And Then We Saw Her

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Out of the corner of a narrow Kyoto alley, she appeared. A woman in a traditional kimono, her skin like alabaster, her lips a perfect crimson bow. Her hair defied gravity in perfect lacquered waves decorated with floral ornaments.

She was the marshal of her own inadvertent parade. Behind her a crowd of Japanese and foreign tourists ran after her, clicking their cameras as she dutifully ignored them, taking tiny steps as fast as her wooden platform sandals would let her.

Our eyes met for a fraction of a second. Then she continued glancing back and forth, self-preservation dictating her movements rather than curiosity.

Until she passed us, it didn’t hit me that she was a geisha – or, rather, a maiko (apprentice geisha), as we deduced by her ornate hair ornaments and long patterned obi (kimono belt). She was so dazzling, she made my mind stop for a moment.

This was why we were out in the first place.  Mario, Becki and I were “geisha hunting,” trying to spot Japan’s most elusive entertainers en route to their evening appointments in Gion, Kyoto’s traditional geisha neighborhood. A tip from Becki brought us to the alley running along the western side of the river. We thought we were prepared. We had no idea.

Geisha are not prostitutes, as is a common belief among foreigners (or anyone who has read Memoirs of a Geisha). Geisha are, in fact, hostesses trained in a variety of traditional Japanese arts as well as conversation, games, and entertainment. They are paid for their time and companionship – no, that’s not a euphemism – and are simply the most sensational company that money can buy.

As you might expect, this company comes at a hefty fee. You can expect to pay upwards of 50,000 yen ($500) for an evening in the company of a geisha.

There are approximately 1,000-2,000 geisha working in Japan today. Though these numbers are nowhere near their peak of 80,000 during the 1920s, they are by no means a dying breed. Enough women undertake the long training process to become geisha to keep their numbers sustainable.

Could anything like a geisha exist in western society? Very likely not, as we have no hostess culture with tacitly understood boundaries between paid companionship and sex the way that contemporary eastern societies do. But if this did exist, what would a western geisha be like?

I have in my mind a woman that looks and dresses like Dita von Teese. She’s perfectly made up in spotless retro attire, she is the single most witty conversationalist you’ve ever met, and she plays the piano by ear and leads singalongs with her beautiful voice. Maybe she tap dances as well. She definitely knows her share of card tricks. She’s a throwback and absolutely lovely.

But that night in Gion, everything fell into one moment. After the maiko passed us, I woke up and joined the parade, snapping photos desperately and praying that my settings were in the right mode to capture her swift movements.

I clicked my shutter as the maiko slipped into a bar for her evening appointment — and then she was gone.

We never saw a geisha or maiko again.

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18 thoughts on “And Then We Saw Her”

  1. It might say something about Western culture that our equivalent is a call girl, and that we assume the same of geishas. On the other hand, it might just be that it worked out that way. And what’s funny is that these unusual niche services are increasingly available. In certain cities you can hire a professional wingman to retrieve your “entertainment” for the evening. So we kinda have hired personal companions, but in a much seedier way.

  2. Aren’t they beautiful. I saw one when I was in Japan a few years ago, but didn’t take a photo out of respect. (I’m funny like that.)

    I think you’re right about Western society not being able to have an equivalent. One of the many, many things I love about Japan and its culture.

    Can’t wait to read more about your time in Japan. Moving there to get my language skills up to scratch is getting higher and higher on my list of things to do.

  3. I absolutely was entranced by the way you wrote this piece Kate, I’m guessing just like you were with her. It is a sad thing that western society can’t accept those types of boundaries, because it seems like a timeless art. It takes a lot of skill to be able to entertain, to converse for hours, and to perform song and dance. I think this is a really cool aspect of Japan.

  4. I love your description of her. It’s beautiful. I’m a little confused about your comment about Memoirs of a Geisha, however. I read the book just a few months ago and I thought it did a fantastic job of clarifying that geishas were artisans and NOT prostitutes. That was one of the things I loved about the book: that it defied those expectations.

  5. Wow! This will be a travel memory you’ll never forget! A special moment 🙂 I hope I can go to Japan one day and spot a geisha!

    I remember reading in Glamour a few years ago about a western woman who had moved to Japan to become a geisha. Apparently she was very popular!

  6. Oh Kate, how beautiful! I have been fascinated with Maiko, Geiko and Japanese culture for years, ever since I read ‘memoirs of a geisha’.
    You are so lucky to have seen a real life Maiko! It’s fascinating that many Japanese find the sliver of skin between the makeup to be sexier than a mini skirt!

  7. It’s very rare that you get to see a real geisha nowadays, even in Kyoto.
    If you happen to visit Kyoto and you THINK that you have just taken a photo of a geisha or maiko, think again.
    In fact, most of the time it’s tourists dressed up as maiko.
    I did it as well and it was a great experience. So, if you have some extra cash to spend, I highly recommend doing it.
    You’ll get to wear a kimono, they’ll give you a complete “make-over” so you’ll look like a maiko. You can stroll around in Kyoto and they take photos of you in a studio. Makes a great memory / souvenir!

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