Tag Archives: Bowing; maiko manners; Japanese etiquette; hanamachi

Kotohajime 2021: Maiko Prepare for the New Year

On December 13th, Kyoto’s hanamachi bustle with activity. It’s Kotohajime 事始め, the annual event marking the “beginning of preparations” for the new year.  What kind of rituals take place today? What is their purpose? On Kotohajime 2021, we explore this custom.

Cancelled for the most part last year due to the pandemic, Kotohajime rituals resumed this year–wisely, with masks.

On Dec. 13th, geiko, maiko, and shikomi trainees visit their arts teachers and the teahouse managers. They express their gratitude and request the favor of their guidance in the new year. Clad in lovely kimono, the women start their rounds at 10am.  Amateur photographers record the sight to post on Flickr. Onlookers crowd the area to see the event, too. News team broadcast reports for audiences in Japan and abroad.

NHK News posted this video and article of today’s event in Gion, the largest hanamachi.

A Sight of The Old Capital

Kawabata, 1968. Wikimedia.

Colorful Kotohajime activity in the hanamachi figures in famed author Kawabata Yasunari’s 1962 novel set in Kyoto, The Old Capital, translated by J. Martin Holman.  Kawabata found Kotohajime most closely observed in the Gion hanamachi:

“On this day, this ‘early new year,’ the striking dress of the maiko and the geisha as they came and went enlivened the atmosphere around Gion more than on any other day” (160).

 

 

Greeting Inoue Yachiyo V in Gion on Kotohajime

Today, the news brings viewers right to the center of this activity.

This 2019 Kyodo News broadcast shows the Kotohajime rituals taking place at the residence of the head (iemoto) of the Inoue School of Kyoto Dance, Inoue Yachiyo V.  The large room normally used for dance practice displays colorful rice cakes on a tiered stand. These kagami mochi are “offerings to the deities” from the maiko and geiko.

Inoue Yachiyo V greets geiko and maiko, 2019. The Sankei News.

Sankei News shows the geiko and maiko seated in a line before Inoue Yachiyo V. Each patiently waits her turn to offer the New Year’s greeting, “Congratulations, teacher.” In response, Inoue encourages her students, presenting each a folding fan to use in her dance practice in the new year.

 

Maiko Momohana Reflects on her Year of Dance Training

Momohana. Koyama Aiko, 2020.

Manga artist Koyama Aiko picks up on the ritual as a time for reflection, too.  She imagines her star maiko Momohana interviewed by a TV news team. The reporter asks, “Today, on Kotohajime, may I ask how you reflect on the past year?” Momohana responds modestly, “I’m painfully aware of missing the mark this year and I will concentrate more than ever next year.”  Her answer mirrors the responses we hear given by actual maiko on news videos!  Catching the interview, her friend Kenta remembers how even as a child, Momohana had terrific resolve. In the next frame, Koyama depicts little Sumire in pigtails standing tall, fierce with determination.

Kotohajime: The Busiest Time of the Hanamachi Year

Anthropologist Liza Dalby, who did fieldwork in the Pontochō hanamachi in the mid-1970s, remembers Kotohajime as “one of the busiest times of the year” (250).  “Not only are all the clients making plans for end-of-the-year parties, the geisha have more than the usual responsibilities and ceremonial duties vis-à-vis one another and the ex-geisha who run the teahouses” (160).

The Beginning of the New Year at the End of the Old Year?

“Although the year has not ended,” writes Kyoko Aihara, “this is the day that new year preparations begin in the hanamachi. This day marks the start of the new year” (215).

Kokimi Cover

Bare-faced Geiko, 2007.

“Kotohajime, you say? Why does all this talk about the new year happen at the end of year?” Gion geiko Kokimi imagines her readers may find it strange that this new year event takes place on December 13th.  When she first came to the hanamachi, she, too, was surprised to hear all the congratulatory new year greetings mid-December (116). But Kotohajime was once more commonly practiced in Japan.

 

According to Japan Reference, December 13th used to be more widely observed as the day to begin preparations for the new year’s holiday, the most important in Japan. It was time to give the house a thorough cleaning and display seasonal decorations. These days Japanese tend to do this at the end of December. But the hanamachi follows the old custom.

Reading almanacs led Liza Dalby to discover that, “for most people in agricultural Japan o-koto hajime meant something quite different than it did for geisha. ‘The beginning of things’ referred to the chores of the farming season, which started in earnest just after the lunar new year. Farmers also observed ‘the finishing of things’ (o-koto osame) around the first week of December, leaving a six-week interval of relatively quiet time. Interestingly, I never heard of o-koto osame in the geisha world. For geisha, some times are busier than others, but things are never finished” (251).

