A Japanese Meal-Other Meals-Smoking and the Duty on Cigars-Japanese Music-Geisha Dancing-What Is a Geisha?-Their Refinement-Autumn Leaves-Filial Piety and Certain Horrors ThereofAS THE luncheon at the Maple Club was my first meal in the Japanese style I had not realized the volume of such a repast. I ate too much of the first few courses, and as result found myself unable to partake of the last two thirds of the feast. The amount of food was simply stupendous. I might have realized this in advance, and governed myself accordingly, had I looked at the menu. But I failed to do so until driven to it by my surprise as course after course was served. This was the bill of fare:
FIRST TABLEWhen this much had been served the nesans took up the little tables from in front of us and went trooping out of the room. As I had already eaten what amounted to about three normal dinners, I concluded that the meat was over, but not so. In they came again bearing other little lacquered tables of the same pattern as the first, but slightly smaller; whereupon, as it seemed to me, an entire second luncheon was served. The menu was as follows:
Hors d'æuvres-Vegetables Soup-terrapin with quail eggs and onions Baked fish with sea-hedgehog paste Raw fish with horseradish and eutrema root Fried prawns and deep-sea eels Duck, fish-cake and vegetables in egg soup, steamed Roast duck with relishes
SECOND TABLEI am told that indigestion is a prevalent ailment of the Japanese, and as regards prosperous persons who do no hard physical work I can readily believe it. The toiling coolie is the only man in Japan who might reasonably be expected to digest an elaborate Japanese meal, and he, of course, never gets one, but subsists almost entirely upon a diet of rice and fish.
Hors d'æuvres-Vegetables Fish consommé grilled eels Rice Pickled vegetables Fruits
Though some Japanese dishes are found palatable by Americans there are many things we miss in the Japanese cuisine. It lacks variety. Breakfast, luncheon, and dinner are composed of about the same dishes. The divers well-cooked vegetables which form such an important part of our diet are entirely absent from theirs, nor do they have stewed fruits, salads, sweets, or the numerous meats to which we are accustomed.
Of their best-known table delicacies it may be said that grilled eels with rice are very good; that the pink fish, the flesh of which is eaten raw, is pleasing to the eye and by no means unpalatable when dipped in the accompanying shoyu, a brown sauce not unlike Worcestershire, made from soy beans; that though they have no cream soups, some of their soups are pleasant to the taste, albeit they have the peculiarity of being either thin and watery on the one hand, or of the consistency of custard on the other; that bamboo shoots are rather tough, lily roots sweet and succulent, and quail eggs delicious. The Japanese, by the way, domesticate the quail for its eggs, regard the cow not as a milch animal but as a beast of burden, and cultivate the cherry tree not for its fruit but for its flower.
The diet of ancient Japan was even less varied than that of to-day, for more than a thousand years ago the Japanese became vegetarians, and for some centuries thereafter adhered scrupulously to the Buddhistic injunction against killing living creatures. For several hundred years they even abjured fish, but by degrees they have fallen away from the strict observance of the vegetarian doctrine, until to-day a Japanese who is at all sophisticated will thoroughly enjoy a dinner in the European style, beef and all. Indeed many of those who have travelled abroad and acquired a taste for foreign cookery make it a point to have at least one of their daily meals prepared in the foreign fashion.
Government officials or wealthy cosmopolitans who entertain on a large scale usually do so in the European manner. A banquet at the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo is much like a banquet in New York, and one at the Bankers' Club is even more so, except that the meal itself is likely to be better than at our banquets. To dine with a large gathering at the Peers' Club is like dining at some great club or official residence in Paris; while as for the cocktail hour at the Tokyo Club I cannot imagine anything in the world more completely and delightfully international.
An important part of the equipment for a meal in the pure Japanese style is a smoker's outfit, consisting of a tray on which stands a small urn of live charcoal, and a bamboo vase with a little water in it-the former for lighting the tobacco, the latter a receptacle for ashes. The native smoke is a tiny pipe, called a two-and-a-half-puff pipe, with a bowl as small as a child's thimble. Finely shredded Japanese tobacco is smoked in this pipe, which is used by men and women alike, and the constant refilling and relighting of it seem to figure as a part of the pleasure of smoking. The Japanese smoke cigarettes also, and cigars, but the tobacco industry of Japan, like that of France, is a government monopoly, with the result that, as in France, good cigarettes and cigars are difficult to obtain.
A visit to a government tobacco factory left me with the impression that, from the point of view of management, mechanical equipment, and perhaps also labour conditions, the plant would compare not unfavourably with some large tobacco manufactories in our own Southern States; but as to the product of this factory, the best of which I sampled, I can pretend to no enthusiasm. Japanese tobacco goes well enough in the little native pipes, but it does not make good cigarettes or cigars, and even the cigarettes made of blended tobaccos, or from pure Virginia or Egyptian leaves, would hardly satisfy a critical taste. Cigars made in Japan are uniformly poor, like the government-made cigars of France, but whereas in France it is possible to buy a good imported Havana, I found none for sale in Japan. One reason for this is that the duty on cigars is 355 per cent., so that only a millionaire can afford good Havanas
Whether because the enormous luncheon at the Maple Club left me in a stupor, or because my mind could not adjust itself quickly to appreciation of an unfamiliar and extremely curious art, I did not find myself enchanted by the shrill falsetto singing of the geisha musicians, or the strange sounds they evoked from the samisen, fife and drums, as they accompanied the dancers.
