Cut-price geisha shocks `willow world'

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The "flower and willow" world of the geisha in Japan's cultural capital is being rudely shaken by a 21-year-old woman who is injecting modern marketing techniques into the centuries-old craft. Kaori Takagi has shocked the discreet world of geisha houses and their rich clientele by opening a geisha "take-out" business - at a mere £80 an hour.

Geisha, with their elaborate make-up and silk kimonos, were once a frequent sight on the streets of Gion, Kyoto's entertainment quarter. In the early evening they could be seen hurrying through the narrow streets to assignations behind sliding screens, like the coy courtesans in old Japanese prints. But a top-level geisha can cost several thousand pounds for a night's entertainment, and in recent years, with increasing strain on company expense accounts, their numbers have dwindled.

Ms Takagi - working name "Mameiku", or "Growing Bean" - had the bright idea of offering a cut-rate service for the low-budget dilettante. With three other young geisha, two sales staff and a make-up artist, Ms Takagi's company has been doing quite well since it was set up at the beginning of November - to the fury of her old employer, who thinks she is violating the code of the profession.

Geisha are sought after for their skills in traditional singing, dancing and playing the samisen, a stringed instrument. Normally they do not offer sex, except to the danna, a wealthy patron each girl seeks out as her protector. The geisha world is exclusive: normally a man can make an appointment only if introduced by a business acquaintance. But Ms Takagi's company takes orders by telephone and will send one of the four geisha anywhere in the Kyoto region. And at £80 per hour, their fees are very low.

Since most geisha live in established geisha houses, their fees must cover the house teachers, auxiliary staff and overheads. For daring to break the trust of her former house and set up on her own in a cheap flat, Ms Takagi is seen by some as an opportunistic parvenue.

But the "Growing Bean" is not deterred: last week she filed a court case against her former employers, charging them with physical abuse, forcing her to work excessive hours with no holidays and withholding over £30,000 in tips from clients. "They are j

u st vicious people," she said. "They thought the harder they worked me the more money they could get."

Ms Takagi, born in southern Japan, came to Kyoto when she was 15, joined the Arai geisha house and started to train as a maiko, or apprentice. She made her debut after a year's training, but gradually became disillusioned with the geisha house.

During her time with the Arai house she found a rich patron, and with his backing decided to break out. "The three other maiko left their geisha houses, all fed up with various types of abuse and bullying. We have been pretty busy since we established

our business. And we have our freedom."