Japanese Word of the Day

New friends I met at a dinner party a week ago in Kyoto invited me to their home for an introduction to guitar and dinner this evening.

Hands on with a Real Guitar
The soon to be groom of this couple is an accomplished guitar player and has been playing for 10 years. He allowed me to play his Martin Acoustic and G&L Electric before his fiancee got home from work and joined us for dinner. We had a tasty meal in their home after the painful guitar session.

My First Chords
I was shown 4 chords: E, A, B7, and B, all of which I am likely to forget soon without a guitar to practice them on. The main thing I took away from this ‘introduction to guitar’ evening is that guitar playing is a physical challenge.

Guitar Athlete
As much as playing the guitar is a musical and skill challenge, it is indeed clearly an athletic challenge. To achieve my goals, I now understand that in many respects learning to play guitar is going to be like learning any other physically challenging activity.

I must embrace the physical nature of this pursuit and think of it as a mountain to climb not only for the summit, but more for the simple pleasures and satisfaction that come from the journey.

The Good Stuff
I suspect that as much as I may want to become a capable and highly proficient guitar player, many years from now, some of my fondest memories of my guitar journey are still going to be these times now when I was struggling to play just a few chords.

I am sure the best guitarists in the world still consider learning and progressing to be the best part of being a guitar player. They are athlete musicians always trying to improve and it is why they are so good.

There may never be a more concentrated period of learning and knowledge absorption in my guitar journey than this very moment.

Right now as an absolute beginner, my guitar journey is likely as good as it is ever going to get.

I really like that thought, because I can identify the same truth from other challenging activities I have pursued in life. Upon reaching the initially imagined goals, I found it was the journey I cherished, not the act of standing on the target.

Japanese Word of the Day
Itai (いたい) – pronounced ‘ee’ as in eek and ‘tie’ as in necktie. 
It means ‘ouch’ or ‘it hurts’.

I will confess I wailed, “Itai!” more than a couple of times tonight as I attempted to maneuver and hold my fingers in position for painful and often unsuccessful attempts to create chords.

I even felt a new song titled Itai trying to flow from within. My left hand fingertips are unnaturally pink and unpleasantly tender as I type this entry.

At first I regretted that I did not record my first weak efforts to play some chords this evening with my little portable audio recorder I carry around with me at all times. I was caught up in the moment, enjoying my visit and to be honest, I completely forgot about this little website and my guitar ‘goals’ for a while. But that is not such a bad thing.

I will record a few of my early unskilled efforts soon enough.

Thank you Koichi for this great start on my guitar playing journey!


‘Geisha’ Header Design
The white background in the first header for the site is from a photo I took of the back and neck of a maiko with her deep plunging traditional red kimono collar. Maiko are young apprentice entertainers incorrectly called geisha by westerners (and many Japanese).

[Oops, I have changed the header graphic already. Later I will add that photo or similar ones to this post so there are visual references for the text.]

This maiko was entering Japan’s most historically significant Kabuki theater in Kyoto’s Gion entertainment district during a 5 day event held each year at the beginning of December. The maiko wear small wooden decorations in their hair on the day their particular Hanamachi visits the theater. After the performances, the maiko have their wooden ornaments signed by their favorite kabuki actors.

Four of Kyoto’s five Hanamachi (flower towns) are located in or around Gion and close enough to my residence that I often end up cycling through their neighborhoods at night on my way home. The entertainers in these old Kyoto communities are considered the ‘hana’ (flowers) of these ‘machi’ (towns).

If you make the correct turns as you move through the chessboard streets and alleys of Kyoto at night, it is quite easy to see maiko (apprentices) and geiko (fully trained entertainers) coming and going along the idyllic neighborhoods of Miyagawacho, Gion Kobu, Pontocho and Gion Higashi. Kamishichiken, the 5th hanamachi, is not clustered together with the other 4 ‘flower towns’ and is a little outside of my regular routes in Kyoto.

The most visually intriguing area to me on a maiko in full wardrobe is the back of her neck just below the hairline. The white ‘paint’ is applied in a manner that creates alluring two-tone graphic effects that purposely leave a small portion of the neck completely bare. I’m sure I will later find excuses to share more maiko and geiko photos on the site along with the other images of Japan.

She’s Not a Geisha
The girl in the photo is not a geisha. Geisha is a misnomer in Kyoto. There actually are no geisha here. They are all maiko and geiko.

There are a few women correctly called geisha in other parts of Japan, but they are not quite the same thing as the more thoroughly trained and prestigious maiko and geiko of Kyoto.

Many seemingly authoritative sources online and in print incorrectly describe the difference between geisha and maiko/geiko as nearly irrelevant semantics, as if it is a local dialect that determines the use of one word over the other. However, the differences are much greater than that.

I am not an expert on this subject, but I have learned a little from a few Japanese persons whose main hobby is photographing and documenting this aspect of Japanese culture.

By chance I also once interviewed a maiko when my date and I were unexpectedly invited by strangers to join a private party with a maiko performer. One of my Japanese housemates in Kyoto a few years ago was even dating a maiko, though I got the impression that was a particularly delicate and necessarily secretive activity for the maiko.

You will see promotions in English connected to events with ‘geisha’ when you visit Kyoto, but that is only because they are marketing to tourists who all know the word geisha and likely don’t know the words geiko or maiko.

