Our trip to Kyoto was not short of excitement and eventful endeavors, although there was one night which particularly stood out. After a long day of strolling through beautiful bamboo forests and visiting magnificent centuries-old temples, my mom-in-law and I set out to Gion – a magical part of Kyoto – to enjoy a traditional Japanese kaiseki ryori dinner in a company of Maiko and Geisha. Located within walking distance from Yasaka Shrine, Gion Hatanaka is considered to be one of the best ryokans (traditional Japanese guest house) in town. You can feel the incredible hospitality and high level of service the moment you step inside. We were greeted by a row of hostesses who offered us to wait in the lobby before the show started. In a few minutes we were ushered to the main dining hall where tables were set around what looked like a stage for Maiko and Geisha to perform. We indulged in seven-course traditional Japanese kaiseki dinner which included all you can drink alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages. I started the evening with some sake and a glass of absolutely amazing plum liquor, something I reordered more times that I care to admit. A set of cold appetizers were also already served in a beautiful bento box. I was quite amazed by the sheer amount of the bite-sized nibbles we got to sample: a selection of vegetables, my absolute favorite pickles, Kyoto style sushi, variety of seafood, scrumptious duck and beef cuts, flavorful tamago and beautifully cooked tofu. I was particularly impressed by the caramelized small shirao fish, which tasted more like bacon – sweet, savory and crunchy at the same time. We couldn’t have enough of it. Following this mini feast, we were also enjoyed a fresh snapper sashimi and rolled yuba (tofu skin). Similar to my previous kaiseki ryori meals, dinner at Gion Hatanaka was elaborate and theatrical in its execution and presentation. The menu highlighted the local specialties like tofu cooked in a variety of ways, as well as seasonal ingredients such as prawn and bamboo shoots. By using minimal amount of spices and seasoning to enhance their food traditional Japanese cooking technique strives to bring out the taste of fresh local and seasonal ingredients. Although, admittedly, it might seem a bit underwhelming and plain to the Western palate.
Meanwhile, the host of the show welcomed a Maiko (apprentice geisha between the ages of 15 and 20) and two Geisha (or Geiko, as they are referred to in Kyoto) into the room. I don’t want to sound cheesy, but it was certainly a special moment to personally meet these three graceful ladies with their sophisticated traditional hairstyles, white-painted doll-like faces and elegant silk kimonos. I wanted to pinch myself. I remember being fascinated by the exuberant Geisha culture as I read Arthur Golden’s historical novel Memoirs of a Geisha. I found their lifestyle incredibly exotic and intriguing and wondered about their challenging journey of becoming a geisha. Traditionally the primary role of a Maiko/Geisha is to entertain guests during high-class social gathering with traditional Japanese dancing, drinking games, conversation and traditional Japanese arts. They undergo incredible training to perfect their skills and master multiple crafts. Besides other traditional arts like poetry writing and reciting, flower arrangement, tea ceremony and calligraphy, geisha are also expected to be adept at elegant song and dance. They are trained musicians and artists who bring refined and tasteful entertainment to clients. As we indulged in our elaborate supper, Geiko and Maiko mesmerised us with flowing dance movements, sang and played on shamisen, an Okinawan string instrument similar to a small-bodied guitar. It was also a pleasure to learn more about the intricate details of their beautiful outfits and make-up, how they style their hair, and their everyday life. So what is the difference between how Maiko and Geisha dress up? Maiko usually have the complex hairstyle ornamented with an array of pretty hair pins; the striking white make-up with a touch of red and pink on their lips and eyes; elaborate colorful silk kimonos with seasonal motifs tied together with an obi belt of contrasting colors. Geishas on the other hand tend to wear kimonos and hairpins that are more humble yet incredibly refined. Their obi is also much shorter, tied in a square bow.We had an opportunity to satisfy our curiosity and ask questions (with the help of an interpreter) when all three of them briefly stopped by our table to converse with us and tell their story. I was particularly curious to find out more about their daily routine because their make-up looks phenomenal (at least to me, who barely manages to put a powder and mascara on every morning). Apparently, they do their make-up themselves every day. Oh and don’t even get me started on that elaborate hair-do! Maiko use their own hair not the wig, and they have it styled once a week. To make sure it is not ruined they have to sleep on a special “pillow” (which looks more like a wooden neck brace). I was also curious to know what inspired them to become a geisha. Maiko giggled and said she has always loved dressing up in a traditional kimono. As the night went on, we were served a very delicate and flavorful broth with bamboo shoots and fried tofu, as well as perfectly cooked shrimp, shiitake mushroom and vegetable tempura. For the final savory course we enjoyed another variety of sesame tofu soup with bamboo shoots and “wild” vegetables, which had quite delectable yuzu flavor. It was also accompanied by steamed rice with mixed bamboo shoots. Perhaps the highlight of the night was an interactive drinking games, a common type of entertainment provided by Geikos. If you won, you’d even get a special souvenir as a prize. Thankfully, my mother-in-law recorded the one I played and lost (sigh):
To finish the night off on a sweet note we savored a refreshing blueberry ice-cream paired with Japanese cherries and pineapple. Overall, the two hours evaporated in cheerful and happy haze. It was certainly a very fascinating and memorable evening with a unique insight into beautiful Japanese culture. I cannot help but thank my parents-in-law as the dinner was an early birthday gift to me.
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