Tucked away in a back street of Monzen-nakacho, running parallel to Eitai-dori Avenue, sits an unexpected treasure Sayuki no Okiya: the only remaining okiya or Geisha house, in Koto Ward. And not only that, but it is run by Sayuki, the first western woman to become a Geisha.
With its wooden structure, tatami flooring, striking original blue-painted walls and warren of small rooms, Sayuki no Okiya reeks of the history of the Geisha world, and as I kicked off my shoes and stepped up into the old entrance hall I felt transported into a world very different from the modern one outside;
a place where even the Geisha’s business cards are different (and kept in your wallet they are claimed to bring prosperity).
Preferring to be addressed by her professional name, Sayuki explained that she came to Japan from Australia in 2007 armed with a degree in social anthropology and an MBA, along with Japanese language skills and a background in documentary film production.
Asked why she chose the area, Sayuki said that it was close to Fukagawa with its historical connections to the Geisha world, and she liked the atmosphere and the presence of local matsuri (festivals).
When she came to Japan she had intended to film a year in the life of training to become a Geisha, but soon found that it was not possible to combine the dedication and strict regime required to learn her new profession with the time and disruption a camera crew can cause.
So, opting to concentrate on the former, she started off in a Geisha house in the Asakusa area of Tokyo. When her Geisha “mother” retired Sayuki found that the rules of the Asakusa Geisha Association prevented her from forming her own house there, but a stroke of luck led her to the 80 year old building in Koto Ward where she now lives and runs her own okiya with its two other Geisha and two Hangyoku (young trainee Geisha, also known as Maiko).
Sayuki introduced Asaka and Tazusa, the two Geisha, who were both dressed in simple, understated kimono tied with exquisite obi, and with their hair beautifully swept back and tied up. Notwithstanding the restricting nature of their kimonos, they effortlessly led us up an extremely steep flight of stairs
to a tatami room overlooking one of the area’s many canals. Here they proceeded to give a demonstration of their art; Asaka performing a graceful dance accompanied by Tazusa on a 3-string shamisen. As Asaka moved gracefully around the floor in her delicate-mauve kimono Tazusa sat almost motionless on the floor plucking her shamisen with her bachi (plectrum).
After this, kneeling straight-backed before a small taiko (drum), Asaka beat out a sharp rhythm in which she was joined by Sayuki on a Japanese flute.
Each of the Geisha has her own forte, be it dance, song, shamisen, taiko or other skill. Sayuki explained that a typical day can be spent in the morning dealing with customer enquiries and arranging trips, both domestic and international (check their website: this team really gets to travel), followed by keiko (practice sessions) in the afternoon, with the evenings seeing the Geisha going out to entertain clients.
In response to my question as to how many kimonos each Geisha possesses Sayuki and Asaka took us back down those steep stairs to a small room which was crammed with chests and clothes rails containing kimonos. The team make or receive their own kimonos, and Sayuki mentioned that in the past they had been gifted 60 kimonos.
Also in the room were the boxes for the Geisha’s formal wigs and just so much traditional footwear.
Sayuki and her team provide entertainment for clients at local ryotei (high-class traditional restaurants) and koryouri-ya (small traditional restaurants) as well as for other occasions, such as parties on yakatabune (roofed pleasure boats) and attending opening ceremonies at shops or events at embassies.
For those customers with a limited time and budget, Fukagawa Geisha can arrange viewing events of their practice sessions. At these customers can come to the okiya and watch and even join in some of the training activities or take part in a tea ceremony. According to Sayuki, children’s favourites are joining in on the drums and dancing. For details and prices please contact Sayuki via the fukagawageisha.com website.
The Fukagawa Geisha household is watched over by Torayakko, a very “superior” but affectionate cat, who spent much of the visit sunbathing on the tiled roof of the first-floor level before deciding to climb through our second-floor window and joining us.
When I asked Sayuki what drives her to adopt this very unusual, even for Japanese, lifestyle, she replied that Fukagawa, with its 400-year history, is the oldest Geisha district in Japan, and she wants to raise awareness of this and pass on the fascinating Geisha traditions to future generations. In connection with this she would like to increase to ten the number of Geisha in the okiya and welcomes serious enquiries from applicants, but before that she will need to find larger accommodation in the area, as the existing premises are bursting at the seams (if you know of anywhere suitable, please give her a call).
And Sayuki still hasn’t given up on one day completing her documentary on the life of a Geisha; something which, as a real insider, she truly knows all about.
Story and Photos by Jeremy Hutchinson