Who doesn’t think of geisha when it comes to Japanese culture? These versatile artists who contribute significantly to the preservation of Japanese traditions and customs are usually associated with the city of Kyoto and the Gion district in particular where unique styles of traditional dance are taught.
But geisha can actually be found all over Japan. We’re meeting the geisha from Niigata today. They are usually referred to as geigi and can be quite different from the geisha you would meet in other Japanese regions.
Geigi culture has developed in the Furumachi district of Niigata and these outstanding artists have a fascinating history. Let’s take a look at some of its most interesting bits!
The History Behind Niigata’s Furumachi Geigi
The history of geigi is intimately linked to the economic development of Niigata. Located along the seacoast in the Tohoku region, such a strategic spot has established Niigata as an important port city on the Kitamaebune trade route.
During the Edo period of Japan, Niigata was just as vast and prosperous as other major Japanese cities such as Osaka and Tokyo. Many wealthy merchants were staying in Niigata for business and were searching for fancy and sophisticated experiences. This lead to some restaurants integrating geisha shows as part of their services, especially in the Furumachi district.
Niigata’s geigi have been around for more than 200 years and are now considered an integral part of the region’s cultural heritage.
Lunch at Ikinariya Ryotei
We decided to go to the Ikinariya Ryotei to meet Niigata’s geigi. Ryotei are traditional restaurants that usually accept new customers by referral only. In Niigata, however, things are different. The city’s openness to the outside world lead the ryotei to welcome new customers too, without referral.
This culture of openness can also be felt in the geigi’s behaviour too. Having had the chance to meet geisha in Kyoto and Tokyo, I found the atmosphere less formal and more friendly here. You don’t admire those artists less but you do feel closer to them.
After a quick introduction, Ayame-san starts to play the Shamisen, a traditional Japanese 3-string guitar.
Another geigi, Satsuki-san, performs a dance show.
You will notice that their kimonos are somewhat different. Ayame is an experienced geigi so she wears a tomesode whereas Satsuki is still a beginner and wears a furisode, an easily recognizable kimono with long sleeves. Beginner geigi can eventually wear a tomesode after 7 years of practice.
Lunch was served after the show. We had a delicious kaiseki meal with many small exquisite, mostly seafood, dishes.
I loved the thin slices of squid that literally melt in your mouth. Which is surprising for squid!
After the meal, we were asked to participate in traditional games and played rock paper scissors while dancing. Watch this video for an overview of the show at Ikinariya Ryotei:
Ryuto Geigi Cafe
You can also spend time with geigi in a more relaxed setting at Ryuto Geigi Cafe in Niigata. It is located in central Furumachi and geigi there serve customers tea and coffee. You’ll notice that they don’t wear makeup in this cafe but they retain their natural beauty and charm nonetheless.
Visiting this coffee shop is really a unique opportunity to talk to geigi in Niigata. During our visit, Sayoko-san was our host. This 22-year-old geigi is passionate about dancing and is even into tap dancing. She started her career at the age of 18 and loves to perform for her clients.
When they aren’t serving customers at the café, they continue to practice their art upstairs so you might hear them play a musical instrument or sing.
How to Meet Niigata’s Geisha?
Aren’t you curious to meet Niigata’s Furumachi geigi? Let me tell you what to do.
You can of course go to Ryuto Geigi Cafe and spend some time with them in a casual atmosphere.But if you want to attend one of their show, you will have to make reservations at a ryotei of your choice. Prices will be around 11,550 yen per geigi per hour which is affordable and quite honestly worth the travel to Niigata.
There are only about 30 geigi left in Niigata today so this is all the more reason to visit and support these magnificent artists. You won’t be disappointed!