Every year, 50 million Tourists visit Kyoto, and the Flower Towns are a favourite since they are home to the remaining Geishas and Maikos, (geishas in training.) I peer through the wooden slat screen into the foyer of a Geisha house. The names of the Geishas who live there are written on a wooden plaque at the door. Should I enter? No, I feel that to go any further would be a rude invasion of privacy. Tonight, there is much activity in the Gion corner where they are preparing for any evening of traditional musical theatre, including comic and puppet plays, and the Kyoto-style dance performed by the Maikos. Like ballerinas in the Western world their movements are just as graceful, almost liquid.
On the narrow streets and Tea House lined alleys of Gion, Geishas are heading to their rendezvous’ in taxis and on foot. Graceful and swift they do not appear to walk, but simply glide very quickly on their wooden clogs (okobo), their silk kimonos gleaming in the lamplight. In front of one restaurant decorated with traditional red lanterns, seven tuxedo-ed security men stand guard. Tonight, a Japanese corporation is entertaining international clients and executives with a dinner and a traditional geisha performance. And just as it is in the movies, the cost of such an evening is astronomical and far beyond the reach of the hoi polloi. To dine with a Geisha and have her entertain you with music and dance will be $900 to $1000 U.S. per hour. And that does not include your dinner. These elegant women are not “escorts” as some Westerners might think.
This ancient city has its own dialect and cuisine. What do the Geisha eat? By day when they are not eating a simple lunch of Yudofu (simmered tofu) at home, you might see the Geishas lunching at any one of the many restaurants that serve local Kyoto cuisine.
In the interests of research, I wanted to have my 15 minutes as a Geisha, so I traveled to Eigamura Studios in Ukyo-Ku outside of Kyoto, to get into costume. A portion of this studio is open to the public. The makeup department took about an hour to apply the white make up to my face, pink eye makeup and black eyeliner, and a three prong fork shaped area at the back of my neck. An ornate black wig covered my head, but, they let me know that my blue eyes simply looked “wrong.” I stood with my arms outstretched as two women from the wardrobe department dressed me in the layers of silks, and showed me how to hide my hands in the folds of the sleeves in a certain way. Next came the white tabi socks and wooden clogs, like big wooden flip flops.
Then, totally unrecognizable I said, “I’m ready for my close-up Mr. DeMille.” Staring at my reflection a full length mirror was surreal. I had disappeared. It was as if my personality had been erased. Now I understood how a young Japanese woman feels when she finishes her training, and goes through the makeup and clothing ritual. She becomes another person. A Geisha. Could I have passed as a Geisha if I walked swiftly along the dimly lit streets of Gion? I’ll never know. They wouldn’t let me off the studio lot wearing a $17,000 silk kimono.
Sara Waxman is an award-winning restaurant critic, best-selling cookbook author, food and travel journalist and has eaten her way through much of the free world for four decades, while writing about it in books, newspapers and magazines. She is the Editor in Chief of DINE and Destinations magazine.