My Life as a Geisha: Condenast Traveler October 2009

Condenast Traveler’s October Issue has two stories that I reported, one on Kyoto and one on Mumbai. The printed version is at the below link. I’ve uploaded the long version below.

My Life as a Geisha

I have come to Japan to learn about allure. I’ve been married 17 years and while my marriage isn’t falling apart, it is fraying at the edges: a victim of minutiae like leaky taps, airline tickets and PTA meetings. Nowadays when I ask my husband a fairly innocuous question like, “Does this green dress suit me?” he gets this deer-caught-in-the-headlights blink. I want Ram to look at me with freedom, if possible, adoration. So I have come to Japan to learn about feminine allure from its acknowledged masters: the geisha.
Suzuno-san thinks I shouldn’t even be asking questions. Suzuno-san is a Tokyo geisha. Like most Japanese, she is slim but also beautiful with high cheekbones, Dior-red lips and a chignon at the nape, which the Japanese consider the sexiest part of a woman. This is why geisha and maiko (apprentice geisha) wear their kimono low on the back with their nape revealed.
Suzuno-san is in her forties, maybe fifties. I cannot ask. Geisha don’t reveal their age anyway. She teaches etiquette to young Japanese and bemoans the rising informality of her culture. “These manners are part of who we are,” she says. “It is what define us as Japanese.”
We meet at Fucha-ryori Bon, a lovely restaurant with tatami-lined cubicles inside which patrons can have lunch in rice-paper screened privacy. A waitress sets down our bento box and my tutorial begins. Over the next hour, I learn how to pick up a soup bowl (one hand on the side and one underneath), how to slurp udon noodles, quietly sip green tea, place chopsticks horizontally when I am done eating, and also how to treat a man.
Suzuno-san says that peppering a man with questions is a big no-no, something she tells all her apprentice maiko. Questions put a man on the defensive and their role as geisha is to smoothen things out. “I may know a lot about politics but I won’t reveal it,” she says. “Instead I will draw him out.”
This whole notion of playing dumb bothers me and I tell her so. Hasn’t she heard of feminism? Her version is different. She plays dumb not because she is a woman and he is a man. She does it because she is a professional and he is her client. It has more to do with hierarchy than gender. Japanese men play dumb with their clients too.
It is a smart answer but it doesn’t help me with my marriage. I can’t stop asking my husband questions even though I know that it puts him in the defensive. I could however imbibe what Suzuno-san calls ‘respect,’ both for humans and objects. Respect the tatami by leaving your shoes outside. When you cross a room, don’t just blunder across. Go behind people so that their conversations aren’t disturbed. Cover your mouth when you giggle. It looks better than revealing the innards of your gums. Sit up straight and don’t jut your elbows out as if they were sharp swords. Keep them close to your body. When you enter a tatami room, don’t just walk in. Sit on your haunches and slide across the threshold. Then you bow deeply to your host while still kneeling.
Suzuno-san sits on her haunches in the “sezai” position and demonstrates the three different kinds of bows: low, lower and lowest with your face almost touching the floor. I sit before her in my low-waisted jeans and T-shirt worried on many counts. I doubt that I can bow as slowly or elegantly as her. My knees are killing me. Mostly, I am worried that my butt will show when I bend low, or that I will do something embarrassing.
Thankfully nothing happens. The lesson continues. We finish lunch. My interpreter and I drop Suzuno-san at her street corner before speeding on. I turn around and watch her slide across the broad avenue. In her floral pink kimono and erect carriage, she looks regal. Alluring.
The dictionary defines allure as “the power to entice or attract through personal charm,” and this has more to do with gait and bearing than beauty. Geishas are masters of allure. They have the power to “stop a man in his tracks with a single look,” as the book, “Memoirs of a Geisha,” eloquently illustrates. This, I believe is why modern people are fascinated with geisha. It isn’t that they are beautiful although many of them are. Beauty is a wildcard anyway; beyond our control. Sexy after a certain age veers on tawdry. Mystique in the Garboesque sense is too much work. But allure is achievable. Allure, as the geisha so magnificently prove, can be taught and learned. Just like etiquette.
The Japanese call this ‘iki,’ an aesthetic ideal that implies subdued elegance. Iki developed in the 18th century as a kind of reverse snobbery that the working classes developed towards the bourgeouisie opulence of their rulers. Iki pits subtlety against gaudiness; edginess against beauty; relaxed simplicity against gorgeous formality. Loosely translated, iki means being chic or cool, but its nuances are particular to Japan— curves for instance are not iki but straightness is. Not sure why. A kimono falls straight down with no curves— iki, I suppose. An iki geisha might wear flamboyant kimonos but would remain modest. Iki combines sassiness with innocence, sexiness with restraint. Geisha with their giggly coquettishness are emblematic of iki; or aspire to be.
