Apprentice geisha reveals secretive world online

Ichimame’s life is already an endless blur of parties, visits to the hairdresser, kimono fittings, lessons in traditional dance, music and tea ceremony, and countless hours in front of the mirror painting her face chalk white and her lips impossibly red.

Even so, the Japanese 18-year-old still manages to find the time to keep what is probably the first internet blog by an apprentice geisha, opening a small window onto a world shrouded in mystery and often misunderstood.

The elite entertainers of Japan’s pleasure quarters have for centuries been fawning over wealthy guests in the cosy confines of teahouses and restaurants.

Now, facing growing competition from nightclubs, karaoke and hostess bars, Kyoto’s geisha are gradually joining the 21st century with websites, English lessons and gradually less rigid introduction rules.

Wedged in a row of wooden buildings on a narrow street in Kamishichiken, the oldest of Kyoto’s five geisha districts, or hanamachi (flower towns), the Ichi teahouse may not look like the typical home of an internet blogger.

But it is here that for the past year Ichimame has been writing about her daily endeavours to master the three-stringed shamisen and the shakuhachi bamboo flute, as well as complicated traditional dance steps.

Kneeling on the woven straw tatami matting of the teahouse, resplendent in a flowing green kimono, her hair perfectly coiffured and a face like a porcelain doll, Ichimame explains that through her blog she hopes to encourage other girls who might be thinking of becoming maiko, or young geisha.

In the 1920s, there were tens of thousands of geisha in Japan, but these days there are far fewer. In Kyoto there are estimated to be about 280 geiko and maiko.

Ichimame’s blog has already encouraged one girl to become a maiko at the Ichi teahouse, which now has three maiko and one geisha, or geiko as they prefer to be called in Kyoto.

Misrepresentation

Like others in the geisha world, Susumu Harema, the 35-year-old manager of the Ichi teahouse, feels that foreign novels and films often misrepresent the artist-entertainers. Many foreigners have long assumed geisha are prostitutes because they are paid by predominantly male customers for their company.

The reality, he says, is “very different from the old-fashioned image that foreigners have” of a woman who sells herself to customers.

“That kind of thing does not happen, not once among our maiko and geisha here in Kyoto.
While entertaining guests, the maiko sings, dances and chats. That’s her job.”

During their early days in the teahouse, the apprentices help with chores while learning customs. Usually it takes about half a year to become a maiko, after which they accompany geisha on their appointments.

In a hosting room of a teahouse, maiko and geiko sit next to their customers, pouring them drinks, dancing and playing music, all to help their wealthy clientele relax and forget the daily grind of Japanese life.

“They sell dreams. And your dream is not to be having a conversation with your wife,” said long-time Kyoto resident Peter MacIntosh, who has spent a decade photographing, studying and hiring geisha. He even married one.

Maiko must wait until they turn 20 before they can become geiko, after which they gradually wear less colourful kimono and make-up.

Ichimame says she was 11 years old when, while watching geisha perform at an annual spring temple festival, she decided that she too wanted to wear the sculptured hair and beautiful kimono, and learn traditional dancing.

Her parents were supportive, although nowadays she is only allowed to visit them twice a year, at New Year and the Obon family holiday in August.

Control

Her daily life is in the hands of the teahouse mistress, who is addressed as “Okaasan [Mother]” and controls every detail of Ichimame’s life, right down to which kimono she wears when she goes out to entertain customers.

Indeed, it is only with the permission of the teahouse, which encouraged her to start her blog on its website, that Ichimame is able to keep her online diary—in which she is careful not to divulge any secrets about customers.

Being a geiko is a job for life—until she marries. Then she must retire.

Before World War II, many geiko had male sponsors and some of the artisans chose to become their sponsors’ lovers outside wedlock. Still today it is not unknown for geiko to fall in love with their customers.

“Of course when wealthy businessmen, successful men, and beautiful, artistically trained women hang out a lot they fall in love,” said MacIntosh. But he stresses that geisha are not prostitutes. “There’s a difference between sex and sex appeal.”

Fuelled by the success of books like Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha and the movie it inspired, Kyoto has a thriving geisha tourism industry offering tours, an evening with a geiko and a chance to dress up in the fabulous costumes of the maiko.

Ichimame says she has nothing against tourists dressing up as maiko, but admits she worries that people might think they are the genuine article.

“People will think maiko always wear that kind of kimono. We never walk into convenience stores with this kind of hairstyle. But they do. So if we think about our image, we wouldn’t really want them to be walking outside, although we understand their desire to be looked at,” she said.—AFP