Geisha garden

Last time, on Akiya Adventures

Matt and Parker piled into a car and headed down to Kanagawa intent on exploring a vacant house in the serene suburbs of historic Kamakura. Their drive down was colored by the dulcet tones of Rockstar Games’ audacious Grand Theft Auto soundtrack. They lunched at an Italian Villa replica overlooking the lush grounds of Jōmyōji beneath the azure summer sky. They toured the tatami’d bedrooms, wide open kitchen, and dedicated dark room of a vacant 2-story residence. Coincidentally, it also was owned by a formidable photographer that weirdly knew Matt’s grandfather.

It was a wonderful trip to a storied region of Japan that was made with an interest in a property but which ultimately resulted in a whole lot more: friendly and relaxed conversation, scenic views and fresh air, and new friends that serendipitously connect with personal history.

Let’s see what comes next…

A Brief Reprieve

Having said goodbye to Peter and his wife, Parker and I got back into his car headed for a local café to rendezvous with a local acquaintance. Through the winding back streets we went, past residences of considerable stature, which may have been abandoned. The sun shone down on us in spite of the rainy forecast. This was during Japan’s annual tsuyu rainy season.

We pulled into a sandy parking lot close enough to the beach to hear the waves. Our contact stood just around the corner with his brightly colored tracksuit against a cracked, mossy cement retaining wall. Juxtaposition, eat your heart out.

I had no idea what we were walking into. A sign outside the cement building said a café was inside, but this was unlike any café I’ve ever been in. In fact, it was more like the living room of a very enthusiastic collector of silver British tea sets.

Our acquaintance said that the owner had registered his living room as a business, so I’m unsure of what to call the space, but tea was drank, biscuits were munched, and select cuts from the orchestral version of the 1999 Squaresoft RPG Chrono Cross — which I will go on the record and say I am not a big fan of — were listened to, so I guess that qualifies.

What’s with video game soundtracks on this trip?

Geisha Bound

After tea & biscuits, I needed to make my way to Gokurakuji Station. It is only a few stops away from Kamakura Station on the local Enoden Line, so I continued on my journey alone. Last I heard, they majestically made their way to the beach in the late afternoon sun.

The reason for this was Sayuki. A geisha, anthropologist, and lecturer at Waseda University, she had heard of our akiya research and was curious to hear more. As a geisha, Sayuki always keeps an eye out for traditional properties to train up-and-coming Maiko and to host clients. She got in touch and suggested that, if I was in the area, I should drop by for a visit. Challenge accepted!

So onto the empty 1-car Enoden train I went. I sat facing West to take in Kamakura’s beautiful ocean view passing slowly by. Occasionally, I’d catch my reflection in the window glass — bemasked, sunglassed, and rendered largely visually indeterminate — and this heightened the implacably weird experience of traveling alone on deserted trains to vacant buildings in rural regions.

Geisha in Kamakura

From the Station to the House

I only had 2 stops to wax philosophical, and got off at Gokurakuji Station soon enough. A charming station built in 1904, it is considerably old-timey. Wood paneling, cobblestone gardens, and one of those old red mailboxes, its got the works.

From there, it was a short walk to Sayuki’s repurposed kominka. As I approached the property (staring at my phone to film), Sayuki herself popped out to greet me. Very good timing, she said as I got within earshot. I would be lying if I said I was paying attention to my surroundings, so I was a bit startled. A wonderful welcome, indeed!

Sayuki and I had a few warm words outside, and then she invited me into her historic habitation. The house was built entirely of wood over 100 years ago in the quintessential Japanese nihon kenchiku style. It is lovingly known as 月の影亭 (Tsuki no Kage Tei), and is about as much of a teleportation device to Japan’s past as one could reasonably hope for.

Let’s Do the Time Warp

Tsuki no Kage Tei could be called a 1-story flat, though that phrase doesn’t put the right image in my head. Let me see if I can conjure up the words to form a more precise description.

A bamboo fence surrounds the property, with a few rustic hinged gates strategically placed around the perimeter. You’ll have to look for them, though, because the main gate dominates the mise en scene. Made of untreated wood and reminiscent of Japan’s iconic red torii gates but with doors, it opens up to a stone pathway leading to the main sliding entrance.

Once inside, you will find yourself in a stone-floored genkan mezzanine, where you better take off your shoes. Seriously. Don’t track dirt into someone else’s home. Or your own. Why would you do that? Eventually you’ll just have to clean it up.

garden

Another set of sliding doors opens up to reveal the main walkway. Go left to a hallway of more sliding doors leading to bedrooms, closets, the living room also overlooking the garden, the kitchen, the library, and the study. Go right, and you’ll pass floor to ceiling windows overlooking the interior garden leading to another bedroom. Left is perhaps more exciting, but I like right too because I stayed in that bedroom overlooking the garden. It was very relaxing. Very shibui (though I guess the whole house is pretty shibui…).

