Introduction: through the looking glass
When I see the first new moon Faintly in the dusk I think of the moth eyebrows Of a girl I saw only once. Anonymous poem
On a Kyoto backstreet one sultry May evening, I caught my first glimpse of a geisha. She came flitting toward me with a faint tinkling of bells, an extraordinary vision like an apparition from another age. Her face, smooth and impassive as a mask, was an immaculate white oval with the sides of the nose and the eye sockets shaded in pink. Her eyes were outlined in black, her eyebrows two moth wings of feathery brown, and her lower lip a startling crimson crescent; her upper lip, disconcertingly, was white. Her hair, piled into gleaming black coils, was teased and lacquered into an undulating landscape of hills and valleys adorned with flowers, dangling silver pins, ribbons, and combs. Swathed in an ornate kimono in shades of blue and gold, she clattered by on preposterously high wooden clogs, her long sleeves swaying as she walked.
As darkness fell, white lanterns began to glow, lighting up the shadows. She was a vision made for darkness, for an era when geisha used to flit through the gloom of unlit teahouses, glimpsed only by flickering candlelight. Their painted faces transmuted them into shamanesses who could transport men into another world, a world of dreams.
She passed with a rustle of silk, revealing a breathtaking expanse of exquisitely white-painted back. I had not realized that geisha wore their kimono quite so shockingly low. It was like a décolletage in reverse, enormously erotic. At the nape of the neck, which Japanese men find especially sexy, was a titillating fork of naked, unpainted skin, shaped like a serpent's tongue. It was the most mesmerizing of all, a reminder that behind the alabaster mask, beneath the layers of silk and brocade, was a real flesh and blood woman.
Breaching a Secret World
It was nearly sunset when I got to Kyoto that mild May evening. I had to ask the taxi driver to drop me off at the end of the lane where I was to stay; it was too narrow for cars to squeeze through. I lugged my suitcase the last hundred yards to the inn, over the doorstep, through the door, then up a couple of dark, very steep wooden staircases to my room.
It was bright, airy, and wide open to the elements. One wall was barely a wall at all but a rickety wooden balcony with flimsy slatted doors which you could slide shut to close off the room when it was hot, cold, or rainy. The tatami matting of the floor was moth-eaten. On it sat a dumpy bandy-legged wooden table, a worn flat cushion, and a dollhouse-size dressing table perilously supporting a tall thin mirror with a piece of ancient brocade draped over it. In one corner was a wobbly wooden frame with a few hooks for hanging clothes.
Bamboo blinds attached under the eaves created the illusion of a fourth wall, flapping and banging in the slightest breeze. Standing on the balcony I peeped through at the vista of gray tiled rooftops interspersed with telegraph poles and a mad cat's cradle of wires. The road below was lined with little wooden houses very similar to the one I was in. In the house opposite a couple of women were silhouetted behind the blinds. Voices, laughter, and the jangling plink plonk of the shamisen, a banjo-like instrument, hung in the air. Women pattered up and down the street, pausing to bow and greet each other in high-pitched coos.
Having spent many years in Tokyo, I had come to the ancient city of Kyoto in search of geisha. Once the capital of Japan, it was still the country's cultural heart, home of temples, palaces, gardens, and theaters and the place where the classical heritage was most fiercely preserved. The picturesque streets of the geisha districts, the old pleasure quarters, looked more like the Japan portrayed in nineteenth-century woodblock prints than anywhere else. Kyoto was also the only place where the strict geisha training continued and the geisha traditions were handed down.
I wanted to meet the real women behind the painted faces, the charming chit chat, and the eternal mysterious smile. The geisha, it seemed to me, were purveyors of dreams. Theirs was a misty world of romance created for the enjoyment and entertainment of men, in which the most browbeaten office worker could be king. It was not my intention to spoil the illusion or dispel the mystery. But as a woman, I wondered out of what past the geisha had come. Who were the women who, in modern Japan, had chosen to live this life? For men it was a dream world; but who were the women whose job it was to create this dream?
I had lived, talked, traveled, and daydreamed my way through a couple of decades in Japan, filtering my experience of a country which was often shockingly ugly through the prisms of its past. I absorbed myself in the passionate stories of heroes, villains, and beautiful temptresses recorded in its spare but evocative poetry, drama, and literaturelike the tale of the all-time femme fatale, Ono no Komachi, the most beautiful woman in the world; or Narihira, the great lover, who cut a swathe through women's hearts; or the Heian courtiers of the tenth century who made love into the essence of life, to be studied, cultivated, and perfected as an art form. The geisha were the heirs to this romantic heritage. I hoped I would find that they prospered still, that the past had not faded completely into the realm of imagination and dusty scholarly tomes.
But at the dawn of a new century, was there a place for geisha in the land of Nintendo, Sony, Nissan, and Honda? Persistent reports in papers and magazines had suggested that they were an endangered species, if not already extinct. Although I had come across geisha in the small provincial town where I had lived when I first arrived in Japan, for years I had barely glimpsed them. And if I did succeed in befriending any, would they be "real" geisha or mere shadows, play-acting at being the real thing?
