At traditional Japanese ryotei restaurants that offer full-blown Japanese culture services, you can enjoy "ozashiki asobi" with geisha called maiko (apprentice geisha) and geigi (Kyoto dialect for geisha). Here are the basics of ozashiki asobi for first-time visitors.
1. What is ozashiki asobi?
In places like Kyoto, you might see women in kimono called maiko and geigi. These women work at ozashiki asobi, drinking parties where they entertain the guests with their arts such as music or dance and with conversation. This is one part of Japanese culture that you can only truly find in Japan.
Maiko and geigi are the successors of Japanese arts, and being able to eat and drink while enjoying the skills that they practice daily is definitely a luxury that you should try at least once if you come to Japan. By the way, there's an image that ozashiki asobi is only for men, but of course it's an activity in which women can participate as well. You can participate in ozashiki asobi in groups of only women if you'd like.
A. Appreciating the traditional arts
Depending on the restaurant the order might change, but usually first you are treated to the maiko or geigi's excellent performances. Each of them are professionals in their art, whether it be Japanese dance, nagauta (long epic songs), a shamisen (traditional stringed instrument) performance, and more.
While you eat, you can enjoy conversation with the maiko or geigi. The women will continue to pour drinks for you so it seems like the liquor is never-ending, but that's part of the fun of ozashiki asobi. You can admire the elegance in the women's speech.
C. Ozashiki Asobi party games
While "ozashiki asobi" refers to the entire drinking party, it's also the name of the many simple games that you can play with the maiko/geigi. Here are two that you might see. First is Konpira Fune Fune. A small vessel is placed on a stand between the player and the maiko, who are sitting facing each other. The game involves touching the vessel alternatively in rhythm to the "Konpira Fune Fune" song that's being sung. If the vessel has been taken from the stand by either person, the person must make their hand into a fist when it's their turn to put their hand out. If the vessel is there they must put their hand out as though they are throwing paper in rock paper scissors. The person who makes a mistake first loses. It seems like a simple game, but since you're singing as you do it, it's actually pretty difficult. It's also easy to become nervous in front of the maiko, who is used to playing this game, but do your best! The next game is Yakyuken. This is also played in time to a song on the shamisen, and you do rock paper scissors while performing choreography based on baseball pitchers, batters, and runners. The person who loses takes a drink. Of course it's taboo to back out of the drink, so it might be good to practice your rock paper scissors beforehand so you don't drink too much!
2. What is the difference between maiko and geigi?
A maiko, as mentioned above, is a young girl who is still learning to be a geigi. Usually she is between 15-20 years old, and she can be noticed by her characteristic florid kimono and kanzashi hair accessories as well as her darari-style obi belt. This is when the back of the obi isn't completely tied, but allowed to hang flat behind her. When a maiko graduates from being an apprentice, she has a ceremony called "erigae" and then becomes a geigi. There are two kinds of geigi, the tachikata that primarily dances and the jikata that primarily plays the shamisen and sings. A maiko usually becomes a tachikata, and she wears less gaudy kimono and accessories than she did as a maiko.
3. Proper etiquette
While there isn't any need to humble yourself during ozashiki asobi, there are some basic manners and rules you should know.
This is very important. The establishment prepares for the time when customers arrive, including sprinkling water in the entranceway to cool it down, gathering the geisha, and preparing the meal. If you are late, you ruin their hospitality, and it's considered to be extremely rude.
B. Do not offer food to the geisha
While it's fine to offer the geisha liquor as they pour your drinks, please do not offer them food. While they are part of a ozashiki asobi, they will not eat a single bite.
C. Don't take pictures without asking
Taking photos is not prohibited, but to be polite please ask first. It's also rude to take photos extremely close to the geisha, so please refrain.
D. Don't touch the geisha
Since all of the items they wear, from their kimono to their accessories, are very expensive, they take very good care of them. Please don't touch them. Please enjoy the party with a professional state of mind.
4. Where does this take place? How much does it cost?
While you can enjoy ozashiki asobi all around Japan, some famous places are Gion and Pontocho in Kyoto, Kagurazaka and Asakusa in Tokyo, as well as Osaka, Kobe, and Kanazawa. Each area and establishment has different prices, so please do some research before you make a reservation. Generally it's a system where food and drink are added onto the maiko/geigi fees, so usually it goes from around 10,000 JPY for one person to about 40,000 JPY. However, there are plans for tourists and group discounts, so it might be good to find an establishment that will allow a group to enjoy ozashiki asobi on a cheaper budget.
Shopping and sightseeing are great, but make no mistake, enjoying a traditional nightlife will definitely become a great memory of your trip. Why not try having this rare experience?
*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.