Gokurakuji & The Corona Geisha

Geisha house in Gokurakuji header

Last time, on Akiya Adventures

Matt and Parker piled into a car and went explore a vacant house in the serene suburbs of historic Kamakura. Their drive 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 Jomyoji 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 made with an interest in a property but which ultimately resulted in much 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

Parker and I got into his car headed for a local café to meet a local acquaintance after saying goodbye to Peter and his wife. We went through the winding back streets, 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 mossy cement retaining wall. Juxtaposition, eat your heart out.

I had no idea what we were walking into. A sign outside the building said a café was inside, but this was unlike any 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. However, tea was drank, biscuits were munched, and select cuts from the orchestral version of the 1999 Squaresoft RPG Chrono Cross were listened to, so I guess it qualifies.

What’s with video game soundtracks on this trip?

Gokurakuji Bound

After tea & biscuits, I needed to get to Gokurakuji Station, only a few stops away from Kamakura Station on the Enoden Line, so I continued on 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. This heightened the implacably weird experience of traveling alone on deserted trains to vacant buildings in rural regions.

The Geisha of Gokurakuji outside house

From Gokurakuji Station to Tsuki no Kage Tei

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 local Gokurakuji wood over 100 years ago in the quintessentially 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 find the words to better describe it.

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. That gate is made of untreated wood and reminiscent of Japan’s iconic red tori’i gates, and 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 of Geisha house in Gokurakuji

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, and the living room also overlooking the garden. Further down, you’ll find the kitchen, the library, and the study. Take a 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 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:

Gokurakuji 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 arts. Granted, extreme music genres like Goregrindcircle pits, and black band t-shirts aren’t considered very incompatible with traditional Tsugaru-jamisen music, Chado (tea ceremony), and kimono, but… 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.
The Geisha of Gokurakuji performing

The Intersection of Geisha and Extreme Metal

And, just like extreme metal, some Geisha including Sayuki’s are experimenting with video streams. This made my ears perk up, as what little I know about Geisha suggests that its an art form largely unchanged for the last 500 years.

Just the night before my arrival, Sayuki told me, they had entertained clients in Italy from Gokurakuji over Zoom very successfully. However, that’s not to say it was easy, and they figured it out as they went. This piqued my interest further as it sounded like what I 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 and extreme metalheads are. 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.

Gokurakuji Geisha

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 , she lead us to a beachside establishment where we had a light meal and a few drinks. This was done while gazing out over the ocean, glowing at the horizon with the almost-set sun.

We returned to Tsuki no Kage Tei, where I retired to my room. I checked a few messages, appreciated the decorations in the tokonoma, and set up my futon. Then, I 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.


There are many more tales for me to tell. In traveling to places that I have little reason to go and know little about in pursuit of vacant properties, I have experienced things that really open up new thought patterns. Hopefully, this is true for all involved in one way or another.

When grasping for straws in trying to name something, I tend to just default to alliteration. This series started the same way. But in writing these glimpses into my pursuit of vacant buildings in Japan, I think Akiya Adventures is — while maybe not the coolest — a pretty apt title.