Learning from the Kotohajime Custom

It’s reassuring to see the hanamachi returning to life this year.  Reading about Kotohajime past and present, I take a moment to feel gratitude to my teachers, family, and friends. And there’s plenty for me to do, too, to get ready for the new year.

REFERENCES

*Note that the event is also romanized as two words, sometime hyphenated: koto hajime; koto-hajime. It’s also translated as “the beginning of things” and “things to do for the New Year.”

The featured image today is found on Yasuhiro Imamiya.jp.  It shows Gion maiko visiting iemoto Inoue Yachiyo. Imamiya’s blog has many beautiful photos of Kyoto events:  http://www.imamiya.jp/haruhanakyoko/event/koto.htm

Aihara Kyoko. Kyoto maiko to geiko no okuzashiki [The salon of Kyoto maiko and geiko]. Tokyo: Bungei Shunjū, 2001.

Dalby, Liza Crihfield. East Wind Melts the Ice: A Memoir Through the Seasons. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007.

Kawabata, Yasunari, and J. Martin Holman, translator. The Old Capital. Berkeley: COUNTERPOINT, 2006.

Koyama Aiko. Maiko-san-chi no Makanai-san. Serialized manga. Volume 15. Episode 161, Shōgakukan, 2020.  For its new online anime adaptation, NHK World translates the manga title as Kiyo in Kyoto: From the Maiko House.

Yamaguchi Kimijo. Suppin geiko: Kyoto Gion no ukkari nikki [Bare-faced geiko: My haphazard diary of Gion, Kyoto]. Tokyo: LOCUS, 2007

Online News Articles:
Kyodo News, “Maiko-san-ra mo shōgatsu-jitaku Kyōto no hanamachi `kotohajime'”
Dec. 13, 2019, Accessed Dec. 12, 2021.

NHK News Web, “‘Beginning of things’ at Kyoto Gion Geisha and Maiko New Year’s greetings. Dec. 13, 2021, Accessed Dec. 13, 2021.
https://www3.nhk.or.jp/news/html/20211213/k10013386201000.html

The Sankei News, “Kyoto, Gion de Kotohajime, Gei-maiko ga aisatsu”
Dec. 13, 2019, Accessed Dec. 12, 2021.
https://www.sankei.com/article/20191213-SRP6WMXNLJPH7L6XGKIYAQMHZY/

Jan Bardsley, “Kotohajime: Maiko Prepare for the New Year,” Janbardsley.web.unc.edu. December 13, 2021

A Maiko’s Party Manners: Taboo Behaviors at Ozashiki

A maiko learns the proper etiquette for parties (ozashiki) at teahouses (ochaya). But what behaviors must she avoid?

Cover, Maiko etiquette by Kamishichiken Ichimame. Copyright © 2007. Daiwa Shobō.

Maiko Ichimame describes some basics in her 2007 book, Maiko Etiquette. The book’s illustrator Katsuyama Keiko catches our attention with her comic of maiko taboos, featured here.

What do the taboos tell us about the maiko’s role at teahouse parties?  First of all, we see a concern for aesthetics: the maiko must move beautifully. We also see that attending parties is part of a maiko’s job. She is not there to have fun, but to ensure the guests enjoy themselves. She must remain alert to the guests’ needs. This way she shows respect and concern for her guests.

As I describe in Maiko Masquerade, etiquette training, along with dance lessons, mark the most important aspects of maiko training. Contemporary guides to the hanamachi in Japanese celebrate the maiko’s performance of Japanese etiquette. Although Ichimame explains many aspects of her maiko life in this personal account, she titles her book, Maiko Etiquette. Katsuyama Keiko’s lively illustrations keep the book’s mood light, making even a lesson about taboos fun to contemplate.

Do not pour backhanded.

Always face the guest to pour a beverage.  Ichimame explains that in the past when a warrior would commit seppuku, he would wield the sword backhanded.  (Not a good look at a party!)

When the client offers to pour your drink, do not offer your cup with one hand.

Hold your cup with both hands when offering it and when drinking from it.

Hold the sake cup in your right hand and support it with your left hand. Do the same thing with cups or glasses for other beverages.

If you absolutely must use one hand to pass something to the guest who is somewhat distant from you, say, “Onīsan (Elder brother), I apologize for passing with one hand.” お兄さん、片手ですんまへん。

[Male clients are generally addressed as Onīsan (elder brother), female clients as Onēsan (elder sister). Ichimame’s reference implies that clients are typically men].

Rest your hands on your knees when talking with clients.

Don’t rest your hands on the table.  Of course, never rest your elbows on the table either.

Do not rest your hips directly on the tatami.

