It was a cool summer evening in Kyoto, 2010. I was enjoying the labyrinthine sidestreets of the city’s well known Gion district, where one can enter rustic wooden teahouses and stroll back in time down cobblestone streets. I had been there for several days on a mission to get a tasteful shot of the famous Geisha, but so far, had been unsuccessful. Yes, there were giggling groups of the younger variety, maiko they’re called, but that was early in the day when they were out of that iconic makeup and not too eager to take a photo. Eventually, I gave up and finally consigned myself to the hazy glow of red lanterns and aroma of Yakitori in the air. Then, it happened. I heard one of the teahouse doors creak open and turned to see a radiant girl in a red kimono and snow-white makeup step out into the night air. She shuffled elegantly in wooden slippers alongside an older woman who was similarly dressed while a taxi waited. I remember the exact moment when I came to my senses and fumbled for the camera that I had banished to my backpack, as the perfect photograph slowly came together. She effortlessly entered the taxi and began to apply more white color to her face, the light from a nearby lamp capturing her profile in the car’s back window…
Hauntingly beautiful, geisha are an enigmatic and yet undeniably charming aspect of Japanese culture. Their purpose has been misunderstood for a very long time, so lets get this out of the way right now: geisha are not prostitutes. While originally performing in areas of the city that were pleasure centers, they evolved into their present incarnation as entertainers and hostesses versed in traditional arts such as classical music, singing and dance. They aim to please their customers with an atmosphere that evokes the romantic beauty of a bygone era, and that’s as far as this Nippon dream goes.
The word Geisha (芸者) is made up of two Japanese idiograms that mean “art” and “doer”. Maiko (舞子), a young apprentice of a geisha, similarly translates to “dancing girl”. Their origins stretch back to the 18th century, to a time when it was common for men to enjoy themselves in walled pleasure quarters known yukaku. When the capital of Japan was moved to elegant Kyoto in 794, the atmosphere changed and out of the yukaku arose courtesans, like the Oiran, that were well trained in the arts, renowned poets and calligraphers. Finally, new artisans and performers emerged that were only willing to provide beautifully refined entertainment, the Geisha. The very first geisha were actually men until a woman, Kikuya, skilled at singing and the shamisen, began to take on the name and became very successful in the 1750’s. Eventually other young ladies followed this new route, leaving prostitution behind as it was soon outlawed in the early 1900`s. Still, the image of the geisha continued to struggle for respectability; geisha girls, prostitutes trying to profit off of the image of actual geisha, were frequented by American GI`s during Japan`s occupation, which inturn affected their portrayal in Hollywood films while bidding wars for a maiko`s virginity continued in imperial Japan until post WWII, 1959. However, as we are now in the information age, the truth concerning their work is much more readily available.
The early life of a geisha is as complex as their folk dances. Beginning as a maiko at around the age of 16-18 years old, a girl is bonded under contract to a geisha house, or okiya, that provides her food, board, kimono and other trade accessories. She must find an onee-san, literally “older sister”, to act as her mentor and will follow her to teahouses where she works, learning skills like playing the shamisen, serving tea and dances, or odori, which can be hundreds of years old. The head of the teahouses that the geisha frequent are usually owned by an older woman, an okaa-san, meaning “mother”. From her, the young maiko would learn the art of charming conversation and games. At the same time, the young geisha is taught the extensive lessons of obligation and creating lasting social ties through gift giving and visits to potential clients. Finally, the maiko graduates to full-fledged geisha status in a ceremony called erikae, “turning of the collar”. This usually takes place between 20-22 years old and frees her to charge her own price for work. In modern times, this work is no longer restrained to the entertainment districts of hanamachi in Kyoto, but now geisha are beginning to make public appearances. Where as before an introduction by means of a friend with connections would have to be made, one can now enjoy an inexpensive odori dance in Kyoto or outdoor tea ceremony. These events usually take place in the spring, with one being left over for autumn.
It was by this information that I came to Gion and it seemed my patience bore fruit on that summer night. However, I raised the camera only to catch the last trails of the taxi`s rear lights as they drove off. I stood there for a few moments and then followed the smell of that Yakitori with a spring in my step. The picture was lost but that moment, that feeling of standing in two worlds, two eras, I assure you will never be forgotten.