Professor Emerita, Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, UNC Chapel Hill

Tag: Inoue Yachiyo

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.


*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  It shows Gion maiko visiting iemoto Inoue Yachiyo. Imamiya’s blog has many beautiful photos of Kyoto events:

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.

The Sankei News, “Kyoto, Gion de Kotohajime, Gei-maiko ga aisatsu”
Dec. 13, 2019, Accessed Dec. 12, 2021.

Jan Bardsley, “Kotohajime: Maiko Prepare for the New Year,” December 13, 2021

Maiko, Noodles, and the 47 Rōnin

The Storehouse of Loyalty – Chūshingura (47 Rōnin) ukiyo-e set by Hiroshige Utagawa, circa 1836.  Wikimedia Commons.

Maiko dancing and serving soba noodles to guests?  What was the story behind this March event?  In today’s post, I take up an annual Gion event with one foot in history and the other in myth.

Honoring Ōishi Kuranosuke, Leader of the 47 Rōnin

Ichiriki Teahouse Photo: Mariemon Wikimedia Commons

On March 20, Gion Kōbu honors the memory of Kyoto revolutionary Ōishi Kuranosuke, the leader of the 47 rōnin (masterless men). The ceremony takes place at the exclusive Gion teahouse, Ichiriki. Only regular clients are invited.

Inoue Yachiyo V V

At the Ichiriki ceremony, Inoue Yachiyo V, designated a Living National Treasure, performs.  She dances Fukaki kokoro (Deep Heart) in front of a Buddhist mortuary tablet (ihai) honoring the men.  Maiko and geiko also dance.  They later serve tea and hand-made soba noodles to the guests (Mizobuchi, 15).

Who was Ōishi Kuranosuke? What’s his connection to Gion?

As part of an elaborate plot to avenge the death of his lord, the stalwart Ōishi assumed deep cover by disguising his true character. He played the part of a dissolute. For two years,  he frequented the Ichiriki teahouse until he and the 47 rōnin were ready to attack and kill their lord’s enemy.  The men were arrested and ordered to commit ritualized suicide (seppuku), which they did on March 20, 1703. Long romanticized in all manner of Japanese arts as symbolizing samurai loyalty, Ōishi and the 47 rōnin are buried at Sengakuji, a Zen temple near Shinagawa, Tokyo—their graveyard now a tourist site.

Why soba noodles?

Photo Masaaki Komori  Unsplash

Lori Brau highlights the soba symbolism here. She explains how  uchiiri soba (soba of the raid) allude to the story that Ōishi and his band gathered at a soba shop. They ate this simple meal together before launching their raid and accomplishing their vendetta. Brau notes, “Soba’s tendency to break easily, due to its lack of gluten (which adds viscosity), renders it an apt symbol for parting (71).”

According to Lesley Downer, doubt exists as to whether the current Ichiriki was actually the site of Ōishi ’s debauchery. But, the connection has worked in the teahouse’s favor as “there were always people willing to dissipate an evening at the scene of the most celebrated partying in Japanese history (162).”

Why do tales of the 47 Rōnin  endure?

The Gion ceremony offers only one way of remembering Ōishi and the 47 Rōnin. All manner of art forms–puppet theater, Noh, film and TV, graphic novels and anime–have recounted versions of the tale. The tale has been put in service of widely different movements, including “popular rights, Christianity, capitalism, Marxism, pacifism, and contemporary cartoon culture (Tucker, 3).”

I caught up with John Tucker, Professor of History at East Carolina University, to ask why the tale endures. He’s the author of The Forty-Seven Rōnin: The Vendetta in History (Cambridge UP, 2018).   John responded, The historic 47 Rōnin vendetta became an unparalleled sensation in Japan due to its retelling on stage as Chūshingura (Storehouse of Loyal Retainers). And of the eleven acts in that play, the most popular ones present Ōboshi Yuranosuke (Ōishi  Kuranosuke) as a dissolute hedonist enjoying himself in Kyoto’s pleasure quarters even while plotting to take murderous revenge on his late-lord’s enemy.”

Ōishi’s “shrewd tango with life”

Author John A. Tucker
Cambridge UP, 2018

“Everyone knows the grisly end and so relishes the chance to share vicariously Ōishi’s last and quite shrewd tango with life,” explained John. “After all, his time in the pleasure quarters made Ōishi most fully human, alive with passions and flaws even if the latter were so much subterfuge for his mortal sincerity and lethal vengeance. In affirming life unto death, Ōishi epitomized an existential ideal that all admire, though few might actually realize.”

Want to learn more?  I recommend John Tucker’s The Forty-Seven Rōnin for an approachable, well-researched guide. Historian Peter Nosco praises the book as,  “The definitive book-length study by a uniquely qualified scholar of one of Japanese history’s most contested events.”   Perhaps read The Forty-Seven Rōnin this March while enjoying soba.


Brau, Lori. 2018. “Soba, Edo Style:  Food, Aesthetics, and Cultural Identity.” In Devouring Japan: Perspectives on Japanese Culinary Identity, edited by Nancy Stalker,  65-80.  New York: Oxford University Press.

Downer, Lesley. 2002. Women of the Pleasure Quarters: The Secret History of the Geisha. New York: Broadway.

Mizobuchi Hiroshi.  2002.  Kyoto kagai. Kyoto: Mitsumura Suiko Shoin Publishing Co., Ltd.

Tucker, John A.  2018. The Forty-Seven Rōnin: The Vendetta in History.  Cambridge University Press.

Jan Bardsley, “Maiko, Noodles, and the 47 Rōnin,”  March 18, 2021.

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