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Japan: Get to know a geisha

Many customs in the Land of the Rising Sun have evolved in isolation over centuries. Head to its historic heartland to experience the traditions of a geisha

Japan: Get to know a geisha
Geisha in traditional make-up and kimono in the Gion district of Kyoto. Image: Getty

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It’s no fun being a geisha. By ‘normal’ teenage standards, at least, it seems the definition of purgatory: no Facebook, no French fries and sleeping for limited hours a day with your neck positioned on a wooden takamakura block to protect your hair, which must remain set in the weighty nihongami geisha style. It’s basically akin to sleeping on a brick wearing a crash helmet.

Tomitsuyu doesn’t seem to mind. This maiko — a young, apprentice geiko, Kyoto’s local version of a geisha — is clearly brimming with pride. And well she may. Kyoto might be home to Japan’s largest population of geisha but Tomitsuyu is part of a dying tradition. The teahouses that train and house geisha are dwindling in number, and with the economy suffering and expense accounts being cut, the call for these esteemed — and expensive — hostesses to entertain salarymen and perform traditional arts at high-profile cultural events has long been in decline.

A century ago, geisha numbered in the tens of thousands; today, it’s thought there are only around 1,000 remaining. I’m in Gion, one of Kyoto’s five hanamachi — ‘flower districts’, or less poetically, geisha entertainment zones. A sixth Kyoto hanamachi closed recently due to lack of business, explains Reiko Tomimori, ‘mother’ of Ochaya Tomikiku teahouse. In a pioneering if pragmatic break from tradition, Ms Tomimori started welcoming foreign visitors and, in the case of young Tomitsuyu, training Kyoto’s only English-speaking maiko.

“Most guests feel very happy they can speak to me in English,” says Tomitsuyu demurely. “Usually, they must speak through a translator and it doesn’t feel very intimate.”

Tomitsuyu’s easy English loosens up the beautiful if stiff rigmarole of the tea ceremony, while a clapping game descends into pure giggling playground fun. I cast shy glances at Tomitsuyu’s porcelain face and doll-like red lips; she is barely more than playground age herself. Maiko means ‘dancing girl’ or ‘child’, and even if she’s come late to training thanks to her years living abroad, Tomitsuyu can’t be more than 19.

There are four years left of her five years of training — in singing, dance, tea ceremony and music — before she graduates to full geiko status. In that time she will receive just a small allowance from her earnings (for entertaining in the strict, not soliciting, sense, if you’re wondering), two days off a month and two weeks off a year to visit her family. After training, of course, the earnings can be sky-high.

Still, it’s a tough alternative to a university education. “The most challenging thing,” says Tomitsuyu, “is mastering the traditional instruments — the taiko drum, the shamisen [small guitar]. I want to learn the flute next.” And then, with a bow, she’s gone, her long-sashed kimono disappearing around the door long after she has.

Read more in the June 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)