She reaches into her extravagant belt and pulls free a few small pieces of paper. She hands the first one to my friend, Josh and the second one to me. Josh, takes it with a single hand and I take it with both hands, as I believe is the custom. She has been sitting with us for a few minutes at this point and ours is the final table she is visiting in this section. This sticker acts as her chief piece of identification. It is a collector card of sorts, for the type of people who enjoy this cultural oddity. It is her business card, she is a Maiko.
Her face is white and her lips are red, those lips highlight the contrast. Her Kimono is prohibitively expensive and her posture is reminiscent of the best ballerinas, the world over. Apparently, there are roughly 100 Maiko and about 100 Geiko currently populating Kyoto and the young ladies spend about 5 years of their lives, studying, learning and training to graduate from Maiko to Geiko. Generally the Maiko are between the ages of 15 to 20 and they wear longer sleeved Kimonos than the Geiko.
We are at a restaurant in the hills surrounding Kyoto, at a riverside table. (Momijiya 紅葉や 高雄) Paper lanterns light the bank and a pedestrian suspension bridge acts as the single entrance and exit into this mysterious cultural relic. We boarded a shuttle bus with 15 or so fellow customers, which brought the two of us from the famed Gion District of Kyoto to this forested restaurant.
The food laid out before us, is intricately cut and quite delicate. I feel sorry for the food at this restaurant, in any other establishment, the food would be the central player, but here the food is forced to take a backseat to the entertainment.
We talk about business and adult life, our golf game, memories from childhood and University, about girls we've known and names we've forgotten. It is Josh's first time visiting Japan, and his first night in Kyoto. I, on the other hand have been here nearly 6 years and my Japanese wife arranged this dinner, so that we could experience a traditional Kyoto, one that tourists rarely get to see.
After ordering drinks and eating the first course of our meal, the Maiko descend the stairs, with their gracious small steps. They are presented to the long narrow, open air Tatami room, by a suited gentleman, who gives us their names and explains the proceedings. The Maiko works her way through the tables, first giving a business card to each guest, chatting with them and taking pictures with them. Josh and I keep up our steady banter and as the Maiko gets closer to our table, it dons on me, I haven't the slightest clue as to the protocol of meeting these ladies and what manners to employ.
I blurt out the first thing that comes to mind, "I don't think we are supposed to touch them."
"Yeh. Probably not, don't want to be like Lebron James, touching Kate Middleton. You heard about that right?" responds Josh.
So, our defecto stance was essentially use manners that are reserved for royalty. I compliment her kimono and Josh says in fairly impressive Japanese; "I don't speak Japanese very well, do you speak English?" which he later admitted to studying on the flight to Japan. The Maiko cracks a smile and is happy to oblige us in some more light hearted conversation, before taking some pictures with us. As she puts on her sandals and heads to the other room, to entertain more dinners, we return to our meal and other conversation topics. We discuss the career trajectory of our good friend Akawsi, who recently completed his Phd and took on a professorship in America. We enjoy the salted fresh water fish, caught close to the restaurant; as well as somen, flavored with Kyoto Yuzu. I enjoy the Yuzu very much; it has such a pronounced flavor.
As we enjoy the next course, I am surprised to learn that another Maiko will entertain each table and we will be able to get a second one of these name cards. We are the end table in the row, and this Maiko, starts with us. We open up a little more and ask her about her favourite places in Kyoto, about her favourite foods and a few other simple to discuss topics. She liked Nanzenji and thought it amusing that I preferred Ramen.
As we were enjoying delectable fresh fruit for dessert, the performance started; which was a traditional dance piece that was surely a complicated and intricate operation, but I was also busy, operating a camera phone and a DSLR. An experience so rare, deserves the requisite Social Media photo to validate the expenditure.