Tuesday, July 15, 2008

A Gaijin Geisha

Or Oiran to be more specific. (that really is me, above)

The oiran arose in the Edo period, 1600 - 1868. At this time, laws were passed restricting brothels to walled districts set some distance from the city center. In the major cities these were the Shimabara in Kyoto, the Shimmachi in Osaka, and in Edo (present-day Tokyo), the Yoshiwara. These rapidly grew into large, self-contained "Pleasure Quarters" offering all manner of entertainments. Within, a courtesan's birth rank held no distinction but there arose a strict hierarchy according to beauty, character, educational attainments and artistic skills. Among the oiran, the tayū (太夫 or 大夫, tayū?) was considered the highest rank of courtesan and were considered suitable for the daimyo or Lord. Only the wealthiest and highest ranking could hope to patronise them. To entertain their clients, oiran practiced the arts of dance, music, poetry and calligraphy, and an educated wit was considered essential to sophisticated conversation.- wikipedia

A number of years ago, in my early days in Japan, I was asked to do a favor for the small town I was living in. The town had been holding a festival every October. for years. Celebrating the Edo (samurai) period and the history of the town. The festival was called The Oiran Douchu and was sponsored by all the town businesses especially a local sake brewery. But in recent years the festival attendance had fallen off. A friend of mine at the time, a wonderful Japanese man, was the owner of his family’s grocery store (a small shop.) And he had an idea that having a foreigner, or Gaijin be the Oiran featured in the festival, might spark some renewed interest as it would be a first ever and quite unusual.

He was right by the way, but more on that later.

This was no small deal. To be the Oiran meant months of dance training, meetings, and then the festival itself which would be more arduous than I realized at the time. But the town had been good to me and my husband, and I wanted to give back, so I agreed. It was a pretty amazing experience.

In a lot of ways.

I had the rare chance to really feel-- be inside the skin and the trappings of a woman as geisha. And I had the chance to do this as a strong, feminist, western woman from a very different cultural tradition.

I am not a fussy person (have never Hooshed-up in my life though I am fascinated by it) I don’t wear makeup, do little with my hair. I like pretty clothes but I want to be comfortable too. I hate stockings, heels and other inhibiting accessories. And I don’t wear a lot of jewelry. Now put that person in full geisha makeup which took more than 1 hour to apply, on geta which are the very high geisha style wooden shoes, wearing about 30 lbs of multiple layers of kimono fabric, AND a katsura or wig that weighed close to 15 lbs. which gave me one of the worst headaches I have had in my life.

I was transformed.

Everything about the whole get up made me feel gorgeous, and restricted, feminine and trapped. The dichotomy of what I experienced through the day was so striking. I had attendants who carried a parasol over my head and fanned me because though it was October it was about 75 degrees that day. There were men who literally helped me walk up the stairs to get on stage. I was pampered and I was completely dependent on those around me.

The program for the day involved a 1 mile walking parade through the old town, on those high high shoes, and then a dance program involving myself as the featured Oiran, and 3 young girls as attendants, 3 maiko, and 3 geisha. It was difficult to say the least.

I learned a lot that day and I truly had an unromantic sense of what it would have been like to be a geisha in the Edo era. I had an extreme realization of what restrictive ideas of beauty and costume can do to suppress a woman’s potential, then and now. But I also enjoyed being the center of attention, enjoyed feeling beautiful. I was quite conflicted, and wouldn’t trade the memory of the experience for all the green tea in Tokyo.

The Gaijin Orian scheme worked. There was record turn out for the event and throngs lined the street that we paraded along. There were TONS of amateur photographers snapping my photo. Closest I will ever get to the feeling of paparazzi, thankfully. And the town was very happy with the result. The following year, a few other non Japanese friends of mine participated as male attendants in the festival. They had fun but more in just a costume or cos-play kind of way. Not anything so surprising as the way I felt during my transformation from liberal western woman to trapped porcelain doll.

It was unforgettable-- truly gave me a different perspective on female fashion and beauty ideals. What women have put themselves and been put through over the course of history is pretty amazing. (Not that there have not been some weird guy things too) I was always suspicious of over-fussed-fashion… but I really deepened my thinking after my Orian-for-a-day experience.

If I were to play an Edo-period role again, I think I would prefer the casting of female warrior. My feet would certainly be more comfortable.