Novel Opportunities for a Novel Virus

Sayuki took me around the house, and then returned to the living room for tea. There, we discussed the business of the house itself, geisha, and vacant properties. All all in the context of Coronavirus, of course.

Regarding the house, I was surprised to hear that they had a few openings available. Think about it:

  • Kamakura is a super desirable area and this property is very conveniently located
  • The building is beautifully constructed, surrounded by nature, and minutes from the beach
  • You can tell people you live at a Geisha house, doubly cool if you’re teleworking from there (yes, they have wifi!)

But then again this reflects what I’m starting to see as a wide-spread phenomenon through my research. Generally speaking, people seem to be really bad at identifying opportunities above a certain level of novelty. Once something exceeds a yet unquantified but seemingly quite low measure of deviation from a perceived norm, it stays unrealized. Thus places like this (while not an akiya itself as it is inhabited) remain only in the periphery of the considerate mind.

Or maybe I just have a penchant for the atypical. Who knows.

Geisha in the Time of Corona

Speaking with Sayuki about Coronageishas was the real topic of interest, especially considering my background in the performing arts. Granted, extreme music genres like Goregrindcircle pits, and black band t-shirts are probably considered completely incompatible with traditional Tsugaru-jamisen musicChado (tea ceremony), and Kimonobut… are they? Consider the following:

  • Metal and Tsugaru-jamisen alike frequently implement thicker strings, detuning, and atypical rhythms.
  • Circle pits and Chado are both extremely effective meditative practices that allow practitioners to reach elevated states of consciousness aka satori.
  • Black t-shirts and jeans are just as much a uniform as Kimono. I feel like I shouldn’t even have to point this one out.
Geisha performance

The Intersection of Geisha and Extreme Metal

And, just like extreme metal, Geisha, or at least those under Sayuki’s watch, are also now experimenting with video streams and other novel approaches to engaging with their clients. Hearing this made me step back a bit, as what little I know about Geisha suggests that its a pretty traditional practice that likes what it’s been doing for the last 500 years or however long and isn’t really one to approach change of any kind with anything more than suspicion.

Just the night before my arrival, Sayuki told me, they had entertained a client group in Italy over Zoom to a pretty high level of success, though that’s not to say it was easy to affect and that they were kind of figuring out as they went. This piqued my already fiery interest as it sounded exactly like what the bands I work with have been going through in recording no-audience concerts for stream.

This makes a bit of a poignant, humbling statement once you unwrap it a bit. Businesses are scrambling to find the best way to address the pandemic, just as geisha are, just as extreme metalheads are, just as presumably everyone else is. But it’s one thing to say “everyone is doing it” and another thing to say what I just wrote above, which highlights the perceived disparate nature of those things while at the same time highlighting the unity of action amongst them.

Geisha vs. Corona

And that’s one of Sayuki’s many interesting qualities: her ability to relate stories of a purportedly esoteric, ancient practice in a sincere, human, and relatable way. I suspect this has a lot to do with both her formal training as an anthropologist and a geisha, but even if not, the quality is there, and is very much appreciated.

Another interesting quality about Sayuki is that, so far as I can tell, she and her troupe are quite literally at the forefront of modernizing Geisha practices for a 21st Century existential battle with Coronavirus. I can’t even believe I just wrote that, but I stand by my words.

With this, we broke for dinner, and Sayuki took me on a bike ride around the city, ultimately leading us to a beachside establishment where we had a light meal and a few drinks, all while gazing out over the ocean, glowing at the horizon with the almost-set sun.

Kamakura Bedroom

We returned to Tsuki no Kage Tei, where I retired to my room, checked a few messages, considered and appreciated the decorations in the tokonoma, set up my futon, and fell asleep to the wind rustling through the trees just outside in the garden. A fitting end to a day full of new experiences and new acquaintances.

Reflections

There are many more tales for me to tell. In traveling to places that I otherwise have no reason to go and know little if anything about in pursuit of information regarding properties no one is apparently interested in, I have had experiences and conversations that really open up new avenues of thought and consideration for myself, at least, and hopefully for those that also find themselves involved in one way or another.

When grasping for straws in trying to name something (an article, a concert series, my bike, etc.), I tend to just default to (preferably goofy) alliteration, but in starting to write these brief glimpses into my foray into the world of vacant buildings across Japan, I think that Akiya Adventures is — while maybe not the coolest — a pretty apt title, for the time being anyway.