For many visitors to Japan, one of the most coveted cultural experiences is meeting a ‘Geisha’ (also ‘Geiko’ depending on the region) or an apprentice ‘Maiko’. For centuries, these impeccably skilled artisans have perfected and protected some of the finest and beautiful elements of Japanese tradition and culture; from music and dance to tea ceremony and calligraphy. Whilst it’s impossible for anyone outside the training houses to ever fully appreciate the life of a Geisha, many still flock to the streets of Gion in Kyoto or the Chaya districts of Kanazawa in the hope of catching even a glimpse into this highly private world.
What many do not yet realise is that you don’t actually have to travel as far as Kyoto for a precious moment of interaction with an authentic Maiko. You don’t even have to be a VIP!
Sakata City, Yamagata (酒田市)
The beautiful port-town of Sakata located at the northernmost tip of the Shonai region in Yamagata boasts a rich history and culture, often compared with that of the Kansai region of Western Japan. With a good 720-odd kilometers separating Sakata from the streets of Kyoto and Osaka, you’d be forgiven for questioning where these similarities come from!
Here is the low-down:
Around 300-350 years ago, Sakata was a bustling and prosperous port on the ‘Kitamaebune’ trade route; a trade route for merchant ships that began in Osaka, made its way through the Seto inland sea and stretched up along the coast of the Sea of Japan to Hokuriku, Tohoku and Hokkaido. Sakata was the centre of safflower trade (also known as benibana and used to make colourful dyes and cosmetics) on this route, along with other commodities such as rice and sake.
Today, legacies of this bustling and lavish period can still be seen everywhere throughout the city. A row of 12 traditional rice storehouses called ‘Sankyo Soko’ (pictured above) are probably the most recognisable legacy and a famous symbol of Sakata City (the ‘City of Rice’). Many visitors enjoy walking along the row of huge zelkova trees that stands behind the storehouses, their leafy shade intended to maintain a cool inside temperature (and also creating a great spot for photography).
There are also plenty of remnants of the high-flying life of ridiculously weathly merchants who cultivated the Sakata port-trade. The only building outshining their luxurious residences (see the Honma or Abumiya family residences) is the star of the show; the beautiful ‘Somaro’ Tea-house.
Somaro Tea-house (相馬楼)
The building of Somaro itself is stunning both inside and out, with its trademark red lacquer walls, elegant woodwork and a picturesque Japanese garden in the inner courtyard. Whilst photography inside is strictly limited, believe us when we say it is worth a visit! There are beautiful artworks by Takehisa Yumeji, a phenomenal collection of centuries-old Hina-ningyo (displays for the annual doll’s festival) and fascinating architecture which will take your breath away. It was registered as one of Japan’s Tangible Cultural Properties in 1996 and there are no surprises why.
But it’s not just the building which makes Somaro so special. It is located in what was once a lively shopping and entertainment district for the merchants and their families, with plenty of fancy ‘Ryotei’ restaurants where they would enjoy a traditional Maiko performance whilst dining (also a cultural influence of Kyoto). At its peak around 200 years ago, ‘Soma-ya’ was one of the most popular Ryotei for high-end customers. Today, Soma-ya has transformed from Ryotei to a tea-house called ‘Somaro’ and continues to be one of the best places in Japan to experience authentic Japanese cuisine and entertainment from the current generation of beautiful Sakata Maiko.
Sakata Maiko (酒田舞娘)
The Maiko at Somaro tea-house are trained intensively in dancing, Shamisen and tea ceremony among a range of other skills and art forms mastered by Geisha. If you are lucky enough, you might be able to watch (very discreetly) a Maiko in training as she artfully practices her dance routines under careful eye of her teacher; a far cry from craning your neck to catch a 3 second glimpse of a kimono-clad Maiko down an alley-way in Gion.
There are daily Maiko dance performances at 2pm every afternoon (except Wednesdays and public holidays) in the upper dining hall. The Maiko present a captivating repertoire of graceful dances to local folk songs.
The performance was one of those moments that will probably stay with me for a lifetime. I had to pinch myself as I gazed, transfixed by the graceful movements of the Maiko; yes, this is actually happening! It was a bit of an out of body experience. The ultimate Japanese cultural experience many can only dream of!
Visitors have the option of paying 3500 yen for both admission to the performance as well as a ‘Maiko Bento’ (Box lunch), or just admission for only 1000 yen (see further details below). If you want to opt for the lunch box, there are four different varieties to choose from, each containing local Sakata cuisine and presented to perfection. Please note that you need to call at least two days ahead to make a reservation!
Once the Maiko have finished their performance, you will also be given the rare opportunity to take pictures. You might even be granted permission to take some together! A selfie with a Maiko…now there’s something to add to your Japan bucket-list!
Want to visit Somaro but prefer the convenience of someone else doing all the booking for you? Enjoy a walk around the port area of Sakata AND visit to Somaro on this great tour from Travel Tohoku: Walking Tour of Sakata’s Old Town
Address: 〒998-0037 山形県酒田市日吉町一丁目舞娘坂
General Admission to Somaro itself: 700 yen
General Admission + Maiko Dance: 1,000 yen
General Admisison + Maiko Dance + Maiko Lunch: 3,500 yen (reservation required)
( a 10% discount is offered to groups of 15 or more.)
In addition to the above options, Somaro also offers the chance for guests to enjoy the local delicacies of Sakata with a private performance and time with the maiko. Please make a reservation in advance.
Reservations and Inquiries: