I am not a mountain climber, a hiker or an athlete of any kind, so my trip to the summit of Mt. Mitake with my friend Mao was a bit of a challenge – but wow, was it worth it! We were there to attend Tenku Geisha night, a chance to see a Geisha perform and participate in festivities that accompany an evening with a Geisha – all for no cost! I am told that at a Kyoto teahouse, it costs about $500 per person to enjoy the performance of, engage in conversation and enjoy the traditional games with a Geisha. The cost alone puts this activity far out of the realm of possibility for me so I was especially excited about this opportunity!
Mt. Mitake is located in the Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park in Ome, Japan. The park consists of 483 square miles of wooded hills, gorges and mountains with many hiking trails and even a few quaint villages with inns, cafes and souvenir shops. At the summit, stands the beautiful Musashi-Mitake Shrine which sits atop 300 steep steps.
My friend Mao and I boarded the cable car (which originates about 1/3 of the way up the mountain) along with a beautiful yellow Labrador retriever who sat in his own section of the cable car, reserved for pets only. A round-trip cable car ticket for adults is 1100 yen and for pets is 260 yen – the Japanese love their pets! As we ascended through the forested mountainside, the view was breathtaking. On a clear day you can see Tokyo, the Skytree and even Tokyo Tower. Although this day was cloudy, the view was still fabulous – we could see portions of Ome City winding around the base of the mountains. Approximately another 1/3 of the way up the mountain, the cable car line ended at a little souvenir shop, cafe and, what in the U.S. we would call a “scenic overlook” area. We took a quick moment to take in the view before we began our 30-minute trek to the summit.
The walk began easy enough, through a beautiful red Torii gate set against a background of forested mountain side. As we walked through the gate, I was struck by the intense silence and peacefulness of the woods as well as the intense smell of evergreen. And although the sights, sounds and smells were incredible, it was more than that. There was a feeling, a sense of tranquility that just enveloped me – heart, mind and soul. This was a special place.
As we walked the path that hugged the forested mountainside, we observed beautiful flowers and stopped to take pictures, enjoy the view and, as the path got steeper and steeper, catch our breath. We had 30 minutes to make it to the summit, as the program started promptly (and in Japan promptly means promptly) at 3:00. Mao was slightly hindered by the heels she was wearing and I was more-than-slightly hindered by my age and being more-than-slightly out of shape. As we passed homes and inns and cafes and souvenir shops on this tiny, narrow path, I commented that the people who live and work here must be in good shape. You just can’t travel this steep path day in and day out and not be in good shape. The final 50 yards of our trek was a shopping “street” lined with quaint souvenirs shops and cafes. I was ready to take a rest and snap some pictures but Mao reminded me that we were on a tight time schedule…onward and upward!
I am sorry to say that by the time we reached the summit, the 300 steps to the Shrine looked too daunting for me. In addition, the program (beginning on a stage across from the Shrine) would soon begin. We really didn’t have time to climb the stairs and explore the Shrine but we did grab a quick snack and met a talking parrot!
We took our place in folding chairs set up in front of the stage, but behind tatami mats with large cushions for those who prefer to sit on them. The manager of the program welcomed us and the program began. The program consisted of three Geisha – two dancers with traditional white-faced makeup and one who played the shamisen (Japanese guitar-like instrument) who did not wear the white makeup. I wondered why the shamisen player did not wear the traditional makeup. Later, I learned that only dancers wore the white makeup.
The first song/dance featured the dancers carrying traditional Japanese lanterns and appeared to tell a serious story. I was intrigued by the grace, precision and mystery of the Geisha and wished I could understand the words of the song. Each performance told a story, some serious and somber, others seemed light-hearted and fun. As the program concluded, we were invited to a house behind the stage for Part II of the program which consisted of appetizers and sake and traditional Geisha games.
We proceeded to Part II and entered a large room set up with two long rows of tables. I attempted to take a place near the back of the room, but Mao rejected that choice and steered me to what was the equivalent of the front row. I knew this couldn’t be a good sign. As I rather clumsily took my place at the low-to-the-ground, sit-on-the-floor type table, I wished for the knees of a 20 year old and the short legs of…well, someone shorter. I wound my legs around and under the table hoping I wasn’t infringing on someone else’s leg room. Sake was poured and the host of the program explained (mostly for the Americans in the group) the tradition of the Japanese toast. We then raised our glasses and exclaimed, “Kanpai!” the Japanese equivalent of “cheers!” We were served appetizers consisting of Kyoho grapes (undeniably the sweetest, best grapes I have ever tasted), a cooked chestnut fruit (also delicious), some type of pickled mushroom and tofu and the fun began.
Immediately, I was grateful that we were on the front row (Mao always takes care of me!) as one of the Geisha sat down next to me for conversation Everyone exchanged pleasantries and the Geisha said we could ask her questions if we wanted. I couldn’t help staring at her makeup and hair. Remembering the geisha “pillows” of old (which looked more like torture devices), I asked about her hair. She laughed and said that it was a wig! Smart lady, I thought, as the style was so intricate it would be impossible to sleep on a soft pillow and maintain the style. Someone in the group asked her how much it costs, and she answered 350,000 yen ($3500) and I followed asking her how many she had – only 1 she replied. Other questions were asked, and we all laughed and visited for a few more minutes I have to admit that I always thought Geisha looked kind of scary with their somber expression (I like smiles), the stark white make-up and red eye shadow rimming their eyes. But now I really appreciate the hospitality and the true beauty of the Geisha.
After the Geisha made their rounds and visited with everyone, Geisha games began. In a traditional teahouse, this would allow the paying customer time to drink enough sake to lower inhibitions. The first game consisted of two individuals standing back to back with their heals on a large cushion. The object of the game is to push the other person off the pillow with your fanny – but – this is all set to music and song as participants act out cat gestures and at some point in the song, the fanny battle takes place. Of course, being on the front row, I was picked to participate but let my team down by getting knocked off almost immediately. Luckily Mao and some others redeemed our team and our team was declared the winner.
Unfortunately for the losing team, there is a “penalty” game. In this game, every member of the team stands up in the front of the room and sings a song (that I didn’t totally understand, but it was similar to the “alphabet song” in the U.S.). When the singers get to a certain letter in the song (in this case the letter was “K”), everyone had to turn their backs to the audience and attempt to draw this letter – with their fannies! Wow, lucky they weren’t using Kanji characters!
Another Geisha game involved a rhythmic game set to music where the participant had to react to quickly changing hand movements. The game involved picking up and putting down a designated object while continuing certain hand movements to the beat of music. When it was my turn, I did well at first but as the music got faster and faster, I couldn’t keep up. But at least our team did not have to do the fanny-drawing penalty game!
Our evening came to a close much too soon. Being on beautiful Mt. Mitake, experiencing the Geisha experience and spending time with a dear friend in this setting was truly a mountaintop experience for me. Tenku Geisha Night (tenku-geisha.com) will be offered again October 14, November 18 and December 9. Many Japanese and most Americans never get to experience a Geisha up close and personal – go if you can – the program is free, but you must have reservations.
Thank you Sawa and Mao for a fabulous, mountaintop experience – I love Japan!