Geishas in Kyoto are Struggling after the Coronavirus Pandemic
From online geisha experiences provided by KYOTO MAIKOYA to see-through acrylic hand fans, the geisha in Kyoto are trying to adjust to the hard times ahead.
Corona virus and social distancing has forced the geisha of Kyoto to adapt to the new and changing times. While most people kept to themselves during the early months of the pandemic it was the geisha who kept on bringing joy and entertaining their clients in the refined tea houses that they have come to call home. However, in the months since the geisha have found new ways to entertain clients while keeping to the cultural traditions that they have passed down for centuries.
Around early February many tea houses began experiencing sharp declines in their customer bookings as many began to fear the virus spreading in the close confines of the establishments. The annual dances put on by the geisha in each district for decades were then cancelled as worry began to build about congregating in large groups and the health of the geisha themselves was put first. In March, the geisha districts were on high alert and many began to cancel events for the rest of the year along with almost all bookings for tea houses in a bid to protect elderly clients.
In the meantime, most geisha were forced to leave their lodgings and return home to their families. However, they did not sit idly by while the country was on lock down. Geisha still continued to practice their arts with their teachers via online classes and many chose to help out in their neighbourhoods by sewing face masks for the elderly. These masks were made from the same tenugui towels that geisha hand out during special celebrations and over 400 were sewn by hand.
By April, the five geisha districts of Kyoto were forced to close down by an emergency shut down order from the federal government and all business was stopped. This was the first time that the geisha districts had been forced to close since World War II. Even major festivals, such as the Gion Matsuri, were cancelled. The geisha association in Kyoto provided some stipend (around $1000) to support the young geiko and maiko but considering how expensive the training and outfit of maikos the stipend may have come short. The locals also set up two separate crowdfunding campaigns to help the geisha community one of which is still running.
After reopening on June 1st the geisha districts have had to implement new rules when it comes to interacting with customers, including being 1-2m apart from their guests, not being able to speak while pouring sake, limiting the time they can spend in one single location, and adhering to a 10pm curfew. Right now guests from outside of Kyoto must be screened before they can even book an appointment to meet with geisha as certain regions where the corona virus is currently concentrated are being refused due to the possibility of spreading the virus further.
However, with the 2nd wave and discouragement by the local governments against going out at night, and visiting entertainment venues, there are not many geisha banquets and geisha beer garden events held this summer in Kyoto. As a matter of fact, currently most geisha have returned to their hometowns outside of Kyoto. One of the geishas who remained in the city mentioned that “I think many of those who left may not come back at all and quit this profession if the pandemic does not end soon.”
Times have been challenging and the geisha in Kyoto are also trying to adjust. What was once a close and intimate experience kept to the confines of a teahouse has now become a shared experience that fuses technology with tradition. Geisha are taking their skills and talents to the online realm and are now performing with the aid of the internet for customers around the world. Anyone can now meet with a geisha, watch her dance, and ask her questions from anywhere via specially licensed venues.
Kimono Tea Ceremony KYOTO MAIKOYA started a reservation service where people can book a geisha meeting online or face to face easily. These sessions feature apprentice geisha in their full regalia that often takes 2-3 hours and the assistance of others to put on. The geisha will have conversations, dance, and even perform a tea ceremony in sessions lasting one hour. For those who are more academically inclined, they can even opt to speak with the owner of a geisha house who will teach an online class about geisha training, specifically what it’s like to live a day in the life of an apprentice geisha. It will cover the history of geisha, how they learn their arts, what getting dressed up in long kimono and obi feels like, and how they interact with customers of all ages.
In the pictures you can see one of the sessions where a group of guests gathered on zoom for an online geisha show , geisha experience and geisha tea ceremony by Kimono tea ceremony KYOTO MAIKOYA.
Adam Acar, PhD, who is the director of the recently-opened private Geisha Museum by KYOTO MAIKOYA, mentioned that the museum shut its door indefinitely. However, other services the company provides such as the geisha tea ceremony, geisha dinner show , geisha show tickets and geisha makeover will continue after the pandemic is over. During the pandemic KYOTO MAIKOYA will be offering online geisha meetings and a short online class about the geisha training by a geisha house owner.
The online geisha experiences, albeit being different from real-life experiences, may be considered a bit pricey compared to other zoom classes found on the internet. Mr. Acar, however, thinks this is normal as it would be rather disrespectful to the genuine Kyoto geisha to have a private conversation with someone over the internet for a small fee even though the geisha still has to spend 2-3 hours just to put on the traditional make up and call a helper to wear her precious silk kimono and the 5-meter-long sash.