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Friday, Jan. 30, 2004

A vision of the sublimely exotic at a price that's quite down to earth


Staff writer

Go ahead, imagine it.

News photo
Geisha at the Geigi Kenban center in Atami, Shizuoka Prefecture, perform elaborate dances for visitors at a tiny fraction of the cost of a private performance.

Eight geisha are performing the Hana-no-mai (Flower Dance) in your room at a traditional Japanese inn. They move slowly, like mythical cranes, resplendent in blue, green and orange kimono, as an old woman plucks out a haunting melody on a shamisen.

There is a gentle breeze. You are alone with the ensemble. All is bliss.

Now picture this: The performance wraps up and you begin forking out the cash. First a 10,000 yen bill, then another and -- whoa! -- yet another. Many others, in fact. Your private glimpse of the sublime art of the geisha has set you back hundreds of thousands of yen.

The gentle breeze dies away. You are alone and poor. All is misery.

But don't be too dismayed. There is an alternate version to this exotic tale. In this variation, the geisha still dance the Hana-no-mai and the music is every bit as stirring.

Now, though, the setting has moved to the Geigi Kenban (Geisha Exchange) theater in Shizuoka Prefecture's Atami City, a town with some 300 geisha -- among the largest concentration nationwide. Here, a collection of eight traditional dances can be taken in for only 1,300 yen (including green tea and a traditional sweet). All is bliss again!

Watching a geisha do her thing, at an affordable price, isn't all that easy. First of all, with fewer than 3,000 geisha now believed to exist nationwide, there aren't that many left to be seen. Neither are today's young women exactly lining up to undergo the several years of severe training required. Consequently, the price of a private visit remains prohibitively high.

However, with Japan's economic malaise having put a damper on the package tours of businessmen that were long important earners for geisha, the women entertainers have sought new means of support. Some, for example, run short courses teaching women basic singing and dancing, and also dress and make them up as geisha.

The geisha at Atami's Geigi Kenban, for their part, have chosen to hold public recitals at their theater, which is actually an antiquated practice hall. Tickets will be available for every Saturday and Sunday show this year except in late December.

The Hana-no-mai program changes monthly to correspond to the seasons, but a recent collection of eight dances began with "Choi-kina-bushi (The 'Hey, Come Here' Song)," in which five adorned beauties gesture with their fans to the live accompaniment of shamisen, drums and singing.

Later came the soulfully titled dance "Atami Blues" which, despite its modern-sounding name, was very much a traditional Japanese affair complete with quaint traditional umbrellas.

Then, holding a ceramic sake bottle as a prop, a senior geisha called Matsuchiyo (members of the profession go by a single, assumed name) performed an elegantly understated solo called "Ukare-bandai (Making-Merry Song)," in which willowlike swaying movement suggested the dawdling of a tipsy reveler.

All the dancers joined on stage for the eighth and final dance, titled "San-sagari" after a shamisen-tuning style, spinning their fans as a show of gratitude to the audience. After the 40-minute performance was over, the geisha posed with audience members -- of whom well over half were female -- for a flurry of snapshot-taking.

Of course, dancing and singing are only part of a geisha's repertoire, as she is also trained to be the ideal tableside companion to either a man or a woman client, serving food and drink and keeping conversation flowing with expert poise.

And Atami geisha are perfectly willing to entertain clients privately. In fact if you want, you can have a whole troupe, dancers and musicians and all come to brighten the mood at your room at the inn.

But if it is such personal attentions you desire . . . start saving up.

The Geigi Kenban is a 5-minute taxi ride from JR Atami Station. By car, take NR 135 to Atami. Shows start at 11 a.m. Call (0557) 81-3575 for further details (Japanese only), e-mail atami@izu.co.jp or visit www.tabijozu.ne.jp/~atami/


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