Hidden beauty in Kyoto

Now the subject of a Hollywood movie, Kyoto's geishas are hot news. But real ones are hard to find, says Rhiannon Batten
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The Independent Travel

Walk through Gion in the evening and it's a bit like being on safari. As you slink along the alleyways of this Kyoto district, laughter and soft light creep out of squat, wooden houses, hinting at what you've come to glimpse. Outside one of the most exclusive teahouses, Ichiriki Ochaya, tourists stand, cameras poised, ready to pounce. But the difference between Gion and the Serengeti is that the prey here is human: the geisha.

Fancy-dress geishas are two-a-yen in Kyoto's tourist hangouts, but catching sight of the real thing is notoriously difficult. Spending an evening in a geisha's company is strictly by invitation only. And that only happens when you've been to a party she's hosted several times before. Which, in turn, only happens if you are there as the guest of a friend. Without the necessary connections, your best chance of seeing one of Kyoto's authentic painted ladies is in Gion.

One of five hanamachi, or flower towns as Kyoto's geisha districts are called, Gion has been famous since 1997, when Arthur Golden set his best-selling novel Memoirs of a Geisha there. The fictional story of an orphaned fisherman's daughter who rises through the ranks of Gion's geishas in the early 1930s, it has been turned into a film starring Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon's Ziyi Zhang, and opens in Britain next week.

But what of the modern-day geisha? The man to ask in Gion is the Canadian photographer Peter MacIntosh, who takes geisha-spotting tours around the district. It turns out that my gei-dar is way off the mark. "There's one on the left," he says, pointing out a woman in a pale pink kimono. Further on, he nods towards a 60-something woman loaded down with shopping bags. "They're just regular women, until showtime."

This takes the form of a tea party, which is "quite childish, a bit like a frat party," says MacIntosh. "Who wants to sit there and be bored stiff? It never crosses the line of being vulgar, but they're not all prim and proper. I might take her to karaoke, or to an Irish bar. I can basically take her anywhere, as long as her kimono doesn't get ruined. I can't afford to replace that."

There is also the tricky question of what exactly a geisha's customers are paying for. "We sell our skills, not our bodies," states Gion's most famous geisha, Mameha, in the film. MacIntosh is a little more explicit. "They are having sex," he says. "They're just not being paid for it."

But just as my dream of a white-faced, glossy-quiffed beauty is trampled on, a perfectly made-up geisha shuffles elegantly past with some customers, giggling. Her hair is decorated with flowers, she's cocooned in an exquisite silk kimono and in her hand she carries a delicate parasol. An adult geisha is correctly called a geiko, while a teenage trainee is a maiko. Maikos only become geikos after six years' dedicated study of manners, music and dance. With only two days off a month during that time, it's hard work. It's also expensive: MacIntosh reckons it costs around £150,000 to train as a geisha, with £300 a month spent on dry-cleaning.

To fast-track the process you can always book in at a geisha dressing-up parlour. At the Kurenai Sakkou studio, for example, MacIntosh's wife (a former geisha) will make you up as a maiko for 30,000 yen (around £150). A cheaper option is to try a kimono-wearing lesson organised by the Women's Association of Kyoto.

I meet up with them at the Tenryu-ji temple. Here, in the pale winter sunshine, I was squeezed into my first kimono. The result was a new-found admiration for the geishas. The tightness alone made me walk taller and straighter, move more slowly and make only the slightest of movements. As I shuffled along the gravel paths it was all I could do not to topple over.

Dreaming of becoming a geiko may seem a curious thing in the 21st century, but plenty of Japanese girls are drawn to it. "You get to wear amazing clothes, eat at the best restaurants and have people look at you," says MacIntosh. He says that, when he arrived, there were 55 maiko in Kyoto whereas today there are up to 80. That may be a select group compared with the 80,000-odd geishas who were working in Japan in the 1930s, but it's good news for the teahouse-owners of Gion.

And now the film is generating yet more interest in the area. Local attractions in the movie include the bamboo groves of Arashiyama, the Heian Jingu shrine and Fushimi Inari, a Shinto shrine. Most spectacular, though, is Kiyomizu-dera, a collection of huge temples and pagodas on a vast wooden terrace looking out across the city.

There is one last thing every budding geisha-spotter must try before leaving Kyoto - meeting a maiko. Gion's coquettishly named "Only One" bar offers a contrived version of the experience for visitors, the chance to swap the equivalent of £15 for a beer and a quick chat with a maiko.

Having survived the volley of camera flashes on her way in off the street, tonight it's 18-year-old Sonoka's turn to perform a short dance to the pluckings of a three-stringed shamisen. Sweeping her trailing kimono sleeves artfully around the stage, offering just the right glimpse of painted neckline in the process, she looks every inch the coy and docile entertainer. So, afterwards, when she sits down, laughs raucously and swigs beer like Charlotte Church at closing time, it comes as something of a shock.

What happened to the subservient geisha girl image we've all bought into? "See this chipped tooth? You wouldn't call my wife subservient," says MacIntosh.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

The only UK airport with non-stop services to Tokyo is Heathrow. From here, Japan Airlines (08457 747700; www.jal.com), British Airways (0870 850 9 850; www.ba.com), All Nippon Airways (0870 837 8866; www.anaskyweb.com) and Virgin Atlantic (08705 747747; www.virgin-atlantic.com) fly to Tokyo. You can fly from many other UK airports via other cities, with airlines such as Finnair (0870 241 4411; www.finnair.co.uk) from Heathrow and Manchester via Helsinki and Air France/KLM (0845 0845 111; www.air france.com) via Paris or Amsterdam.

The writer travelled to Japan with the Japanese National Tourist Organisation (020-7734 6870; www.seejapan.co.uk) and Japan Airlines.

Jaltour, the tour-operating branch of Japan Airlines, offers a five-night "Memoirs of a Geisha" package, including three nights in Kyoto and two nights in Tokyo from £940 per person (020-7462 5577; www.jaltour.co.uk).

STAYING THERE

Hotel Granvia, 901 Higashi-Shiokoji-cho, Shiokoji Sagaru Karasuma-Dori, Shimogyo-ku, Kyoto (00 81 75 344 8888; www.granvia-kyoto.co.jp/e/). Doubles start at Y23,100 (£115), room only.

VISITING THERE

The author's kimono wearing experience was organised by the Women's Association of Kyoto. Prices for half day activities start at around Y3,150 (£15) per person (00 81 75 212 9993; www.wakjapan.com).

Peter MacIntosh's walking tours start from Y3,000 (£14), or from Y40,000 (£190) if they include a teahouse experience (00 81 905 169 1654; www.kyotosightsandnights.com).

MORE INFORMATION

Memoirs of a Geisha opens on 13 January.

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