A Kyoto business operator provides foreign tourists with “ozashiki asobi” (geisha entertainment) in the city's geisha district, while historic Ninnaji temple offers overnight stays. (The Asahi Shimbun)

KYOTO--Kyoto may be overrun with tourists these days, dashing from one temple to another, but for the discerning outsider other treats are in store--if they have deep pockets.

Among cultural experiences not generally accessible even to Japanese is the chance to be entertained by geisha in a restaurant that is the preserve of the elite or spend the night at a World Heritage temple in a lodging facility packed with fabulous treasures, although both come at an eye-popping price.

A Kyoto business operator is targeting well-heeled foreign visitors eager to spend a few hours with geisha at establishments that are strictly off-limits to all but the privileged few, or explore their spiritual side in surroundings that mere mortals can only dream of doing.

MONEY TALKS

It turns out there is considerable demand for the opportunity to sample these aspects of Japanese culture that are beyond the reach of the average person.

The heart of Kyoto’s geisha culture is the Gion district, where the traditional rule of “ichigen-san okotowari” is strictly enforced.

Although that translates as no first-time customers allowed, what it really means is only newcomers who are vouched for by a patron in good standing will be permitted entry to the establishment.

And yet, foreign tourists increasingly are enjoying private parties with geisha.

One evening in late November, Steve Williams, 58, and his 60-year-old wife, who are from the U.S. state of Montana, could be found sitting cross-legged in an “ozashiki” tatami-floored banquet room of an upscale geisha restaurant being entertained by “maiko” apprentice geisha Yuriha and “geiko” (geisha) Mahori.

Laughter filled the room as words were exchanged both in English and Japanese. Even though the city usually bustles with tourists, it was an unfamiliar sight.

The couple had some difficulty using chopsticks, but clearly enjoyed sipping high-grade sake rice wine and devouring beautifully served Japanese cuisine, such as spinach seasoned with sesame seeds and mackerel sushi. They peppered the geisha with questions. They wanted to know how one becomes a maiko and what it takes to reach full-fledged geisha status. The Japanese interpreter sitting next to them was kept busy.

After a while, Yuriha, who she said was in her second year as a maiko, artfully performed “Rokudan Kuzushi” and “Gion Kouta” dance movements typically offered in ozashiki, to which Mahori sang and played the "samisen," a traditional stringed instrument.

The couple were enthralled as Yuriha, wearing pink kimono and autumn foliage-themed hair ornaments, danced close to where they were sitting.

Afterward, the interpreter said that an appreciative Williams told Yuriha that she would “be a superstar,” to which she replied in her Kyoto accent, “I’m glad.”

Before the party wound up, everybody enjoyed a well-known ozashiki cup-grabbing game called “Konpira Fune-fune.”

CLOSED TO MOST

In geisha districts, according to a long-standing tradition still practiced today, first-time customers must be accompanied by regular patrons to build trust before they can visit exclusive geisha restaurants on their own. Such activities are beyond the realm of most Japanese.

Williams and his wife secured entry into the geisha world with the help of Exclusive Kyoto, which provides wealthy foreign tourists with geisha entertainment.

Accompanied by an interpreter, foreign guests get to spend up to three hours in the presence of geisha and maiko, eating exquisite Kyoto-style food, chatting with geisha and maiko and appreciating their dance and other entertainment. A pickup and drop-off service is also available.

Venues and fees are not disclosed. The fees cover having geisha sent to a venue, hiring a guide and providing meals, with the amount being equal or more than the cost charged for regulars.

Still, Williams felt it was a good deal.

“It's no different, really, from paying for expensive tickets when going to the opera in the United States and Europe," Williams said, adding that he felt the cost of the evening was "very fair" in light of the private surroundings where geisha and maiko showed off their skills honed over many years.

Prior to the trip, Williams searched online after his wife told him she wanted to meet real geisha and converse directly with them.

Initially, all he found were ozashiki experiences that are offered for those on group tours, and hardly constitute the real thing. He kept plugging away because they wanted to experience a genuine ozashiki party in a more private space. And that's how he eventually came across the service provided by Exclusive Kyoto.

FILLING A NEED

The operations of Exclusive Kyoto are headed by Kenji Sawada, who also runs a business selling smartphone SIM cards to foreign nationals.

Sawada said he came up with the idea of Exclusive Kyoto in 2016 after talking with city officials about the problems they had encountered giving foreign tourists staying at exclusive hotels the opportunity to experience the “real Kyoto.” They were also struggling to nurture Japanese interpreter/guides.

Sawada grew up in Kyoto, and was well acquainted with the geisha districts of Gion Kobu, Gion Higashi, Kamishichiken and Miyagawacho, having patronized establishments there on more than 300 occasions.

“Although I’m far younger than other patrons, I wanted to do something to support the geisha districts as customers are all advancing in years,” said Sawada, 45.

Sawada makes no bones about the fact his services are intended for wealthy tourists.

“We don't accept those who make one-sided demands during their initial inquiry,” Sawada said, adding that dozens of groups have used the service, many of them Westerners.

He is planning to spin off Exclusive Kyoto’s operations into a separate company this year.

