In Pursuit of Geishas

Three geishas perform a traditional Japanese dance for Nagasaki's Okunchi festival.
Three geishas perform a traditional Japanese dance for Nagasaki's Okunchi festival.

In Pursuit of Geishas

by: Matthew M. Burke | .
Stars and Stripes | .
published: May 08, 2012

Since my arrival at the sleepy Navy base in Sasebo five months ago, I have sought adventure and the "Japan experience" at every turn.

In addition to experiencing commonplace curiosities like onsens, art, food and drink, I have ascended the tallest mountain strongholds in Kyushu and gazed down from their seemingly impenetrable castle towers. I have stood where the kamikaze ate their last meals. I have listened to the air raid sirens from ground zero in Nagasaki to mark the dropping of the atomic bomb, and have stood in the same gardens where samurai pondered their lives and battles hundreds of years before.

On Oct. 8, I found myself back in Nagasaki, about an hour from my office at Sasebo Naval Base, this time weaving through packed streets during the Okunchi festival. It was here that I had an opportunity to chase down another mythical being in Japanese lore: the geisha.

In 1634, an autumn festival began in the small fishing villages that are now modern-day Nagasaki, according to my friend, Nagasaki resident and accomplished Japanese bamboo flute player Kizan Takahashi, 63.

Farmers and fishermen alike would take some time after they harvested their rice to thank God for their prosperity and to hope for peace and further blessings in the coming year.

The citizens of Nagasaki carried mikoshi, ornate portable shrines, around the village, believing the deities themselves were contained therein, giving the peasants a chance to get close to the reclusive spirits who were usually shuttered deep inside their shrines.

The festival would begin at one of Nagasaki's most important sites, the Suwa Shrine, with a performance by a pair of geishas. From there, as the mikoshi snaked its way through each and every neighborhood, people dedicated dances, held sumo matches and, in some villages, boat races to the shrines. There were 21 towns that participated that first year. By 1672, there were 77 towns designated as dancing towns who participated in the performance aspect of the roving festival, the same number as today. Floats of Dutch trading vessels and Chinese dragons found their way into the festival over the years.

To the residents of Nagasaki, it is their biggest of the many festivals they observe, and one of the most revered. In 1945, the same year the atomic bomb fell and ushered the end of World War II, the residents of Maruyama-cho danced in the streets, Takahashi said, clinging to tradition despite the horrors.

Upon our arrival around lunchtime, we made our way through the seemingly endless rows of vendors by the port, a short distance from ground zero and the Peace Park, amid a sea of revelers. As the sun beat down upon us, we could smell all sorts of culinary delights, from yakitori, or meat on a stick, to okonomiyaki, which is a delicious Japanese pancake covered in various decadent sauces.

As we made our way into the city's Chinatown, we saw our first performance. The Kokkodesho features 36 shrine carriers from Kabashima-cho, carrying a huge portable shrine on their shoulders, chanting in unison while a group of elaborately dressed young children sits in the palanquins beating large drums in perfect synchronization.

The carriers were all roughly the same height, and are chosen carefully after rigorous sports and strength tests, Takahashi said. And they would have to be strong. At one point during their routine, the men tossed the hulking shrine in the air, far above their heads and those of the crowd. The children paused and leaned completely backwards, sticks in the air. The men caught the large shrine and the children didn't miss a beat.

The carriers did this more than 750 times during the festival, working through injured legs and broken ribs in the pursuit of honor and perfection. The crowd cheered and the men would carry the shrine five more feet and do it again. They did this for three days at points all over the city. It was one of the most amazing performances I have ever seen.

They were the first performance we saw and the last, and I could see the men teetering on exhaustion at the end of their journey. But they never made a mistake; there was too much pride on the line.

"They never showed their agony," Takahashi said. "They are so proud that they take part in Okunchi, and they are honored as such."

After their last performance, the men mugged for the cameras like conquering heroes, holding the shrine skyward with one hand, the proverbial equivalent of a touchdown celebration. In fact, the next day I would see some of them weeping during television interviews once they were finished and asked to describe their feelings.

My Japanese friends told me that the performers in the festival practice for an entire year, often leaving their jobs after work and practicing until midnight. In fact, Takahashi was one of these people, part of the performance of Koya-machi, a town that no longer exists due to mergers and absorptions over time. He was proud to be in the festival for the first time in his life. Each dancing town is on a 7-year rotation of participation. Because of moves and life, Takahashi never had the opportunity. The time was right for him to get involved, a huge honor. My friends and I were on a mission to find him and the geishas he had in his wake.

As we passed around a bottle of Japanese liquor, we watched many other marvelous performances, both big and small. Takahashi would call us, give us his location, and we would rush there, sometimes impeded by crowds and performers. We were always a step behind.

Darkness covered the city like a shroud, and we had given up hope. We fought exhaustion, hunger and the liquor, as we arrived in the town's splendid pub and bar district. We walked the myriad of maze-like alleyways, dodging those who had too much, looking in to see what types of food and drink were available to us, completely disoriented to where we were in relation to the Koya-machi.

Suddenly, I saw a huge American flag hanging outside one small establishment named Kendall's. I was drawn to it, like a beacon calling me, an oasis of home in the middle of Japanese tradition. It was quaint and inviting. So my friends and I entered and ordered a pint from the tall, slender, affable owner, a Harvard educated American named Kendall.

This was very welcome. I am from Massachusetts so Kendall and I had much to discuss. With our beers about half gone, Takahashi walked by the bar, one stop of about 3,500 his group would make for the festival. We were shocked, as if it was all meant to be. The needle had emerged from the haystack to ask if we needed sewing.

We went out and posed for pictures with him, chatted briefly, and awaited the geishas. A Japanese friend assured me that the geishas I sought were not real geishas, but did have the kimono, hair styling, singing and dancing routine, and nape makeup. The only difference was they were not full-time geishas, as it is a lifestyle. That was enough for me.

I had been on a day-long journey around the city, like Odysseus in Homer's "Odyssey," looking for Takahashi-san and these sirens, who are entertainers, not prostitutes as is widely believed in western culture. I pulled out my camera and froze as I watched them, enchanted by their song and the fluid movements of their arms. They stopped briefly and smiled at me before quickly turning and walking away. In that moment, a day's worth of effort was satiated, even though it was fleeting. We had accomplished our goal, one blurry picture and a day's worth of Okunchi memories.

Now it was time to head back to Kendall's, to relax and share stories with Japanese, British, and Australians who call Nagasaki home. It was time to join the revelers.

Tags: Travel
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