Interestingly, many Japanese people not from Kyoto, or those who are not so interested in this aspect of their country’s culture, don’t really know the difference between geisha and geiko either.

It is not such a terrible faux pas to use the incorrect word geisha when you are in Kyoto, but many people will appreciate it if you make an effort and show interest in the culture by using proper Japanese vocabulary when you try to say something in Japanese.

I should tell you that once during a much earlier visit to Kyoto, I used the term geisha inappropriately at a maiko/geiko photo exhibition. Multiple voices all chimed in to strongly correct me. That was the last time I mistakenly referred to maiko or geiko as geisha. :-)


Kyoto Guitarist Japanese Word(s) of the Day

Geisha (げいしゃ) – Traditional Japanese female entertainers, sometimes wearing white makeup, not found in Kyoto.

Geiko (げいこ) – Traditional Japanese female entertainers, sometimes wearing white makeup, only found in Kyoto, and connected to 1 of 5 Hanamachi (flower towns) within the city.

While the training is said to be more extensive and elaborate and the protocol more strict, perhaps the most notable differences between the geisha in other regions and the geiko/maiko of Kyoto are the more elaborate neighborhood rituals and the many culturally significant events that are carried out throughout the year by each Hanamachi in Kyoto.

Maiko (まいこ) – Traditional Japanese apprentice female entertainers, sometimes wearing white makeup, only found in Kyoto.

There are several notable differences between a geiko and a maiko in appearance when in full makeup and wardrobe. The most noticeable one to me is the hair.

A young maiko-san’s hairstyle is a mandatory design made with their own hair. Geiko wear traditional wigs that are very different and easy to detect, even at a distance, with their unnaturally perfect shape and symmetry.

“I plan to use the site primarily to share guitar progression observations, a few cool photos, a little audio
and to introduce some aspects of Japan that many people might not be familiar with.”

In The Beginning
Some moons ago as a result of a sudden decision to learn guitar, I started a personal journal online to document my guitar journey.

This ‘sudden’ decision was one that had been in the making since childhood. However, meeting new friends in Kyoto who were already highly capable guitarists prompted me to finally become serious about giving the guitar a serious go.

The Original Plan
I was about to fly back to the US for a few months and wanted to challenge myself to see what I could accomplish with a guitar while away from Japan. One of my motivations was my desire to play guitar with my friends when I returned to Kyoto.

Even before returning to the US and purchasing a guitar, I began sharing notes about my early research online and about my visits to the many guitar shops of Kyoto as I tried to figure out how I was going to get started.

I included a good amount of commentary about Japan since it is where I was living part-time (and for this year at least, almost full-time), while still keeping most of the posts guitar and music oriented.

Once I started practicing in the US, I attempted to document every minute I was playing and I kept detailed notes about every study resource I was experimenting with.

I soon found I was spending more time writing and slavishly detailing every moment of my practice time than I was spending actually practicing. That is largely presented now as an excuse for the microscopic progression I experienced during the few hours in total that I did practice.

I have many more excuses to toss in the hat for my lack of progress, including a scary back injury that put me flat on my back for several months. In the end though, none of my excuses are very good ones, and it could be said fairly that I failed in my short-term goal.

Though my initial progression was indeed miniscule, I did accomplish one simple feat; I didn’t given up.

From the Ashes of ‘Near Defeat’
It is important to document one’s practice regimen of course, and there might be some guitarists that enjoy perusing lists of minutiae from another guitarist’s practice routines, but the simple truth is that my main goal with a guitar is to learn how to play the darn thing well enough that I can begin using it as a composition tool. My mission is certainly not to teach the world how to play guitar (something I cannot even do myself yet).

I discovered in my failure that a website about me learning how to play guitar, that takes up so much time that it hinders my ability to learn how to play guitar, might not be such a good idea.

If there is some value in sharing the process I am going through, I think the most informative or entertaining posts I was writing were the general guitar topic explorations and research commentaries that might be relevant to new and progressing guitarists, along with a few stories of my personal experiences in Japan mixed in.

Those types of posts are relatively easy and fun for me to write and don’t require hours of chart creation or lengthy practice summaries that attempt to document and explain every single decision I am making as it relates to my guitar studies and practice time. On the original site, I was even trying to write mini reviews of all the online teaching resources I came across.

I will still share some practice overviews for those who might be curious. I need to document such things for myself anyway, but those posts will be brief.

The important stuff and all the guitar activities I am involved with will be evident here, but now I am going to write mostly for fun and to fuel my enthusiasm for progress. I plan to use the site primarily to share guitar progression observations, a few cool photos, a little audio and to introduce some aspects of Japan that many people might not be familiar with.

I will keep some of the original posts in this new incarnation of the site to provide a back story and so there is a base to continue from.

A lot of very interesting things are going on now in my guitar life as I attempt to get back on the horse. I hope my stories are of interest to other progressing guitarists.

What I Have Learned So Far
There are certainly millions of ways to approach the guitar, but if I have only 1 bit of wisdom to share about learning guitar at this point, it would be this…

  • Allow yourself to love playing. (even when you are terrible)

I am sure I will elaborate on this in the future, but the main point of it for me is that I find it critically important to focus on the pleasure of practicing RIGHT NOW, not only on the perceived greater pleasure I might experience once I have developed some level of proficiency.

‘Ganbarou’ to you and I both.

First Kyoto Guitarist Japanese Word of the Day
Ganbarou (がんばろう) – Let’s do our best. :-)

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