The Niigata Geigi: Japan's 'other' geishas

BBC -- Oct 13
For most people, the word "geisha" conjures visions of Kyoto's Gion district. But there is another major geisha centre, one that even many Japanese don't know.

The dancer glides noiselessly across the tatami mat floor, a branch of reddening maple leaves in her right hand. The long sleeves of her kimono denote that she is a furisode, or apprentice geisha. Behind her, an onesan (senior geisha) in a fawn kimono sits on the floor, plucking a lilting rhythm on a three-stringed shamisen with a large wedge-shaped pick.

A typical scene from Kyoto's Gion district, you might think. But this is more than 500km to the north-west in Niigata, a historic port city on Honshu's west coast.

Niigata's geisha tradition dates back more than 200 years to the Edo era (1603-1867) when the city was a major port on the Kitamaebune (literally, "north-bound ships") shipping route that connected Osaka with Hokkaido. Thousands of cargo vessels made this journey each year. As the capital of Japan's largest rice producing area, Niigata became the busiest port on the Sea of Japan coast. By the early Meiji Era (1868-1912), Niigata was among the wealthiest, most populous parts of the nation.

A thriving entertainment district grew up in the Furumachi neighbourhoood of the city to cater for the countless wealthy merchants and other visitors. Geishas (or geigis, in the local dialect) began performing at Furumachi's many teahouses, ozashiki (banqueting halls) and ryotei (luxury restaurants). Politicians and even members of the Imperial family figured among the clientele. By 1884, nearly 400 geigis were performing in Furumachi.

Nobuko, the shamisen-playing onesan who played the lilting song as the apprentice danced, has been a Furumachi geigi for 64 years. She recalls entertaining celebrity guests, including Prince Takamatsu, brother of Emperor Hirohito; and Kakuei Tanaka, prime minister from 1972 to 1974. Like all geishas, Nobuko is known only by her first name.