Japan: For $5.50, your own geisha tea ceremony

Kyoto started a campaign to attract tourists with a special rate to take a picture with a geisha and have a tea ceremony with an apprentice.

Takehiko Kambayashi
Maiko (apprentice geisha) perform at the Kyoto Museum of Traditional Crafts.

A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

This former imperial capital with national treasures and cultural assets now seeks help from young women with white painted faces to reinvigorate tourism. 

Maiko (apprentice geisha) and geisha in elaborate kimono perform traditional dance, sing a song, and serve sake at a place called ochaya, or a tea house, where the average customer spends around $500. First-timers are usually turned away as an introduction is needed to get in.

Kyoto, however, started a campaign last month in which tourists pay 500 yen ($5.50) for a tea ceremony with maiko and geisha and a chance to pose for pictures with them. 

In June, a similar program was started at the Kyoto Museum of Traditional Crafts, where a couple of maiko perform traditional dance three times every Sunday free of charge. 

Is this commercialization of geisha tradition? 

“Absolutely not,” says Osamu Ito, an official at the Ookini Foundation (ookini means “thank you” in Kyoto dialect). The foundation was established to preserve and promote geisha tradition. “It’s only 500 yen. We just want to help promote tourism.” 

Between 2003 and 2007 the number of overseas visitors who stayed overnight in Kyoto doubled to 926,805. City officials attribute the surge mainly to a national campaign of increasing Japanese tourism, which started in 2003. The 2005 film “Memoirs of a Geisha” also helped draw more foreign tourists, especially from the United States, they add. 

“We hope this opportunity could help overseas visitors have a deeper interest in Japanese culture,” says Hiroaki Kakinuma, a city official in charge of tourism promotion.

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