Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The Rise and Fall of Atami: A Geisha Story (really)

There have been some mightily incredible changes in Japanese society over the past few hundred years. The Meiji Restoration saw the end of the Shogunate, the restoration of the Emperor to the throne, and the opening of Japan to trade with the west. In short, the Meiji Restoration is kind of like the boundary between Samurai and Sony. Oh, and there was that whole "World War II" bit, the end of which wrought massive changes in Japanese society. Particularly, the resignation of "godhood" by the Emperor (aka the separation of the church and the state), a reorganization of business world, and a change in morals and attitudes that seems hard to fathom - namely the switch from an Imperial Power to an almost entirely pacifist nation with a definite thirst for certain aspects of western culture.

These are fascinating subjects, and I highly encourage you to read up on them in a place that is more informative and at least 82392% more carefully researched than the above boondagle, which was somewhat pulled out of my neither regions.


Interestingly, I am most often aware of the changes steming from a less well known period: the collapse of the Bubble Era. The Bubble Era, as it is known in Japan, traces its origins to the post war "economic miracle" through and extends to its peak in the 1980s. At the end of this era of unprecidented prosperity, the Japanese Economy seemed poised to overtake the US as the top industrial power in the world. Japanese business groups were favoured by the government, protected from foreign influence and staffed with a legion of tirelessly loyal salarymen in matching dark suits. Much like the pre-war "zaibatsu" conglomerates, these "keiretsu" were huge business empires. They were essential in transforming a society ravaged by war into one that was unrivaled in efficiency, manufacturing capability and general productivity across the industrial spectrum. In exchange for working fourteen hour work days and the decision to put work before all else, Japanese salarymen of the Bubble Era were promised lifetime employment, large salaries and massive yearly bonuses with which to reward neglected families (or buy new golf clubs.)

The incredibly high wages, combined with a shortage of hours in which to spend all that cash, led to the creation of a lot of high cost, high luxury leisure options designed to provide workers with the largest bangs for the largest number of bucks. These included everything from executives eating gold sprinkled food to the prevalence of hostess clubs and the construction of a whole slew of high-luxury day trip vacations spots.

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Entire towns sprung up to provide a consumer culture with all of the wonderful toys and joys that too much money and not enough sense bring. The little town of Atami, just under an hour by Shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo, is one such place. An ocean side town situated on top of a large amount of volcanically hated water, Atami is a picturesque valley that has been paved and built up with various high rises, resorts and hotels. I've been told that many of the hotels are designed around group travel; huge dining halls and massive sleeping quarters fill the hotels, and are perfect for large company outings.

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After all, if you dedicate your life to one firm, you definitely want to party with all of your life-mates from the office. Geishas, Onsens (hot springs), a beach and lots of wonderful mountain hiking to do help seal the appeal of this town as the perfect place to spend lots of cash with your work buddies.

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Yes, ladies and gentlemen, Atami had it all - sights... money...glamour...and a primo place in the phone book.


Then, in the late 90s, it all came crashing down.

The economy stagnated, people's lifetime employment and astoundingly high salaries suddenly vanished. Suddenly, there were no more groups of drunken salary men making the shinkansen trip out to take in a geisha show, relax in an onsen, and perhaps even fantasize the night away with one of the so called "onsen geisha" - women who were known to have much less talent and much more horizontal availablity than their traditional perfomer namesakes.

Japanese workers became much more careful with their vacation time and dollars, preferring instead to save up for longer, more exotic jaunts across the country or around the world. No longer did they want to spend every waking hour with their work compatriots. Thus, Atami fell out of favour. The big rooms sat empty, and the geisha suddenly found themselves without their usual audience. The onsen geisha presumably moved and set up shop closer to paying, ah... bathers.

The thing is, though, that even if the customers dry up, you can hardly fold up the buildings. The onsens are still full of luxurious hot water, and the views are still just as spectacular.

After you've gone to the trouble of building hot water fountains where vacationers can boil their own eggs in the volcanic water as a snack...

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Where do you go? What do you do?

Adapt, of course. Change with the times. The luxury hotels with the large rooms, and the onsens in the basements? Well, with some changes to the plumbing and some refurbishing, you can definitely transform a luxury hotel into a luxury condominum. Perhaps you can lure people out to live a more leisurely, less spendthrift life in a place that they once only visited in an explosive orgy of spending*.

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This makes for some changes in the environment, but Atami has retained a few of the shining bits of its former self. Namely, the Geishas.

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Now, things have presumably changed a bit. My friends and I were able to enjoy an hour long geisha show for a just over 1000 yen. Ten dollars, ladies and gentlemen, and you too can enjoy the dancing and performance skills of some of Atami's wonderfully skilled traditional entertainers.


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For an hour, you and a room full of camera toting Japanese folk can travel back in time. Whether you want to head back to the far past through the stories presented silently on stage, or you want to think back to the wealth that floated around on the bubble, you can travel back in Atami. On the stage at least, little has changed.

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Unfortunately, this also includes the performers. Some of them were a tad older than I expected.

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And WAAAY angrier.

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Now, they did have one or two cute ones.

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She remained cute in my eyes until she smiled at me after the show. I've never actually winced so badly, but her chompers were a mishapen mix of yellows and browns that would make a horse blanche. Egad. I've seem some rough dentures in this land, but she took the first prize with just the top half.

Anyway, the show itself was fascinating, and lent itself very well to making up my own "Desperate Housewives (in kimonos)" stories...

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"Great job with the fire drill, Keiko! Do you think we'd be could faster next time if we could take bigger steps...?"


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"Wanna trade fans for a bit? We can be like sisters!!! BFFs forever???!??? Prettty Please?"


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"How come my fan doesn't do that clickey thing?"

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"Is this really the best way to dry my laundry, Hiro?"

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"STOP IT! YOU'RE SCREWING UP MY TIMING!"


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"We're on a HIIIIIIIIIIIGH WAAAAAAAY TO HEEELLLLLL!!!! DA DA DA!!!"

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"OH YEAH?!?! I learned *this* from E. Honda!"


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"I hope nobody heard that... I'm so embarrassed."


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"I know Kung fu."
"Show me".


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"Free of independent thought since 2003!"




Of course, now you have to deal with people making a big stupid deal out of things.
Still, the geisha were wonderfully willing to take pictures with the tourists.

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Even the really ridiculous tourists.

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I think there's hope for Atami yet - it's more than worth the trip.

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On the regular train, anyway.





*JAPANESE help, for a change:

Zaibatsu - "financial clique". These are the five big companies that basically controled most of the Japanese economy in the period before WWII. Mitsubishi is perhaps the best known outside of Japan. Although these were theoretically broken up after WWII, there are still major bits and pieces here and there that continue the business tradition.

Keiretsu - the more recent conglomerate structure. These are groups of Japanese companies that work together in everything from technology sharing to cross share ownership, the latter is designed to protect Japanese firms from foreign takeover.



A note about "OLD" geishas: Actually, the stereotype of the geisha that we have in the west is based on a Maiko. These apprentice geisha are mostly found around Kyoto, and are the pretty young things we hope they all are. The rest are...well...dancers. You're not supposed to try to hit on them anyway, right?


English help:
* Explosive orgy of spending: spending a lot of money on crazy thinges. Ie. "onsen geisha"

More English help is forthcoming. Post your word questions if you want a faster answer, and I'll explain things.

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