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The Kamogawa Odori Geisha Dance
The spring dances of Kyoto offer a rare glimpse of Geisha performances
David Michael Weber (crossfire)     Print Article 
Published 2006-07-04 14:56 (KST)   
A young Maiko (Geisha Apprentice) performing in the Kamogawa Odori
©2006 D.Weber
VODJapanese traditional dancing perfomance / David Weber

True geisha dance performances are rare events that one can only witness if they are part of the affluent clientele of Kyoto's elusive Geisha tea houses or if they are fortunate enough to procure a seat at one of the annual public performances given in Spring and Fall.

Spring dances are traditional events held every year to celebrate the ending of winter. Most of the year, the general public only has the chance to occasionally spy geisha as they scurry along the streets of Gion and Pontocho to their assignments. These spring dances represent a chance for the public to see the geisha in all their glory performing ancient traditional dances.

Before the performance guests may observe a tea ceremony
©2006 D.Weber
The Kamogawa Odori is a geisha dance performance presented in the late spring in the Pontocho district of Kyoto. Pontocho is one of Kyoto's few remaining geisha districts, the most famous being Gion. The Pontocho district has been putting on their Kamogawa Odori since 1872.

The Kamogawa Odori is perhaps the most famous of the spring dances. It has certainly attained international attention attracting the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Jean Cocteau.

Every year a new performance is put on based on a variety of traditional Japanese stories. The first performance was a love story set in Kyoto sometime in the distant past.

The young ladies fight over the handsome fan maker
©2006 D.Weber
The story revolves around Kasumimura, a young handsome man (played by a geisha) who makes fans. He is quite popular with the ladies, but his heart is set on only one girl, Akane, to whom he proposes marriage. One of his highborn clients is not satisfied to let him go so easily.

The noble lady lures the handsome Kasumimura to her residence with the promise of work. She wants a special fan made with a portrait of herself drawn upon it. As he follows the noble lady's carriage to her abode, the weather suddenly becomes colder and snow flakes begin to fall ominously.

The noble lady reveals to Kasumimura that she is the dreaded Yuki-Onna, the snow woman spirit. Yuki-Onna offers her love, but Kasumimura bravely declines. Yuki-Onna's love, however, is not easily cast aside. Her loves freezes the hapless fan maker.

Yuki Onna: the Snow Woman

Yuki-Onna, the snow woman, is winter manifested in a deadly, ghostly form. She is depicted as all white with long black hair wearing a white kimono -- beautiful but deadly like winter itself. And like winter, Yuki-Onna was cruel and ruthless in killing unlucky souls caught in her icy realm. She was particularly known for killing mortals by either breathing upon them with her icy breath or simply leading them astray so they would die of exposure.

Yuki-Onna is best remembered from author Lafcadio Hearn's Kwaiden, a collection of various strange and ghostly tales. She attacks two men in a lone hut in the wilderness but spares one because of his youth and good looks. / David M Weber
His fiance, Akane, comes and rescues him. Through the strength of her love, Akane is able to defeat Yuki-Onna and revive Kasumimura. Yuki-Onna, heartbroken, weeps warm tears and melts away as winter slowly comes to an end.

Akane and Yuki-Onna fight over Kasumimura's love
©2006 D.Weber
The fan maker and his brave fiance return and spring comes to Kyoto. Here again is a vibrant echo from that ancient theme of the coming of spring and the ending of winter. Thousands of years ago, in Ancient Mesopotamia, stories were told about the goddess Ishtar visiting the underworld to free her love and subsequently end winter.

Kasumimura returns as Springs begins
©2006 D.Weber
The second half of the performance was a series of dances representing a selection from the 11th century Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon. At the beginning of her book, Sei Shonagon, an imperial court lady, wrote about the four seasons and the times of day of each season that she enjoyed the most.

Sei Shonagon
Observant and Opinionated Court Lady

Curtain representing the seasons
D.Weber

Sei Shonagon was a lady-in-waiting at the Japanese Imperial Court in the beginning of the 11th Century. She kept a personal diary of sorts in which she wrote down her experiences but mainly her feelings. Such diaries were common at the time and were called pillow books because these books were often kept next to people's pillows in which they would write their experiences and observations. The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon gives an invaluable insight into the world of the Imperial Court of Kyoto a thousand years ago. Sei Shonagon's observations are witty, wry, poignant, and at times condescending. Sei Shonagon was a contemporary - however, not a friend - of the famed novelist Murasaki Shikibu who wrote The Tale of the Genji. / David M Weber


Young maiko (apprentice geisha) dance in kimonos the color of cherry blossoms
©2006 D.Weber
In spring it is the dawn that is most beautiful. As the light creeps over the hills their outlines are dyed a faint red and wisps if purplish cloud trail over them.

A Geisha dancer representing summer nights
©2006 D.Weber
In summer the nights. Not only when the moon shines, but on dark nights too, as fireflies flit to and fro...

Autumn evenings
©2006 D.Weber
In autumn the evenings ... when the sun sets, one's heart is moved by the sound of the wind and the hum of the insects.

A Geisha plays as a servant working on a winter morning
©2006 D.Weber
In winter the early mornings -- the attendants hurry from room to room stirring up fires and bringing charcoal; how well this fits the season's mood!


The Kamogawa Odori is held every May. For those who wish to see authentic geisha performances, the Kamogawa Odori shouldn't be missed.

The finale
©2006 D.Weber

©2006 OhmyNews
A native Tennesseean, David M. Weber is currently at the grammatical grindstone cranking out gerunds, dangling modifiers and perfecting tenses as an English teacher in Japan. In his travels, he has hiked the Inca Trail, been mugged in Mexico City, broke his leg in Switzerland, attempted to bike through Mexico and failed, climbed Pyramids in Egypt and Mexico, drank great quantities of beer at Oktoberfest and gambled at Monte Carlo.
Other articles by reporter David Michael Weber

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