The Artful Dance of Time: Discovering the Wisdom of Geishas in Japan

by Jeremy Tang

Geishas and the Beat of a Different Drum

In one of my trips to Japan I had the unique opportunity to participate in an event that was only held one night a year in the city of Kanazawa, about 6 hours drive or 3.5 hours bullet train ride from Tokyo. My wife and I were the only foreigners invited to this private event in which the 2 remaining geisha houses of Kanazawa performed together.

There’s different glamourised representations in movies of geishas that fail to convey the depth of the profession. Also the “geisha” that you might see in Kyoto are not real geisha given traditionally they shun being conspicuous in public. Nowadays it has evolved on two fronts, where in the 1920s it was estimated there was 90,000 geisha across the country, there’s estimated to be only a few hundred still practicing today. Secondly they have transformed into the last true custodians of traditional Japanese music, dance, and hospitality. In Kyoto and Kanazawa the term for geisha is actually geiko in the local dialect which means “woman of art”.

We were lucky enough to meet a geiko who could speak English, her name was Yuke. We learned that when she’s not performing at special functions or ceremonies she’s training 16 hours a day in the various arts that geisha are expected to master. The schedule is demanding but not frantic and she finds purpose in her work.

Watching Yuke and her colleagues dance and play musical instruments was a sublime demonstration of the graceful dedication to their art (at least until they made the mistake of asking me to play the drums).

This experience made me reflect on the concept of success and the paths we take to achieve it. In the bustling streets of Tokyo, speed and efficiency are often equated with productivity and success. Yet, in the tranquil presence of the geishas, I was reminded of the value of intentionality and the depth that comes with it.

In today’s high-speed world, we often rely on quick thinking and fast decisions — what psychologist Daniel Kahneman refers to as ‘System 1’ thinking. It’s instinctual and emotional, helping us navigate daily tasks efficiently (but not necessarily effectively). However, this can also lead to hasty decisions and a lack of depth in our thinking and understanding.

Geishas almost personify ‘System 2’ thinking in their meticulous practice and performances, where every movement is intentional and every decision, from their attire to their music, is made with thoughtful consideration.

Slowing down allows us to delve deeper into problems, understand others better, and make more informed decisions. It encourages us to be present and fully engaged in our tasks, leading to higher quality work and more meaningful interactions.

In a world that constantly pushes messages, social media posts and tasks on us all, how much of your daily life do you feel is driven by deliberate, intentional choices?

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