>> Friday, June 4, 2010
We were loathe to leave the International Manga Museum, but we had tickets to something special we didn't dare miss. Every May, the maiko (apprentice geisha) and a few of the established geisha of Pontocho Hanamachi put on public performances three times a day at the Kaburenjō Theatre. The performance is called the Kamogawa Odori (Kamo River Dance), and features a combination of traditional dance, kabuki-style theatre, singing, and the playing of traditional instruments.
Once in the lobby, we felt distinctly underdressed in our shorts, skirts, and t-shirts. Many of the Japanese women who attended wore elaborate kimono, while their gentlemen wore suits. There were still the odd gaijin (foreigners) here and there dressed more casually, like the fellow there on the bench, but it was a strange mix.
The Kamogawa Odori at first blush appears to be a very non-traditional thing set up for foreign tourists to get a taste of a real geisha experience, but like the rest of Pontocho, we quickly discovered that there were far more Japanese folks there than foreigners. Glimpses into the real world of the geisha are few and far between even for residents, and the theater fills its auditorium three times a day the entire month of May with locals eager to catch a glimpse of Kyoto's retiring jewels. In fact, the show was begun in 1872 during the Kyoto Exposition, and has enjoyed a continuous run since then, catering primarily to Japanese audiences.
The theater asked that no pictures be taken during the performance, so I got a few snaps before the show began. This beautiful curtain, we were told by a gaijin veteran of the show who sat next to us, is meant to represent the four seasons: snow at the top for winter, grass, river, and birds in the middle for spring and summer, and fallen leaves at the bottom for fall.
This curtain came down during the intermission. The two parts of the Kamogawa Odori were distinct and very different. The first act was a dramatic performance of a classic tale of love between a samurai and a geisha's servant. It was all in Japanese of course, and sung to boot, but we gathered enough of what was going on to be able to follow the story. All the roles were played by geisha, including the role of the samurai.
Unusually for a Japanese arena, the good seats were actually seats, not just flat places to sit. When we went to sumo on the last day of our trip, the good seats were not chairs, and the cheap seats (where we sat) were. Here, both the good seats and the cheap seats were actual theater chairs, with the front row balcony seats being the flat sitting areas. There were also flat sitting areas among the box seats along the sides of the balcony.
Behind the second small curtain on the left sat the orchestra, hidden for the entirety of the first act, but revealed during the second. They were mostly older women (perhaps retired geisha?) playing shamisen!
Okay, they said I wasn't supposed to take pictures during the show, but the final dance that involved all the geisha was too tempting. Yes, I cheated. I did it for you, dear readers! I was subtle about it (I like to think) and certainly had the flash off. I got a lot of heads in front of me too, as I didn't want to hold the camera way up and be obvious about it.
The maiko dance is very popular because it is often the first public appearance of of the geisha in training, and thus the first chance to see any of them. Maiko are usually around 18-21 years old, and have been training for a year before they make their debuts.
The great thing about the show is that it's not just women dressed up as geisha dancing about--these are real geisha, who will that night perhaps be clattering down Pontocho in their geta and robes as they hurry to an engagement at a nearby restaurant. To see them like this, performing as they might, perhaps, for a patron later that evening, was a rare treat for us, and something we certainly would never have been able to afford (or perhaps even be allowed to do!) under normal circumstances. Manga and geisha in one day--what a treat!