Saturday, December 2, 2000

Barbara Kingstone
Special to The Globe and Mail

Memories of dinner with a geisha

The true geiko tucks up her kimono with her left hand. A prostitute uses her right

KYOTO, JAPAN — It was one of my most memorable dinners but it didn't have anything to do with the food.

I had just finished reading Arthur Golden's Memories of a Geisha. However, while I was visiting Kyoto, the last thing I thought would happen was to share a meal with one. It happened by surprise during a restaurant dinner in the city's Gion district, arranged for a group of visiting journalists by Japan's tourist bureau.

The history of geisha (geiko) goes back 300 years. Once there were a few thousand in Kyoto, now there are only 260 geishas remaining with only 15 geiko houses.

The first real working geisha I sighted during our dinner was Older Sister, now retired, now stout and thick-waisted. She was the protector of the three young women who would soon join our party. I would have expected Older Sister to enter the small dining room dramatically, with full makeup, heavily applied in geisha style. But she was bare-faced, devoid of the white covering we have come to expect.

We learn that novice geishas (maiko), live in an oki (a dormitory-like residence). "Geikos keep their pride and create their own culture," she told us. They're taught to dance, sing, and learn the social rules and to never discuss politics. In return, they are taken care of by older sisters, who have gone through the same training. On this evening, Older Sister stated she was also "their best friend."

Entering next, like a slight breeze, was Koito, somewhere in her mid-30s and with a face as wide as a panda. She seemed to float, her long, exquisitely embroidered kimono hem just long enough to drape onto the floor covering her sandalled feet. She gave us a faint hesitant smile through her beautifully applied, white-powdered makeup, true red lips and an elaborate Tokyo-styled hairdo (Shimadamage) adorned with jewels. However, I'm told, to simplify the many hours it takes for these hairdos, many geikos now wear wigs.

Trying to look beneath the layer of white, I could only surmise that she wasn't a beauty, her features either too big (nose) or too small (eyes), but her elegance and charm compensated. When she sat, it was so effortless she seemed to melt down several metres. It wasn't difficult to realize she was apprehensive about meeting and talking with a group of international journalists. We were l0, sitting and gawking at her. She needn't have worried.

This stunning creature who seemed to fly off the pages of Golden's novel, mesmerized us. We ate and drank and she answered our questions about the culture and life of geishas. In the history of the geishas, maiko names started with mame or ichi representing the two main maiku lines descended from two very famous geishas — Ichisumi and Mamehide.

Of course, it was predictable that someone would ask her opinion about Golden's book. Koito carefully selected her words stating that it gave geikos a questionable reputation, all untrue nowadays. She offered that in the past, there were those who sold their sexual favours, but true and well-trained geishas never did and don't nowadays. One sure way of knowing the difference between a geisha and a prostitute, she told us, is that the true geisha tucks up her kimono with her left hand, while the prostitute uses her right.

Certainly, there is no prostitution, no sexual contact, just plain old simple conviviality with men who want to be entertained, she said. Actually, she would make a fine politician with her diplomatic answers.

About Golden's book she ventured, "It made good reading." She carefully pointed out that Golden had too often confused geishas with prostitutes. The real geishas were more accurately described as entertainers and they were hired for their talent and conversation. She, herself, had always wanted to be a geisha, wanted to learn how to converse with sophisticated people, know manners and "wear and dress in beautiful clothes."

She was sweet and charming and indeed, had developed the skills that put all of us at ease. When asked how much a geisha is paid, she demurred and bowed, geisha-like. I learned later that a good geisha could command as much as $2,000 for each appointment.

After a while, Koito moved to my end of the low table, refilled my sake cup and sat next to me. Just by coincidence, I had taken a gift, a common gesture in Japan. It was a small box of Canadian maple-sugar candies. She was delighted, making such a fuss as though I had given her a diamond-encrusted brooch. She put it into one of her flowing sleeves.

We talked, her English wasn't bad. She enjoyed her life and also enjoyed being able to teach her trade to others. Since her heavily embroidered kimono was a knockout, I naturally wondered about the price. Again she bowed her head and explained, this time through our translator, that her training didn't allow her to discuss financial matters. But, Smiley, our guide, later told me, that kimonos for a geisha of her standing often cost tens of thousands of yen. They must indicate the seasons in the embroidered scenes and are never worn twice with the same group.

Enter the "Little Sister." Off to one side, throughout our discussion was a maiko — a geisha in training — who never took her eyes off Koito. Not as well adorned, in a kimono visibly less costly but nevertheless still colourful and lovely, this young beauty of l8 seemed terribly shy. However, this was her training ground, Older Sister told us.

Their time with us, about an hour and a half, had come to an end but not before their performance. The two danced, slowly and gracefully, to the music of a shamisen, a three-stringed instrument resembling a banjo, masterfully played by Older Sister.

Just before leaving, a very young girl about 13 years old — a novice maiko, who had been partially hidden most of the time behind the Japanese screen door and who had been instructed to wait — joined the trio to sing. Their voices were as lovely as their demeanour. Promptly at 8 p.m., they departed for their next appointment. Smiley said it would be a full night's work for them. For me, it is an unforgettable memory.

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Created: December 4, 2000
Last modified: December 4, 2000
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