Ozashiki-asobi are party games played with geisha, activities that have developed in every hanamachi entertainment district since the Edo period (1603-1867). Geisha's patrons can enjoy such games at banquets where the performers dance and sing - a great way to get away from daily life and experience traditional culture at the same time.
Efforts to preserve such traditional entertainment have been growing recently. The Kyoto city government selected the culture of hanamachi as an intangible cultural heritage last year, while the Japan Ozashiki-Asobi Association, whose members include devotees of this form of entertainment, plans to hold a large banquet in Tokyo in February that will give people the chance to participate.
"Anyone can enjoy ozashiki-asobi. It's recently become popular even among groups of young women and foreign tourists," said Megumi Kimura, 53, who runs an okiya geisha house called Yukinoe. The house is located in Hachioji, Tokyo, where hanamachi culture still survives.
Kimura was born in Tokyo in 1962, and changed her career from company employee to geisha about 30 years ago. She works under her professional name, Megumi, and also heads a geisha association in Hachioji. She has been engaged in efforts to maintain hanamachi culture.
I took part in a banquet held by the Japan Ozashiki-Asobi Association in early November at Suzuka, a Japanese restaurant in Hachioji. First, I tried tosenkyo, a fan-tossing game. Players toss a fan toward a target shaped like a ginkgo leaf, which is placed on a paulownia box one or two meters away.
This is not merely a game of aiming for a target. A unique aspect is that the points scored by each player vary depending on the position of the fan after it has been thrown, the target and the box. The scores are named after chapters in "The Tale of Genji," such as the 100-point "Yume no Ukihashi" (Floating bridge of dreams) and the 85-point "Kocho" (Butterflies). The names of scores and other elements differ among regions and schools.
"It's an elegant game, isn't it?" Megumi said.
Tora-tora (tiger-tiger) is essentially a game of rock, paper, scissors played with the entire body. The hand signs are replaced by gestures imitating a tiger, an old woman and a samurai - the characters in "Kokusenya Kassen" (The Battle of Coxinga), a joruri puppet ballad drama written by Chikamatsu Monzaemon. Players have to hide behind either side of a screen until the end of the game, and the way they assume the poses to the tunes of singing geisha evokes laughter.
As ozashiki-asobi is often referred to as "entertainment for sophisticated patrons of geisha," some people might feel a little timid. However, "as geisha explain how to play the games, it will be alright if visitors know simple etiquette and manners," Megumi said.
Participants are advised to wear kimono or suits. While playing games, suit jackets can be removed, but ties should remain on.
Proper communication with geisha is also important. "There are geisha of all ages, so it's good to call them 'onesan' (big sister)," Megumi advised. You can never touch geisha's clothes or bodies. While you are watching games, you should enjoy them and behave elegantly, without doing such things as standing on zabuton seat cushions. If you cannot drink much alcohol, you should tell the geisha in advance. Penalties for people who lose in games will be changed from drinking sake to things like writing characters with their hips.
"There are more than 50 kinds of ozashiki-asobi games. Please relax and enjoy," Megumi said.
Clean socks recommended
There are increasing numbers of banquets including ozashiki-asobi being held at Japanese restaurants and hotels. Because such entertainment is becoming common, it is advisable to pay attention to your socks.
Megumi recommends participants change into new socks or tabi split-toe socks when entering tatami rooms. "As [participants] move a lot during the games, other people can easily see your feet. Socks with a hole or tabi with stains are considered inelegant. You'd better prepare new socks, if possible," she said.