Before I had even reached Kyoto I had discovered that there was something strangely unsettling about the very notion of geisha. On the plane on my way to Japan, I had mentioned to the man next to me that I was planning to do some research on geisha. Suddenly he changed from the mild-mannered mustachioed academic he had seemedhe had told me he was a specialist in car ergonomicsand poured out a torrent of abuse. "Fujiyama," he foamed, spitting out the word which foreigners mistakenly use when speaking of Mount Fuji and a symbol to Japanese of our inability to muster even the faintest understanding of their country. "Fujiyama", "geisha"! he snarled. "Stereotype, prejudice!"
I had said nothing about my attitude or approach to geisha or why I was interested in them. The very idea that a foreigner would dare to even think of writing about them filled him with rage.
At least one foreigner had already done soArthur Golden, whose novel, Memoirs of a Geisha, took a generation of Western readers inside the geisha world of 1920s Gion. The book, at that time, had yet to be translated into Japanese. The West, meanwhile, had been swept by geisha fervor. Inspired by Golden's heroine, Sayuri, the fashion world rediscovered the allure of femininity. The collections of 1999 were full of kimono-like creations which wrapped and concealed the body, hint- ing at the mysteries beneath rather than revealing them. That sum- mer Madonna appeared at the Grammies in an extraordinary outfit described as a kimono, with long flapping sleeves and a plastic obi. It would be hard to imagine anything further from the traditional garment. Nevertheless it was the talk of Tokyo.
My neighbor on the plane was not just an eccentric. To my amazement, confiding in Japanese men that I was planning to look into geisha and their culture exposed me to my first experiences of rudeness in this country of protocol and courtesy. Enraged, they laid into me for taking an interest in such a trivial, old-fashioned, and banal aspect of their culture. A Japanese woman who, as a teacher of the shamisen, lived her life on the borders of the geisha world, asked me with gentle puzzlement why I wanted to look into the "dark, bad side of Japan." And when I went to bookshops, I found intriguingly little on the geisha.
When I mentioned geisha to friends and acquaintances in Tokyo, many said (with, it seemed to me, unnecessary forcefulness) that no, they did not know any. But some did. They took me aside, sat me down, and explained that geisha were dancers, musicians, entertainers, and conversationalists who filled a specific niche at the highest levels of Japanese society. They were absolutely not prostitutes, high class or otherwise. That established, they suggested particular geisha that I might care to look up and, most important, indicated that I might mention their name.
First Days in Kyoto
On my first morning in Kyoto I was woken by a strange shouting, like the cry of an animal. Sunlight was streaming into the small room where I slept on the floor, sending motes of dust sparkling and spinning. Purely by chance I had ended up staying in one of the geisha areas, in a house which had until recently done service as a geisha house. When I finally met geisha, I learned that they lived in bare little rooms as poorly furnished as mine.
I went in search of breakfast and found a coffee shop along the street. Inside, mellow jazz emanated from the speakers. The master of the shop, nervy and balding, tapped his fingers on the counter while he brewed up coffee in a glass percolator. The mistress, warm, plump, and smiling in a pink-and-white-checked apron, prepared industrial-size slabs of cotton-woolly toast. The shop was full of women sitting over breakfast, flicking through newspapers or chatting.
Later, wandering the neighborhood, I found myself in a warren of alleys lined with wooden houses pressed so close together that only the occasional shaft of sunlight pierced the gloom. Every now and then a motorbike or scooter skidded past but mainly there was silence. I had never been anywhere in Japan so untouched by the passage of time. It was as if I had stepped back into a preindustrial era.
There were five geisha areas or hanamachi (flower towns), of which three clustered together on the eastern side of the River Kamo which rolled, wide and brown, a couple of minutes walk away from the inn where I was staying. These threeGion, the most famous and classy, Gion Higashi (East Gion), and Miyagawa-chowere bordered to north and south by two thoroughfares, Sanjo and Gojo (Third and Fifth) streets. Cutting through the middle, the nerve center of the area, was Shijo (Fourth) Street, crammed end to end with shops dealing in all the paraphernalia of the geisha worldhairpins, tortoiseshell combs, dangly hair decorations, fans, clogs, kimono fabric, white face paint, sticks of safflower lipstick, hair wax, camellia oil, and small beautifully molded cakes of sugar, rice, and beans.
The river divided this small alternative universe from the modern city with its snarled traffic, air-conditioned department stores, clashing neon, and bustling people. Across the river from Gion was the fourth of the five hanamachi, Pontocho, a tiny picturesque alley lined with restaurants which in summer were extended at the back to make platforms lined with reed matting where one could dine, sip sake, and enjoy the cool breezes above the rolling waters of the Kamo. It was several days before I visited the fifth, Kamishichiken (literally "Seven Houses to the North"), in the northwest of the city. To my mind it was the most charming of all, a couple of quiet intimate lanes lined with dark prosperous houses, many with a lantern glowing outside, meandering in a gentle curve up to the stone lanterns and plum trees of Kitano Shrine.