-First published in the Kyoto Journal #48 2002. It was after writing this article that I decided to use the title Real Geisha Real Women for all future projects in regards to the karyukai-“Flower and Willow World”.

In the middle distance, there is a jingling of tiny bells. Positions are taken, everyone carefully setting up postcard-perfect shots for what may be the only shutter chance of the night. As the bells get closer, the “poku poku” of her wooden clogs can be heard. Over-anxious trigger fingers are twitching, foreseeing the arrival. Then, with the speed and grace of a runway model, her alluring kimono wrapped in a seasonal patterned, swaying obi, the maiko glides past. Oblivious to the blinding flashes, never breaking stride, she turns to the gallery of onlookers with a slight bow of her head and continues on her way. Cameras in hand, the group, hurriedly follows the porcelain-faced apprentice, trying for one last shot. To no avail: the pursuit is ended when she slides open the lattice door for her next engagement, and with an “Ookini,” she enters the teahouse, disappearing into a world beyond the cameras, off-limits to most of us. It is behind these doors that years of training are put to the test. Introductions are made, drinks are poured, and the maiko and geiko begin assessing their half-inebriated guests: After a meal, a group of middle-aged businessmen look to be in a chatty mood, so dancing will probably not be requested. On this night, it is drinking games and ego massages, for these too are talents that must be acquired in a geiko arts repertoire. It is their calling to place their guests at ease, to help them forget the outside world for the next few priceless but costly hours. Ironically, this may call for refraining from song or dance to spare less-knowing clients the unease of not knowing how to offer praise properly. It is common these days since most of the people now entertained in the geisha quarters have little knowledge of the traditional arts, which these women have spent so much of their time mastering. The cultured customers of former times have been replaced by a generation of quick, no-effort-required pleasure seekers. Yet this is not so displeasing to the younger geiko since they have been nurtured by modern music and Western culture. Most of them left their towns in rural Japan just after junior high, drawn to the Japanese version of Hollywood that seems to offer stardom with the mere donning of a kimono and some mastery with the makeup brush. Either fame or love of the arts are the reasons most of these young women give for coming to the hub of Japanese culture. There is, they believe, no better stage on which to perform. Still, most overlook the discipline and perseverance needed to survive the sudden shock of life of strict rules that will govern most of their waking hours. Many star-struck girls, following their debut, feel content just to have tried it, disappearing without a word. This is no surprise in a world where “yes” can mean “no” and “thank you” mean “go to hell,” where far more than physical beauty, endurance, and a burning desire to succeed will you move up the ranks. For these most eligible spinsters of the water trade, who can become a prize catch for some wealthy executive, romance will now and then lead to a hasty exit off stage. These days, opting for marriage has taken its toll on the geisha population; domesticity has become more attractive, seen as an easy way back into the stream of normal, everyday life. Any lady who leaves can try to pick up where she left off with friends and family, and she bid farewell in her teens. As if awakening from a dream, she will likely have little problem in making the change, cutting and dyeing her hair to camouflage herself in her new surroundings, where the spotlight is no longer trained upon her, and a more direct language is spoken. Absent her make-up, hair ornaments and silken kimono; such a woman will now appear as she always really was: an average Japanese woman who held a unique and, to most, an exotic job.

Copyright Peter MacIntosh 2002