Life of geisha still alluring for girls

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 December, 2011, 12:00am

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Wrapped in a beige satin kimono, with her face painted white and the edges of her eyes defined in crimson, 15-year-old Tomitae debuted as a maiko - or 'novice geisha' - at the annual Gion Odori, or dance performance, in Kyoto last month.

Tomitae has learned to dance with a folding fan and prepare a cup of powdered tea in the traditional way. But it will take a further five years of rigorous study before she is a fully qualified geisha - a Japanese hostess trained to entertain men with conversation, dance and song. In Japanese, gei means 'performing arts' and sha means 'person'.

Obsessed with her country's traditional culture, the junior high school graduate from Himeiji, in southern Japan, gave up mainstream education to join the ranks of the ancient profession.

In April, she travelled northeast to Kyoto's Gion district - regarded as the hometown of geishas - and moved into one of its geisha teahouses. Tomitae adopted her stage name and embraced a new life in a society whose lifestyle has changed little since the 18th century.

As the youngest in the household, at first Tomitae performed only daily chores and watched her senior colleagues at work. After a month, the head of the household - whom the students call 'mother' - deemed her ready for the military-like classes. The lessons began with basic dance steps and tea ceremony skills, which took more than five hours a day. These lessons were followed by learning arts and skills that are required of a geisha, including the playing of instruments, singing, pouring sake, and rules of conversation.

Tomitae must also study the rules affecting every aspect of life - from walking quietly and elegantly on wooden clogs, to eating tofu.

She most enjoys dancing and playing the koto, a Japanese wooden harp. 'I love the traditional melodies, but I need to work harder on expressing the feelings ... that go with traditional Japanese dance performances,' she says.

Geishas and maikos are often more than entertainers; they often play the role of a hostess. Tomitae says she needs to pay attention to the news of the day and gossip from the worlds of theatre or sumo wrestling, so she can engage in witty conservation with upmarket guests who have different jobs and hobbies.

Learning to create the particular look of a geisha starts during maiko training. Tomitae spends hours each week at the hairdressers to arrange her long locks in bundles on top of her head, secured with flowers, fans and ribbons. Maintaining that hairdo is almost as exhausting as creating it. 'I have to sleep on a wooden box-shaped pillow,' Tomitae says.

Before she starts work in the evenings, Tomitae takes an hour to apply her make-up and, with the help of dressers, puts on her heavy kimono and obi - a long strip of fabric tied around the waist and left dangling at the back.

All her attire - from make-up and hair to kimono and accessories - changes according to experience and season. Maikos usually wear flamboyant colours, while geishas dress more subtly.

In the 1920s, there were more than 80,000 geishas across Japan, but now there are only an estimated 1,000. But Tomitae does not believe that geishas are becoming less relevant in modern-day Japan.

'Demand exceeds the number of maiko in Gion Higashi [one of the five geisha districts] now,' she says, adding that geishas still need to work hard to remain competitive.

Tomitae and five other maikos and geishas will perform at the Hong Kong Arts Festival in February. Tickets are on sale now. For details, go to www.hk.artsfestival.org

 

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