Geisha for a day

Text and photos by ERIC PRIDEAUX

It was high time for a break from the pressures of jobs and family.

Women dressed as geisha (above) listen to a speech at the end of their course at the Ito Spa Parlor-Culture Academy; a real geisha applies makeup to one of her clients.

But for their "all-girls outing" the three working-mother friends opted against the stereotypical shopping spree or visit to a beauty salon. Instead, the trio decided to treat themselves to an in-depth, weekend course at Ito Onsen Ozashiki Bunka Daigaku (Ito Spa Parlor-Culture Academy) in Shizuoka Prefecture, where they learned how to walk, talk, dance and sing . . . like geisha.

"I always wanted to understand what geisha really are," said Hideko Watanabe, 56, a caregiver for the elderly, as her friends Setsuko Annan, 49, and Yoko Akiyama, 53, nodded in agreement. "I dreamed of stepping into their shoes at least once in my life."

The course, held at a tile-roofed former inn and taught by four veteran geisha, presents itself as a learning opportunity available nowhere else -- and one particularly valuable for women seeking traditional pointers toward enhancing their femininity.

"Your posture, the placement of your hand, the way you cast a glance -- all of this conveys your inner kindness and beauty," said Namichiyo of the Ito Geisha Union, a geisha of 32 years. (Geisha go by an assumed, single name.)

Obviously, this degree of subtlety can't be acquired in a day. A young geisha must undergo years of strict training in such arts as playing the shamisen, singing melodies known as kouta (little songs) and performing tea ceremony. The term geisha, in fact, literally means "one versed in the arts."

The geisha's mind is always at work: When entertaining executives, she will be judged not only by the fluidity of her dance steps, but also by her ability to chat about current events as she delicately pours beer for her clients.

Despite all that, geisha have been saddled with an unfortunate reputation as high-class call girls, not only among unknowing foreigners, but even with many Japanese. As Akiyama, one of the weekend students, put it: "There are people who look down on geisha, even though these women are, in fact, true artists."

It was to learn some secrets of a geisha's allure that Akiyama and the others attended the course. On the first day, they listened to an hour-long afternoon lecture on the history of the geisha profession and the influence it has had on Japanese culture. (They discovered, for example, that the occupation can be traced back to around the mid-18th century, when prostitutes added performing arts -- such as drum-playing -- to their repertoire of skills. Other artistic accomplishments came later. Today, sexual services can no longer be expected of geisha.)

After their lecture, the students picked up folding fans and practiced nihon buyo, the traditional dance performed with bent knees and slow movement of the feet.

On the second day, the women gathered in a changing room where they underwent the transformation they had been waiting for. Three geisha tenderly applied white face powder to their faces, then the bright-red lipstick that is the geisha's hallmark. A kimono went on, then an obi sash, followed by an enormous black wig and -- presto! -- the students became geisha-for-a-day.

School students have makeup applied by geisha (above); geisha-for-a-day giggle between dances.

The moment was magical. It was as if these women had suddenly become schoolgirls again. One powdered woman exclaimed to her decked-up friend, "You're so cuuute!" -- drawing loud protestations from her and fits of giggling all round.

The real geisha, though roughly the same age as their students, acted as caring mothers, dishing out tough-love encouragement to women unused to the sumptuousness of the attire. When one jokingly moaned that her sash made her look like a sumo wrestler, a geisha shot back with a wry smile, "A sumo wrestler would be offended by the comparison!"

Soon it was time for the grand finale. The women tottered away in their clogs to a tatami-mat room to dance before an audience of general visitors. To a melody plucked out by a geisha on a shamisen, and with sharp reminders from Namichiyo to place the left foot here, point the fan there, the students managed to get through the buyo dance they'd been taught. Their steps were far from perfect, but nobody seemed to mind because it was all good fun -- and the experience of a lifetime.

"Finally, after coming here," Watanabe said following the recital, "I've understood what it means to be a geisha."

This story originally ran in The Japan Times.

The Japan Times: Jan. 16, 2004
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