The native Japanese music, with its crude fivetone scale, is demonstrably inferior to that of Western peoples. To the foreign ear it is unmelodious, even barbarous, and yet I must say for it that the more I heard it the more I felt in it a kind of weird appeal-an appeal not to the ear but to the imagination. Even now, when I am far away from Japan, a note or two struck on a guitar, a mandolin, or a ukulele, in imitation of the samisen, conjures up vivid pictures in my mind. I see a narrow geisha street, with a musician seated in an upper window, or I get a vision of a geisha dancer arrayed in brilliant silks, posturing, fan in hand, against a background of gold screens, in the exquisitely chaste simplicity of a Japanese teahouse room. The sound that evokes the picture is not harmonius, but the picture itself is harmonious beyond expression.
One thing that, sometimes makes the stranger in Japan slow to appreciate the dancing of geisha, is the very fact that it is called dancing; for the term suggests to us a picture of Pavlowa poised like a swiftly flying bird, or Genée looking like a bisque doll and spinning on one toe. Dancing, to us, means, first of all, rhythm. We look for rhythm in a geisha dance, and failing to find it-at least in the sense in which we understand the meaning of the word-we are baffled. It is only one more case of preconception as a barrier to just appreciation.
Many travellers, and at least one author who has written a book on Japan, have made the mistake of confusing geisha with prostitutes. This is a gigantic error. The error is kept alive by ricksha coolies who, understanding that it is a common mistake of foreigners, often use the term "geisha house" as meaning an establishment of altogether different character. A geisha house is in fact simply a house in which geisha live under charge of the master or mistress to whom they are bound by contract or indenture. Geisha are booked through exchanges and meet their patrons at restaurants or teahouses. When not on duty they are private citizens, and it would be considered the height of vulgarity for a man to call upon a geisha at the geisha house, however innocent the purpose of his call.
A further reason for the erroneous idea of what a geisha is, lies in the fact that Western civilization has no equivalent class. Geisha correspond more nearly to cabaret entertainers than to any other class we have, yet even here there is no real parallel. It is not customary in Japan-except in foreignstyle hotels-to dine in public. If a man be alone in a hotel he dines by himself in his room, save that the little nesans who serve him will try to make themselves agreeable and that the proprietor may do the same. Or if a man gives a luncheon or a dinner party at a restaurant he will have a private room. Therefore, under the Japanese system, there is never a general assemblage of persons, strangers to one another, who may be entertained as a body while they are dining. Thus the geisha is a private entertainer, and in order that the most desirable geisha may be secured it is customary to make arrangements for a luncheon or dinner several days in advance. This is usually done through the proprietor of the restaurant, who is told the names of the geisha the host desires to summon, and who notifies them through the local geisha exchange.
Men who frequently lunch and dine out naturally become acquainted with many geisha, and have their preferences; and if a host knows that one of his guests particularly likes a certain geisha he will generally try to arrange to have her at his party.
There are three classes of geisha. Those of the best class frequently have good incomes. They are often given large presents by their wealthy patrons, and many of them are the mistresses of men of means, who sometimes take them off on week-end outings and spend a great deal of money on them.
However this may be, a geisha of the first class is a creature of exquisite refinement of manner, and there is about her not the faintest suggestion of coarseness. She will be friendly, even pleasantly familiar, but never, in public, is she guilty of the slightest impropriety. I have been to many gay parties in Japan, but I have never seen a geisha or her patron behave in a way that would shock the most fastidious American lady. Naturally the situation is somewhat different among low-class Japanese and the geisha they patronize. There are vulgar geisha to entertain vulgar men. But even a low-class geisha, if sent for in an emergency to entertain a man of taste, will often be sufficiently clever to adjust herself to the situation.
During the meal the geisha will sit before or beside the gentleman she is designated to entertain, chatting with him, amusing him and serving him with saké. Afterward she will join the other geisha in giving an entertainment, the part she takes in this depending upon her special talent, which may be for singing, playing, or dancing. Pretty young geisha are most often dancers, while those who are older are generally musicians. Also there are some geisha who are merely bright and pleasing and who succeed without other accomplishments. The host, making up a party, selects his geisha with these various requirements in mind, so that his whole company of geisha will be well balanced.
Foreigners are generally most taken with the little dancing girls, or maiko, who are mere children, and who with their sweet, bright, happy little faces, and their bewitchingly brilliant flowered-silk costumes, are altogether fascinating. Once at a party in a great house in Tokyo I saw a score of these little creatures scampering down a broad flight of stairs, making a picture that was like nothing so much as a mass of autumn leaves blown by a high wind.
These children are in effect apprentices who are being schooled in the geisha's arts. Often they are in this occupation because their parents have sold them into it as a means of raising money. With the older geisha it is frequently the same. The Japanese teaching of filial piety makes it incumbent upon a daughter to become a geisha, or even a prostitute, to relieve the financial distress of her parents. In either case she goes under contract for a term of years-usually three.
A girl who is refined, pretty, and talented can raise a sum in the neighbourhood of a thousand dollars by becoming a geisha, but if she is not sufficiently talented or attractive to be a geisha, her next resource is the "nightless city." The opening to women of professional and commercial opportunities should tend to improve this situation.
I am told that geisha and the little dancing girls are generally kindly treated by the geisha-masters, and the gaiety they exhibit leads me to conclude that this is true. The little dancers, in particular, want but slight encouragement to become as playful as kittens.