Even when sitting formally (seiza) makes your legs sore, do not move so that your hips are directly on the tatami floor.  Rather, move your feet into the ハ position and rest on them.  Sit up straight. Push your weight to the front.  If you feel like your legs are going to fall asleep then make an excuse so you can stand up and move.  You might say that you need to get more sake or something like that.

An interesting article on how to sit in the formal seiza style.
https://japanology.org/2016/07/how-to-conquer-seiza-the-foreigners-nightmare/

Do not disrupt the party by getting up too much.

Of course, it’s a maiko’s job to make sure that nothing is needed at the party. If more beverages or something else is needed, she should offer to take care of it. But even if moving quickly to replenish drinks, the maiko must do so quietly, not making a lot of noise.

Do not talk with guests from a standing position.

At parties held in a tatami room, everyone will be seated on cushions on the floor. Sometimes a guest will start talking with a maiko just when she has stood up. It would be rude for her to answer from this “higher” position.  She should only respond after sitting back down on the tatami herself.

Do not become intoxicated.

Sometimes at parties,  maiko Ichimame, too,  is offered sake. While she may taste a little, she also asks for water or tea to drink rather than sake. No one wants to see a tipsy maiko!

REFERENCES

Kamishichiken Ichimame. Maiko etiquette.  Copyright © 2007. Daiwa Shobō. pages 84-86. Illustrated by Katsuyama Keiko, p. 86.

Jan Bardsley, “A Maiko’s Party Manners: Taboo Behaviors at Ozashiki,” Janbardsley.web.unc.edu. July 8, 2021

Maiko Manners:  Bowing to the Telephone Pole

Boudewijn Huysmans
Unsplash

Bow— even when you see a telephone pole.

電信棒見ても、おたのもうします。

Respect for hierarchy forms the bedrock of  maiko manners. When she encounters any of her superiors, geiko or senior maiko on an afternoon walk, for example, the maiko must stop, bow, and greet the other. Being in a rush is no excuse to forego this ritual.

This behavior becomes so ingrained that, as the saying exaggerates, the maiko will even accord a telephone pole the same respect since it is “higher” than she.

The maiko, using the hanamachi dialect, humbly requests the other’s favor or guidance. Otanomō shimasu. One of the first phrases she learns as a trainee.

Professor Kumiko Nishio, who researches maiko training, explains how the greeting ritual benefits the brand-new trainee (18-21).  Too new to her hanamachi to know its community members well, the trainee must make a favorable impression on all she meets. Whether or not she knows them yet.  After all, these elders can positively influence her career, recommending her for parties and other assignments. Conversely, ignoring greetings would be a sign of disrespect.

Only in Kyoto?

It’s tempting to consider this emphasis on formal greetings a quaint custom of the hanamachi. But I remember many years ago hearing an American university leader advise assistant professors concerned about gaining tenure in the U.S.  He urged them to get in the habit of greeting their department colleagues. Worried, one young person asked, “But what can I do?  My office isn’t even in the same building as my department.” The leader responded, “Then, go to the department every day to check your mail. Greet people. Make yourself known.”

Even when you see a passing car with your superiors aboard…..

Sometimes signs of respect in the hanamachi can be taken to comic extremes. Kiriki Chizu, a maiko in the late 1960s, recalls repeatedly being told, “Don’t forget your greetings even when you see your sempai geiko in a car coming down the road (32).”

Once, completely unaware, she failed to heed this advice.

Photo by Jie on Unsplash

She did not notice the car with her geiko colleagues aboard.

An offended geiko swiftly complained to Kiriki’s elder sister, who scolded her.  Kiriki knew it was useless to explain how the light shining on the car windows must have prevented her from seeing who was inside. This “excuse” would not work in Gion and she had to apologize to the geiko, promising to take more care in the future.

As a retired geiko, Kiriki tries not to place maiko and young geiko in tricky greeting situations. Many may get the sense when they see her walking in the hanamachi that she is somehow connected to the community. Not knowing the retiree’s name or position makes them uncomfortable, unsure of what to do. Kiriki tries to put them at ease by avoiding  meeting their eyes and simply walking on. They seem relieved.

When in doubt— bow.

Kiriki Chizu. Aisare jōzu ni naru Gion-ryū: Onna migaki [The Gion way to skill in becoming loveable: A woman’s polish]. Tokyo: Kōdansha, 2007.

Nishio Kumiko.  Maiko no kotoba: Kyoto hanamachi hitosodate no gokui [Maiko language: Training secrets from the Kyoto hanamachi]. Tokyo: Tōyō Keizai Shinpōsha, 2012.

Jan Bardsley, “Maiko Manners: Bowing to the Telephone Pole,” Janbardsley.web.unc.edu. March 5, 2021