One would think that Kyoto, Japan was in the middle of a geisha boom, the way the streets are filled with kimono-wearing women, shuffling down the sidewalks in their six-inch high wooden geta and split toe socks. The jangly metal fan ornaments and flower blossoms in their hair called kanzashi bob with each step they take. But they are not real.
Okay, the women are real but they are not geisha, geiko or even maiko, (what they call women training to be geisha). These are tourists taking part in the booming business of dressing up and touring the town, creating excitement every where they go, not the least of which is their own.
In March, I visited Kyoto for this story I wrote for The New York Times. I can tell you sitting in the ochaya (tea house) and watching the musical performances of the three maikos I met was a not-to-be-missed experience. It’s all so foreign, and as with many things in Japan, I was ridden with fear that I was breaking the complicated code of etiquette that governs ordinary life here.
Do I drink the tea when presented? Do I eat the bean cake with the salted cherry blossom while the women are dancing? Is that flower even edible or just for decoration? Is applause customary? Who knew?
Certainly not me. So I gobbled the dessert – flower and all, drained the tea and slammed my hands together with appreciation. Journalists are given wide berth in the manners department, thank goodness.
The truth is that the ochaya culture has changed, particularly the aspects of indentured servitude and coerced sex and that is a good thing. What remains is a small community of ochaya mama-sans who sponsor the several-year training of teenagers eager to become modern geisha for a slightly anachronistic business that still exists even if it is not exactly thriving. Regardless, it still captivates tourists.
One of the maiko I interviewed for my story is an 18-year old from Kyoto, named Tomitsuyo. While she was still in middle school, she spent a year as an exchange student in New Zealand now she speaks English fluently. When I met her the first time, during a visit to Kyoto in December, Tomitsuyu told me becoming a geisha was her life long dream, combining the glamour of a super model with the earning potential of a savvy businesswoman. She’s one of the reasons I was eager to go back. I was fascinated and apparently I’m not alone.
That the geisha is a positive role model for today’s teen cannot be denied. Just walking around Kyoto I saw dozens of young women who have plunked down their money to spend a day walking in Tomitsuyu’s shoes. Some are tourists, Chinese, Korean, even Western.
On my way to the interview I struck up a conversation with blonde, blue-eyed Sarah Minnich, an American. She and her three Japanese friends, Rie, Mina and Yumiko were dressed in kimono, though not fully made up as geisha. They were off on a walk around the historic Gion section, home to many of the city’s ochaya. Sarah was a student of Japanese language but found the experience a lesson in culture as well.
“There were some Chinese tourists that took pictures of us on the street and the zori [shoes] were surprisingly comfortable,” she said but found, “it was very difficult to get up the steps in the shrines as the kimonos were long.”
In 2011, my sister Lee and I traveled to Sapporo, Japan so that I could attend a conference. While I sat in a meeting hall, Lee enjoyed the companion program. The final afternoon, the women were offered the opportunity to dress up in the care of two Japanese helpers. You can read Lee’s description of the event, here.
When all six women were robed and their obis tied, they filed into the meeting room. Cameras flashed as if Angelina Jolie had arrived. Later Lee told me, the kimono felt like the “most powerful outfit a woman can wear.”
That may be why so many Japanese women and a few men as well are fueling the business of renting traditional outfits in this historic city. To turn back the clock for an afternoon is to have a full immersion experience in the Kyoto of yesterday. Walking the cobblestone streets and coming upon a cluster of women wrapped in silks, awash in color, draped in spring blossoms is an unforgettable experience and authenticity suddenly seems so irrelevant.
And yet, having visited the ochaya, drunk the tea and savored the salted cherry blossoms served by white-faced girls straddling the border of womanhood I can assure you, the geisha still exists, still maturing and still captivating.
Author of The New York Times bestseller, The Crash Detectives, I am also a journalist, public speaker and broadcaster specializing in aviation and travel.