In modern Tokyo, places to touch traditional Japan

BY STEVE BERGSMAN Published: February 20, 2012
What I learned about the dying profession of geishas while I was in Japan was that geishas are entertainers who are trained in different artistic skills such as playing the shamisen (a three-stringed instrument), singing or ritual Japanese dance.

And there are male geishas as well as female geishas. All three of the geishas who entertained me and my companions were of a certain age, and it seems as if the profession is going the way of the typewriter. Historically their role was important, but in the modern world, people would rather create the next Facebook than become a geisha.

In fact, after he finished his performance and sat down at the table with us for a beer, the male geisha told us there were only five male geishas left in Japan. That evening we were at a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn, but before I get into that, I'll introduce the female geishas who entertained my small group at the Fujiya Rito restaurant in the Chiba prefecture town of Kisarazu.

We had traveled on the Tokyo Bay Aqua-Line — the bridge and tunnel system that crosses the wide bay on the way to Mount Nokogiri-Yama, but before stopping for the night, we made a reservation at this wonderful restaurant to eat and be entertained by two female geishas.

The women were attired in traditional costumes, in this case elaborate kimonos. Like I'd always seen in pictures and movies, they had their dark hair perfectly coiffed high on their heads, and their makeup was perfected to a look that has been emblematic of their profession for hundreds of years.

There were three stages to the female geishas' night of entertainment. First, they helped serve and relax us at the dinner table. Once they arrived, my glass of sake was never empty. Then came the traditional entertainment. One of them played the shamisen and sang while the other danced and occasionally sang.

This was quite enthralling as these stylistic songs and dance movements were also created hundreds of years ago.

The third stage involved games with the audience. The games were simply a form of rock/paper/scissors or races that required using chopsticks to pick up small tablets, but after a few rounds of sake, we all were totally enmeshed in the competitions.

Japanese traditions and history are fascinating and often overlooked by Americans who come for business meetings, stay in high-rise hotels, shop and eat in the modern restaurants. Being entertained by the geisha is one way to connect to historical Japan, and there are many others.

The ryokan where I spent one night in Tokyo was the Sukeroku-no-Yado Sadachiyo, and it provided a very unusual experience. The traditional Japanese inn boasts small rooms that at first glance contain no bed, just a low table. In the evening, the table is moved to the side and a futon is made up on the floor.

The other odd thing about my ryokan was the traditional Japanese bath. Anyone who is taller than 5 feet 5 inches tall will find it almost impossible to use the tub in the room, but it's not really made for to be used in an extensive manner anyway. The common practice is to go to a traditional bath, which is like a bathtub for about six people.

Before getting into this tub of extremely hot water, participants must wash themselves, which means sitting on a tiny stool and scrubbing themselves down, then rinsing off with a spritzer.

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