“Right now Kyoto is inundated with too many tour tourists, and many visitors are not getting a really good immersive experience of Japanese culture,” Sawada said. “I am trying to meet the needs of wealthy customers who want to have genuine Kyoto experiences.”

BIG BUCKS

In the same vein, an ancient temple closely associated with the imperial family now allows ordinary visitors to spend the night in a fabulous setting and at a fabulous cost: 1 million yen ($8,900).

The figure is not a misprint.

The temple, Ninnaji, in the city’s Ukyo Ward, was founded in 888 by Emperor Uda. Members of the imperial family and their associates have served as chief priest over the centuries.

Ninnaji, the head temple of the Omuro school of the Shingon sect, is renowned for its principal deity, a Seated Amida Nyorai with Standing Flanking Attendants. The statue is designated by the central government as a national treasure. The temple owns many other cultural properties and assets of great value.

It is also famous for “Omuro zakura” cherry trees that reach full bloom at the end of spring. The temple was designated as a World Heritage site in 1994.

The lodging fee of 1 million yen per night might sound ruinously expensive, then again, it is only intended for those who can afford to splurge.

The temple said it had received a flurry of inquiries from overseas after it started accepting overnight guests from spring last year. To date, five or so groups from the United States and elsewhere have stayed.

THE RICH AND FAMOUS

“We even received an inquiry from someone whom you least expect,” said Ryujun Oishi, who oversees the temple's daily operations.

Oishi also said that the first guest who stayed as the temple was a “world-class celebrity” who wanted to remain anonymous.

Guests are accommodated at Shorin-an, a two-story wooden structure built in the Sukiya architectural style in the premises of Ninnaji.

Limited to one group of guests of up to five individuals per night, the facility was renovated from an old house that hadn’t been used for many years into a “shukubo” temple lodging at a cost of 160 million yen.

Chairs and a sofa are placed inside a tatami-floored Japanese room to make it easier for foreign visitors to relax. Visitors can also relieve the weariness of traveling by taking a bath in a tub made of “hinoki” cypress wood. Some of the temple's many treasures are also on display.

In addition, guests are given a free rein to roam the lavish Goten main building by themselves at night. The building had been used by the successive generations of head priests as an office and as a venue for important rituals. The building is called Goten, which means palace, because its design is reminiscent of an old imperial palace and the temple had connections with the imperial family.

For an additional fee and advance notice, guests are treated to a performance of “gagaku” ancient court music inside the palace. They can also gain hands-on experience transcribing sutra and try flower arrangement.

The temple started to offer the lodging service for wealthy foreign visitors in an effort to cover part of the costs for maintenance and repair of the temple.

MISSING OUT

Different from other temples, Ninnaiji has no "danka" parishioners who financially support it.

Although Kyoto bustles with tourists throughout the year, the number of visitors to the temple dropped by nearly 30 percent in 2017 from 2012, resulting in a drop in tourist-related revenue such as admission fees.

The number of visitors plunged partly because its Kannon-do hall, traditionally a popular sightseeing spot, is undergoing repairs.

With funds available under current budget restraints, temple officials can only afford to maintain and manage its national treasures and important cultural properties with the help of state subsidies.

This means there is no extra cash to funnel into repairs of buildings and other assets.

About 80 percent of the renovation costs for the Shorin-an lodge were covered by grants provided by the Nippon Foundation under its Iroha Nihon Project.

The program was started in 2016 to promote a deeper appreciation of Japan and its cultural properties by carrying out repairs to disused buildings and other structures at temples and shrines to provide visitors with cultural experiences they can’t get anywhere else.

A foundation official explained that the 1-million-yen fee at Ninnaji is not just an accommodation charge, adding, "It is also a way for people to spend valuable time in surroundings that are not available anywhere else.”

The temple donates 20 percent of the fee to the foundation, which uses the funds to repair other cultural properties.

Given that shukubo-style operations are a profit-making enterprise approved by the city government as a hotel business, income derived from such activities is naturally taxable.

It doesn’t mean the temple can pocket the entire 1 million yen.

EARLY DAYS

Among the visitors to take advantage of the shukubo-style lodging in the early days was a Japanese family of four living in the Kansai region, comprising an elementary school girl with an intractable disease, her mother and two siblings.

The family was invited to stay at the lodging for free in September 2018 at the discretion of the temple.

They were granted permission to enter the Goten palace at night, which was bathed in serenity as all other visitors had left for the day.

The family members said they spent most of the time in a large tatami-style room straight out of a samurai drama and usually off-limits when the palace is open to the public, gazing at the lit-up garden and lying down to look at the moon.

“It was a fantastic time, almost as if we were thrown back in time to a different space,” the mother, 41, said. "We can’t afford to spend 1 million yen, but I think wealthy foreign travelers would find the stay well worth the money.”

The temple officials said they assumed foreign visitors would want shukubo-style accommodation because of the cultural and historical treats in store for them.

But Oishi said it is “also open to Japanese people.”

Would you turn down the opportunity to stay in such marvelous surroundings?

(This article is compiled from reports by Daisuke Mukai and Hideo Sato.)