• Social Series

Kyoto Geiko Quarters / Bond of 2 Geiko ‘Sisters’ Bridges 65-year Age Gap

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Right: Taeno, right, claps her hands at a banquet in a tatami room, with Tae looking on and smiling as she plays the shamisen, in Kyoto on Oct. 18.

Kyoto is home to five geiko quarters called “kagai”: Gion Kobu, Miyagawacho, Pontocho, Kamishichiken and Gion Higashi. Geiko is Kyoto’s term for a geisha. As of the end of October, there were 213 geiko and maiko (apprentice geiko) in the quarters, adding color and splendor to the ancient capital. The following is the first installment in a series that follows two women in Miyagawacho — a 91-year-old veteran and a 26-year-old who became a geiko a year ago.

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KYOTO — In October, a special performance was held in Miyagawacho. On stage, geiko danced in fall-themed costumes, and the 91-year-old Tae sat playing the shamisen, her back straight, her knees resting on scarlet cloth.

When Tae finished her performance, she did not return to the dressing room, but instead went to the 26-year-old Taeno, who was waiting offstage, looking nervous. Tae whispered to Taeno: “Before you go onstage, bow to the stage. And when the curtain rises, take a deep breath.”

“Thank you, sister,” said Taeno. Then, for the first time, she performed kiyomoto, a type of narrative recitation.

The Yomiuri Shimbun

In November 2022, the year Taeno became a geiko, the two women exchanged small cups of sake in a ceremony meant to cement their bond, and in doing so became “sisters,” though one is 65 years older than the other. They were keeping alive an entertainment quarters tradition in which a new geiko or maiko and a senior geiko form a sisterly bond, the younger one takes part of the elder’s name, and the elder teaches etiquette, hospitality and fortitude.

Tae was born in Osaka. She worked as a geiko in Soemoncho, one of the five geiko quarters in the city’s Minami area, for more than 20 years. This was a time of rapid economic growth for Japan. Osaka’s high-end ryotei restaurants became hot spots for businesspersons and cultural figures. She worked hard to hone her arts and speaking skills, which still serve her well.

After retiring, Tae taught shamisen for over 40 years, but she began to feel more and more acutely her love of the geiko life. Finally, she returned to the stage at age 84, this time in Kyoto’s Miyagawacho.

Onstage and at banquets in teahouses, she plays the shamisen and sings as a jikata, a person in charge of the music for a Japanese dance performance. There are few older geiko like Tae in Kyoto’s entertainment quarters.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Tae plays the shamisen in Kyoto on Oct. 28.

Taeno, on the other hand, hails from Kyoto. She learned tea ceremony and dance because of her admiration for maiko. She went to university and worked for a company, but jumped into the kagai world in her mid-20s, a rarity when most girls start in their teens.

It has been a year since the two sealed their bond. They have worked together every day, performing onstage and entertaining guests at banquets.

After the October performance, Taeno told Tae, “When you gave me those words of encouragement, I felt reassured and energized, and I told myself, ‘I have to work harder.’” Tae smiled warmly at her cheerful “little sister.”

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Left: Taeno, right, and Tae walk to a teahouse in Kyoto on Nov. 15.