Travelling with kids: Geisha in Gion gets daughters giggling

Shoba Narayan

March 6, 2014 Updated: March 6, 2014 14:56:00

It is sunset in Gion, the geisha district in Kyoto. Red lanterns sway in the breeze. Beautifully dressed geisha hurry to their appointments. We are sitting in a Japanese restaurant so exclusive it doesn’t even have a name. A slew of dishes, each more esoteric than the last, appear. There is young tofu; rice balls specked with black sesame seeds; translucent soups with unidentified floating objects; and wobbly substances containing ingredients that we can only speculate on.

My two daughters, aged 8 and 12, look more dispirited with every passing minute. Ahead of us, a geisha is playing a stringed instrument, its mournful sound matching our moods. My husband glances at me worriedly. What are we going to do?

Some cultures are accessible to kids. Others are not. America with its parades and Fourth of July fireworks is the ultimate kiddie vacation: open, easy to understand and containing uncomplicated pleasures. Africa can be accessed and understood through its animal migrations. Austria through movies such as The Sound of Music.

Some cultures, though, don’t make it easy for children. How to understand Russia without knowing its ballet forms or chess? How to understand Argentina without knowing the tango? How to understand Japan without knowing its art forms? This is the quandary my husband and I are in.

We are in Kyoto, one of the most refined cities of the world to experience a culture that has much to offer. As someone who loves calligraphy, flower arrangement and the ceramic arts, it is important for me that my daughters learn to love Japan. How to do it is the question? Unlike fast food or Disneyland that can be had in quick, easy gulps, Japan demands patience and an understanding of nuance.

We choose to access Kyoto through its most visible element: the geisha. There are travel agencies that connect us to this world through learning sessions.

My daughters and I go to a small studio where they dress us up in kimonos and teach us how to walk like graceful geisha.

The restaurant we are in is the logical next step. It offers an expensive meal in exchange for a close encounter with the geisha kind. So here we are, sitting cross-legged on a tatami mat, listening to music and experiencing culture in a way that can only seem excruciatingly boring to my young kids. My husband and I reconcile ourselves to a long evening after which there will be snarls of accusation from the girls, when something happens. The geisha begins to play.

She begins with a song; a rhyme really. “Kompina hune hune oy tori …” She teaches my daughters the Japanese version of the game Rock, Paper, Scissors.

Before long, the girls are engrossed in the game, holding hands, touching the geisha, giggling with her and pushing each other in excitement.

My husband and I glance at each other. The evening isn’t lost. Maybe the US$150 (Dh551) a head that we paid for the meal is worth it after all. We haven’t touched the food but we will not forget the games with the geisha.

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