Say the word “geisha” and images of beautiful kimono-clad women serving green tea, reciting poetry and playing classical instruments may spring to mind.
In Japan, outsiders typically pay hundreds of pounds in order to spend several hours with geisha in teahouses, with activities including artful conversation, and dancing.
But the lull in the global economy appears to be forcing the world of geisha to seek more enterprising — and cheaper - ways of earning a living by setting up geisha beer gardens.
At the traditional inn Gion Shinmonso, in the ancient capital of Japan, for the £4 (530 yen) cost of a draft beer, visitors can raise toasts and make conversation with trainee geisha, called maiko, before they perform nightly traditional Kyotan dances known as “kyomai” on a special beer garden stage.
Meanwhile, the beer garden at Kamischichiken enables visitors to buy a “geisha starter pack” for £13, including a mug of beer, two snacks and company of kimono-clad geisha.
“We introduced the service because before, fewer guests were visiting the inn,” said a spokeswoman from Gion Shinmonso.
“We also wanted people to learn more about maiko and geisha. Many more people are able to see them now. They have attracted a lot more customers.”
The world of geisha blossomed in Kyoto in the 18th century, with young girls trained rigorously in geisha houses an array of traditional arts, from tea ceremony and kimono dressing to playing classical instruments.
The number of geisha — who are trained to provide entertainment and no sexual services — peaked at 80,000 in Japan in 1928 but since then has declined to an estimated 1,000 across the country.
The rise of the geisha beer gardens may help more people gain access to a world that was previously unaffordable, according to Ayako Itagaki, deputy director of the London office of the Japan National Tourist Organisation.
“Geisha are an iconic image of Japan and something many visitors to Japan would like to experience,” she said. “I think beer gardens are a wonderful development that is opening the geisha world up in a new modern way to those who before would have struggled to gain access due to the high costs and their exclusivity.”
Roland Kelts, author of Japanamerica, a lecturer at Tokyo’s Temple University and a visiting scholar at the University of Tokyo, added: “ I suspect it could really take off, especially if they can handle queries and bookings in Chinese and Korean, given the recent spike in the number of Asian tourists.
“Kyoto is the premiere destination for visitors seeking encounters with the so-called ’real Japan,’ or at least an accessible and satisfying version of it.” Here