It should take years of training to join the elite hostess order - but in Kyoto you can buy the look in just 40 minutes
Of all the beauties of traditional Japan, there are few which send quite such a warm shiver down the spine as the sight, on a summer evening in Kyoto, of a geisha in full costume.

Even here, in the ancient capital, the experience is increasingly rare, for the tearooms and traditional restaurants of the old pleasure quarters are fewer than they used to be, and the economic recession has cut the spending power of even the richest of their customers. But every now and then, as dusk gathers over the broad Kamo River, you will see them, alighting from rickshaws or discreet black cars: the shining black hair elaborately fastened into place, the whitened face and swan-like neck above a swirl of gaudy kimono.

The universe of the geisha is known as karyukai, "the flower and willow world", and even in the Japan of skyscrapers and robotics, it has survived intact as a living part of cultural history. Hard times may deprive them of their customers; new opportunities for women may reduce the number of willing new recruits. But the art of the geisha survives, and their beauty, mystery and allure is as undiminished now as it was in Japan's feudal Edo period.

At least, that is how things used to be. For in the last five years, the flower and willow world has come under threat from pretenders - brazen opportunists who threaten to sully the geisha's shiny reputation.

The problem is the consequence of a success story: Kyoto's continuing prosperity as the most popular tourist attraction in Japan. Every year, some 40 million tourists come here to visit the city's ancient Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines and feudal castles, the great majority of them Japanese. Among the most affluent and free-spending are young women, for whom Kyoto is inextricably connected with images of geisha.

Fifteen years ago, a local amusement park had the idea of offering tourists the opportunity to dress up as geisha - more accurately, as maiko, the special Kyoto word for young geisha apprentices. After being made up and costumed, they pose for photographs and then have the option of going out and about in the city in their maiko plumage. The idea was so successful that 40 studios have sprung up offering "Maiko Transformation" for a fee ranging between pounds 33 and pounds 100.

Before the true maiko makes her debut she must undergo years of careful training in dance, music, deportment and etiquette. To dress and make up a paying customer takes just 40 minutes. These days the narrow lanes and historical streets of Kyoto are full of the so-called "pseudo-maiko" behaving in ways which, to the conservative eye, are horribly inappropriate.

To pseudo-maiko, unused to the constricting kimono and balanced upon delicate slippers, simply walking in a straight line is challenge enough - but that is not the worst of it. Like tourists everywhere, the girls are out to enjoy themselves - smoking, snacking, drinking and giggling. Real maiko are taught to speak a special geisha dialect - apart from their skills as dancers and musicians, they are instructed in the art of witty repartee with their customers. To conservative Kyoto-ites, the spectacle of pseudo-maiko, tottering along and squealing at one another in the coarse accents of Osaka and Tokyo, is infinitely distressing.

"Maiko are one of the cultural symbols of Kyoto, and we want to preserve their image appropriately," says Hiroyuki Yamazaki of the Kyoto Tourist Association. "Maiko are painstakingly trained in dancing and etiquette. They are extremely refined and carry themselves beautifully. I don't mind if these pseudo-maiko stay in the studios to have their photographs taken, but once they go outside it causes problems."

Just recently, Mr Yamazaki was contacted by an indignant gentleman from Kobe who had visited Kiyomizu, Kyoto's most famous temple. "He complained that he saw pseudo-maiko who were very ill-mannered. They did things like eating while they were walking, and they weren't refined at all. On top of that, the kimonos they wore were very old, and the way they wore them was rather odd." To the outsider, these may seem like small things to undermine an entire cultural tradition, but in the rarefied world of the Japanese arts, tiny detail is everything.

The way a geisha holds her fan, the pitch of her voice, and the angle of her neck as she tilts the sake flask into her customer's cup - all are painstakingly perfected over years of training. To the refined Japanese sensibility, the sight of a tipsy maiko clumping along in the park, giggling and eating crisps, is profoundly jarring, like catching a beautiful ballerina in full costume picking her nose while barking into a mobile phone. "Pseudo- maiko like that tarnish the image of the real maiko," says Mr Yamazaki.

Belated attempts have been made to regulate the new industry, but this has caused more trouble. Three years ago, a group of concerned studio proprietors formed the Association of Maiko Make-Over Studios, a self- governing body intended to curb the more slatternly extremes of pseudo- maiko excess. Some studios require their customers to wear placards while they are out walking, making it clear that they are not the real thing. But many studios refuse to join the association, and there are allegations about dirty tricks: one non-member of the association claimed last week that her rivals were deliberately sending out ill-mannered pseudo-maiko to damage her reputation.

Amid the controversy, one group remains unruffled - the gentle geisha themselves. Famously reticent and low-profile, the geisha association has stayed out of the fray. Nobuo Hatanaka, chairman of the Make-Over Association, recently met a senior okaa-san or geisha "mother". "She didn't criticise the business or the customers at all. What's more, she offered to come and teach our staff manners and etiquette. I was deeply touched by her words, and reflected that this is the true graciousness of the geisha."