A Week in the Life of: Koaki, Apprentice Geisha - Schooled in the arts of pleasure

KOAKI IS a 20-year-old maiko, or apprentice geisha. This apprenticeship will eventually qualify her for a life entertaining men at banquets and private parties with dancing, singing and witty conversation.

Koaki began her training when she graduated from high school at 15. At 16 she made her debut as a maiko in Gion, the entertainment district of Kyoto.

Tradition dictates that the geisha reveals little about her personal life. It is all part of the cultivation of outer mystery that goes with the learning of the geisha roles and the inner strengthening of her sense of herself as a geisha.

The change of identity begins with a change of name. Koaki's real name is Aki. The "Ko" comes from her oneesan (older sister), called Kofumi, with whom she had a sister bonding ceremony at the time of her debut.

The role of the older sister is that of a mentor, who guides the apprentice through the etiquette of her professional engagements, and the apprentice must defer to her. Koaki's name means "little Asian hope".

Koaki must also lose her regional accent if she hails from another part of Japan. Geisha in Gion must keep alive the illusion that they are from Kyoto even when they are not. They must master the soft and old- fashioned Kyoto dialect, which serves to hide any regional accents and perpetuates the myth of the Kyoto geisha.

Koaki is apprenticed to a very exclusive okiya (geisha house). There are just 19 maiko in the whole of Gion. She says the life here is like living in a dormitory, but it has become her second home. The shedding of irritating personal responsibilities further eases the growth of her new identity. "My okaasan (literally mother, but manager of the okiya) takes care of everything for me - my expenses and my clothes."

This week it is Gion Matsuri, one of Kyoto's major summer festivals, and a busy time. They must entertain customers as well as participate in some of the festival's events. She has just dined with customers at a restaurant in central Kyoto and accompanied them to view the main parade of floats. Later in the week she will be part of the procession of floral bonnets on Kyoto's main street, followed by dancing at the Yasaka shrine, where Gion's geisha worship.

Soon, Koaki will graduate to full geisha rank, a rite of passage involving a change of status as well as a new type of kimono and hairstyle. She says, "I want to be a maiko for as long as possible. It's a special time. Once I am a geisha I will always be one."

There is no official retirement age for geisha. Koaki could work for as long as she wants, but she says: " I want to become a geisha, but right now I don't know if I want to be in this world for ever."

From Monday to Friday, Koaki has lessons from 9.30 at the okeikoya (training school). It is compulsory to study the traditional Japanese arts, specialising in one or two areas. Koaki studies flower arrangement, dancing and drumming, and will later learn the flute.

It is an essential maiko goal to appear "cute". They wear brighter kimono and higher geta, or wooden clogs, than fully fledged geisha. The bag she carries bears the brand logo"Hello Kitty". It is the ultimate cute and very pink accessory in brand-conscious Japan. She is what the Japanese describe as genki, or lively, and she has a full, loud laugh.

When lessons finish, at around 2pm, she sometimes goes with friends to a coffee shop for lunch, but usually she heads back to the okiya for a simple meal and an afternoon's rest before the evening's engagements. She likes to eat arbecued meat or noodles, but lunch at the okiya is usually something simple, such as bread.

At 4pm Koaki starts getting ready. Her make-up takes about 45 minutes, with various undercoats of wax and paste before the final dusting of white powder. Lips and eyebrows are carefully painted on.

Her hair is set once a week at a special hairdresser. It takes 40 minutes, and she must sleep on a special neck-rest so as not to spoil the lacquered style.

Maiko use their own hair, as opposed to geisha, who use wigs. This week, Koaki points out, her hair is set in a festival style.

The style of kimono is determined by the season. A professional kimono dresser comes to the okiya every day.He's an expert, so it only takes him about five minutes to tie Koaki's kimono and obi, or wide belt. By 6pm she is ready.

Koaki says she has a strict daily schedule, the only variation being the number of evening engagements. There are usually three or four zashiki (engagements) a night.

"During the boom time I heard that there were five or six engagements a night. Now, I sometimes have idle time between appointments."

During idle time on Tuesdays she has a chance to watch her favourite TV drama, Kamisama, Mo Sukoshi Dake ("God give me a little more time"), the story of a young girl infected with HIV. She is interrupted this week with a call from the aochaya (teahouse) to entertain. In Gion there is an internal telephone network between the geisha houses, the teahouses and restaurants. The whereabouts of a geisha is always known, so she can be called when needed.

Koaki usually returns to the okiya by 1am. She removes her make-up and takes a bath. Only on Sundays can she sleep in.

Geisha don't reveal who their clients are or give details of what happens at their engagements. Koaki reluctantly says that the clients are mostly older men, and she is treated like a granddaughter. "Sometimes a customer will bring his son, but it's rare to see young people in Gion."

Her customers range through the spectrum of society, but mostly they are businessmen entertaining clients. "I'm not expected to discuss business or very difficult topics. I am supposed to be like a 'flower' at these parties. Customers come to Gion for fun and to relax.

"Japanese men yearn to visit Gion. They want to have the experience of being entertained in a traditional way."

An indication of the strength of this attraction is that Gion isn't suffering too much from the effects of Japan's recession. Koaki says that after an engagement she will go on with customers to a karaoke bar somewhere in Gion, a modern innovation in a geisha's life.

Between work, festivals and lessons there are only two days off a month. Koaki is looking forward to a precious three-day holiday later in August, and plans to relax in her okiya room listening to her favourite singers, Mariah Carey and Celine Dion.

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