservation recommended). Their traditional Japanese kaiseki course is worth trying as a very special meal in Nara. You can experience the luxury and hospitality of Nara in a historical setting. See page 9 for more details.
Experience the world of the Hanamachi
Ajimi1) Ajimi
The female proprietor of Ajimi is a geiko, Hinagiku, who has had a long career in Ganrin-in. She has been based in Ganrin-in for 45 years - since she came to Nara to train as a geiko when she was 15 years old. The inside of Ajimi is very small (only counter seats) and has an intimate atmosphere, reflecting the warm and friendly personality of Hinagiku.
Though she doesn’t speak English fluently, through her many international experiences as a geiko, Hinagiku always welcomes foreign customers. There are many autobiographies and photos of geiko in the shop, which is like a museum of the world of Ganrin-in.
Open: 17:30-24:00; closed: Mon.; Tel: 0742-27-7644.
Mangyoku2) Mangyoku
Mangyoku used to be an Okiya where more than 20 geiko lived when Ganrin-in was at its most prosperous. It used to be called Mangyokuro and the building is the oldest example of architecture in this area from 1742. After it stopped operating as an Okiya, it was re-opened as a restaurant called Mangyoku 26 years ago. The owner of Mangyoku is extremely knowledgeable about the area because he was born and raised in Ganrin-in.
You can enjoy their fine Japanese dishes for reasonable prices. Eating in this traditional interior surrounded by furniture used by geiko in the old days, you will feel as if you have traveled back in time. English menu;
Open: 18:00-23:00; closed: Mon.; Tel: 0742-22-2265.
Ganrin-in Photo Gallery3) Ganrin-in Photo Gallery
Mr. Yamashita is an architect who loves the old architecture of Nara. When he set up his office in Ganrin-in, he decided to use half the space for a gallery where old photos that he obtained from people are displayed. Today, there are over 1,000 photos collected here (generally about 16 of them are displayed) and they are all precious historical and cultural records of the area.
This is the only place where you can see the history of Ganrin-in, starting from the Meiji period (1868-1912) through to the late Showa period (1926-1988). Mr. Yamashita has also revived some shamisen music and song and play by himself (next to the gallery is shamisen school for maiko). Today, young geiko and maiko practice them too.
Open: 13:00-17:00; closed Sun. and irregularly on other days; Tel: 0742-24-3600.

Spring 2010

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