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Dine like a samurai lord at this authentic geisha teahouse in Kanazawa

Travelers in Japan are sometimes lucky enough to see geisha clip-clopping along one of the backstreets in Kyoto, or, more rarely, Tokyo.

 These legendary entertainers celebrated in prints, books and the silver screen may seem like a passing illusion when they inevitably disappear into a doorway. In Ishikawa Prefecture, however, you can actually spend time with geisha and enjoy their traditional arts even if you’re not one of their regular customers.

Dating from the Edo period (1603-1868), the Higashi-Chaya district of Kanazawa is a picturesque collection of two-story wooden buildings housing teahouses, inns, shops and cafes. Because Kanazawa was spared the ravages of fire and war seen in other cities, Higashi-Chaya was designated an Important Preservation District for Groups of Historic Buildings and is now one of Japan’s best-kept geisha neighborhoods. 

Chaya means teahouse, and in this case, it refers to an exclusive restaurant with geisha entertainment including singing and dancing. Kaikaro is a traditional geisha teahouse that is one of the few places in Japan where visitors can enjoy a geisha experience. Kaikaro is the largest chaya in Higashi-Chaya, itself the biggest of Kanazawa’s three chaya neighborhoods, which also include Nishi-Chaya and Kazuemachi.


caption: Time stands still in Kanazawa’s Higashi-Chaya geisha district 

Located in the main street of Higashi-Chaya, the Kaikaro was established just over 200 years ago in 1820. As a rare two-story building back then, it would have been a luxury destination for well-heeled people in the Kaga Domain, a famously wealthy samurai fiefdom controlled by the Maeda clan.

Over the past century, the number of geisha in Japan has plummeted, and there are only about 35 left in Kanazawa today. Changing tastes in entertainment is one reason some teahouses have sought new customers in addition to the businessmen they usually entertain. It was around 2009, when the Kaikaro received a starred review in the Michelin Green Guide, that foreign visitors became regular customers at the teahouse.

“Geisha teahouses typically do not allow first-time visitors, and are exclusive to regular customers and their guests,” says Hanako Baba, aka Lady Baba, the landlady of the Kaikaro. “But we welcome newcomers because we want to share this wonderful culture with people from overseas.”


caption: Hanako Baba, aka Lady Baba, is the landlady of the Kaikaro, the geisha teahouse featured on her kimono

caption: Lady Baba can explain the history and facets of geisha culture to guests in English

Customers are served a sumptuous traditional Japanese dinner, and then usually chat and drink with geisha who are regular performers at the Kaikaro. There is often witty banter, drinking games and much laughter. The geisha will also dance, sing and play instruments such as the shamisen and tsuridaiko, a large drum. 

That’s a typical geisha evening in all geisha districts of Japan, but geisha in Kanazawa have unique points compared to those in Kyoto. The ancient capital has geisha schools, group lodgings and apprentice geisha known as maiko until they’re 20. Kanazawa, however, has no such system, and all are referred to as geiko or geigi.

Living independently, Kanazawa geisha learn from individual instructors in dance or shamisen. Their training can take six months to a year and a half, depending on their skills and experience. But what many customers value most is the conversations. 

“Kanazawa’s geisha range in age from 22 to 89,” says Baba. “The eldest is particularly popular with customers because she is so well versed in history and has plenty of interesting anecdotes. She’s like vintage wine.”


caption: Katsuyo, Lady Baba and Masami pose in the Kaikaro’s beautiful crimson-walled banquet room

caption: Customers enjoy geisha song, dance and drinking games

caption: Customers enjoy geisha song, dance and drinking games

The Kaikaro is open to the public during the daytime, when it operates a café serving green tea and Kanazawa confections such as kuzukiri, or jellied kudzu starch with gold leaf. In the evenings, it holds both public and private geisha performances as well as private parties.

Held since 2014, the regular 90-minute public performances at Kaikaro are known as Geisha Evenings. They feature geisha singing and dancing and are organized in March, April, October and November.

For private events, prices vary according to the number of customers, timing of the event, and the number of geisha performing. 


Visitors also get a tour of the heritage building, photos with the geisha and some indelible memories of traditional Japanese culture.

“This is where visitors can experience the real Japan,” says Baba. “Even if they have seen geisha on TV or in films, it’s a totally different experience to see them dancing in person. Geisha are part of a precious traditional culture and I would like to help pass this on to future generations by opening it up to foreign customers.”  


caption: Masami plays the shamisen, a three-stringed instrument descended from China’s sanxian

caption: Katsuyo plays the large, suspended tsuridaiko and a smaller shimedaiko tensioned with rope

Citation

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