Monday, October 16, 2006

Japan - Kyoto's Gion Corner

I wrote about Kyoto's temples earlier, but there's more to Japan's history than religious buildings or ancient architecture. Many Kyoto visitors, myself included, come to the city to see some of the country's historical art forms. Kyoto's Gion district remains one of its revered historical areas, and just wandering around there might get you a glimpse of a real-life geisha or maiko (apprentice geisha) as they go about their business - just as they would have hundreds of years ago. But if you want to get a taste of several popular traditional arts in one place and you don't have a lot of time (as we didn't), there's a place for you: Gion Corner.

Gion Corner was founded in the 1960's specifically as a tourist attraction, to promote traditional Japan to visitors without forcing them to go through the sometimes-daunting task of seeking performances out individually. As we discovered, it is not easy even for native Japanese to find information on attending a traditional Japanese tea ceremony, or certainly to see a dance performance by maiko. So Gion Corner was set up to showcase these arts, and one of their presentations compacts seven of these art forms into one 50 minute show. They also offer a longer tea ceremony, but we didn't stay for that (it's an additional 1,500 yen, if I remember correctly).

I was actually pretty skeptical that we'd get anything meaningful out of such a short presentation, and it is true that it goes by very quickly. There are even overlapping parts that split your attention (the tea ceremony, koto performance and flower arrangement all take place simultaneously, for example). However, it's definitely worth it if for no other reason than the kyo-mai dance - something you will probably never have the chance to see in person otherwise, no matter how hard you try. Check out the small video we took below:

I considered everything else a bonus, but I also particularly enjoyed the koto playing - truly a beautiful-sounding instrument when heard live! - and flower arrangement. So it was money and time well-spent.

One tip if you're in Kyoto and decide to go to this show: get there early and don't go in a tour group. We arrived about 30 minutes ahead and managed to score front-row seats, but by the time the show started, a series of tour buses had deposited a standing-room only crowd.

If you're interested, here's a PDF of the English program for the show we went to:

And one for all the Japanese-speaking readers here (and I know you're out there):

Lastly, if you're not familiar with the history of geisha in Japan, I recommend reading the Wikipedia article on the subject. There are many misconceptions about geisha and maiko among westerners, and it helps before visiting Kyoto to know their true nature. It really is a special thing to see one even among Japanese people, as very few true geisha still exist outside Kyoto. It also helps to know the difference between a real geisha or maiko and a "piano bar geisha" - the Wikipedia article calls them "onsen geisha" but they exist in central cities as well, not just at hot springs. It is fairly easy to tell the difference if you know what the geisha profession is all about, and what a real geisha looks like. (And anyone who's seen the film "Memoirs of a Geisha" - whatever else you think of the movie - probably knows the difference already.)

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About This Blog

This is increasingly not a blog about Alphabet City, New York. I used to live in the East Village and work on Avenue B, but I no longer do. Why don't I change the name if I'm writing about Japan and video games and guitars? Because New Yorkers are well-rounded people with varied interests, and mine have gone increasingly off the rails over the years. And I don't feel like changing the name. I do still write about New York City sometimes.


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