Hanamachi are areas formed mainly around shops where you can play with geisha. Until a law prohibiting prostitution was enforced in 1957, it also referred to areas with brothels as well as geisha houses. The Chinese characters for hanamachi can also be read “kagai.” Now hanamachi is the common reading but the correct way to read it is “kagai.”
The most famous hanamachi in the country today are the Gokagai, or Five Entertainment Streets, in Kyoto- Kamishichiken, Gionkobu, Gionhigashi, Miyagawacho, and Pontocho. Also, in Tokyo’s Chuo-ku ward, there are Yoshicho, Shinbashi, Akasaka, Kagurazaka, Asakusa 3 to 4 chome, and Mukojima 5 chome. In Ishikawa prefecture there are Higashi Chaya District, Nishi Chaya District, and Kazuemachi. In Niigata there is Furumachi. In Hyogo there is Arima Onse Hot Springs. In Fukuoka there is Hakata. In Nagasaki there is Maruyama and in this way they are scattered all over Japan.
Women showing off their arts in a tatami room
There is a difference in the terms used to designate the geisha and geiko or geigi, women who sell their arts in the hanamachi, and the maiko who are apprentices. The words geiko and maiko are unique to rural areas like Kyoto, Osaka and Ishikawa. Geiko are commonly called geisha in mainly the Tokyo area. As for what maiko are called, actually, Kyoto is the only place where there are maiko. There are also geisha apprentices called hangyoku but because their origin is in a different culture, they are different from maiko.
So what exactly is the difference between the women called geisha or geiko and the maiko apprentices? Geisha and geiko are women who entertain guests with traditional Japanese dancing called buyo, which is a combination of mai and odori dancing, singing songs called ongyoku accompanied on the shamisen, and giving musical performances other than shamisen and singing called narimono using instruments like drums, flutes and bells. Maiko, which refers to the stage before becoming a geisha, are women who appear mainly as mai dancers at the ozashiki geisha houses.
In general, maiko are around 20 years old and after that become geisha. Also, it is not only the age but maiko and geisha have different clothes and hairstyles. Maiko attach hairpins to their natural hair and wear a colorfully patterned long sleeved kimono tied with a 5-6 meter long sash called a “darari no obi” and 10cm tall shoes called “okobo.” On the other hand, geisha wear wigs with hardly any hair pins and black or plain colored subdued kimono tied with a normal length obi and zori sandals. So maiko clothing is gorgeous while geisha clothing has a sophisticated elegance.
When you visit the hanamachi, by all means observe the clothing of the girls walking by.
How to enjoy the hanamachi
Of course you can enjoy strolling through the hanamachi where old townscapes remain, but to really experience the hanamachi, there is “ozashiki asobi,” or playing ozashiki. In a place called a teahouse where there is a banquet hall, enjoying food and sake while watching dances and songs by geishas is a stylish way of enjoying playing ozashiki in an exciting place.
Playing ozashiki is playing games with geisha and in principle, there is a rule that if you lose you must drink alcohol. There are many forms of typical games such as “konpira funefune,” which is done with a song accompanied by shamisen, “omawarisan,” which is playing rock paper scissors (a competition where two or more people use their hands to make the shape of rock, scissors or paper. Paper beats rock, scissors beat paper and rock beats scissors.) to the beat of the drum, and “tora tora,” where screens are arranged so that players cannot see each other and winning or losing is decided with hand gestures.
Some shops have a policy of “ichigensan okotowari” (not accepting first time visitors) and depending on the tea house, you cannot get in without an introduction. If you want to go to places where you can certainly play, you should use the Ozashiki Asobi experience plan provided by travel agencies and inns.
In the hanamachi, besides playing with geisha as described above, you can also enjoy dressing like geisha or maiko yourself. You can make a great memory of your trip if you go to the hanamachi in Kyoto or Tokyo, where there are several studios where professionals will transform you into geisha and maiko so you can experience everything from putting on the makeup to get dressed and taking memorial pictures.