Kyoto represents the apogee of the iki aesthetic and that is where my journey begins. From the air, it looks like any other modern city with the vast Imperial Palace compound surrounded by a grid of neighborhoods that were originally inspired by the Tang Dynasty’s capital city Chang’an (now Xian). Bordered by mountains on three sides, this neat, green, low-rising city of 1.46 million people is almost at the geographical center of Honshu, Japan’s largest island. The big skies and constant mountains bring to mind the American West without any of its rugged swagger. Kyoto is anything but macho. With graceful Zen pagodas, shinto shrines, moss covered gardens, and the ‘Path of Philosophy,’ by the Kamo river, it is Japan’s spiritual and cultural heart. Kyoto is “where the Japanese go to learn what it means to be Japanese,” as the guidebooks say.
The city’s fate was sealed in 794 when the dour Emperor Kammu, freaked out by a series of accidents and natural disasters moved the imperial capital from Nara to Kyoto. He named his new capital, somewhat grandly, as Heian-kyo, which meant place of peace and tranquility. That it was and there it remained till 1868. For a thousand years of relative solitude from neighboring China and Korea, Kyoto was able to develop the hiragana script, pottery, ikebana and pretty much every art that is practised in the country today. Courtiers composed poetry, painted charcoal landscapes, drank sake and held moon-viewing parties in autumn. The elegant Lady Murasaki wrote ‘The Tale of Genji,’ widely considered the world’s first novel, and whose inflence still permeates Japan.
Since its heyday, Kyoto was taken over by successive feuding clans, shogunates and armed samurai for whom losing face meant ritual disembowelment or harakiri. The city’s fortunes wavered according to the whims of warring rulers. The capital moved to Tokyo during the Edo period and then returned to Kyoto. This chequered history has contributed mightily to Kyoto’s layered character. Within Japan, Kyoto is viewed with a combination of envy and disdain. Ask a Tokyo teenager what he thinks of Kyoto-ans and he will use words like snobbish and conservative. Kyoto people never talk straight, he will say. They won’t reveal their feelings and consider you a native only if you have lived there for generations. It is Japanese reserve multiplied by ten.
The city belies such extreme characterization. Sure, parts of Kyoto—near the station, for instance– are like any modern metropolis with snarling cables, suspended cranes, and slipshod neighborhoods that race towards an unplanned future, paying scant heed to preserving their past. But for those who know where to look, Kyoto can be breathtakingly beautiful. It is quintessential Japan in which every icon that we associate with the country blooms into perfection. Zen temples like Kinkaku-ji stand suspended above lakes, drawing the surrounding mountains into their landscape design. Shinto shrines with their tinkling bells, fluttering flags and sacred springs attract the faithful who clap three times to draw the God’s attention to their problems. Monks meditate by mossy rock gardens or the meandering Kamo river. Crooked cobblestone streets curve and wind: roads where you cannot see the end are luckier and prettier acording to the Japanese. Grids are the visual unifier, compared to, say, Arabia’s curves and India’s colors.
At twilight, Kyoto comes alive. Sashimi restaurants stand beside pizza parlors. Even though Nintendo is headquartered here, pachinko parlors are not ubiquitous. Instead, swarms of jean-clad office-goers make way for kimono-clad mamasans (matrons) on their way to buy pickles and eel at the bustling Nishiki market. Every now and then, a geisha appears, standing incongruously under a neon sign advertising lingerie.
For a modern feminist woman like me, it is difficult not to view the geisha culture as archaic and sexist; and perhaps it is. But having grown up in the East, I know that perception doesn’t equal reality. Contradictions exist within cultures, particularly in Japan where myth and mystique are like a silken skein that shows but doesn’t reveal. Yes, geisha were created to pamper Japanese men; but they were also the freest women in old Japan. “Successful geisha were strong-willed businesswomen,” says Japan expert Alex Kerr. “Unlike the typical sheltered Japanese wife, they’d been out in the world.”
A blonde man who speaks fluent Japanese, Kerr, 56, is an acclaimed author, calligrapher, and art collector. He reveres traditional Japanese art forms and is able to translate them into a western idiom. One of his pet projects is preserving and renovating traditional Kyoto shophouses (called machiya). Eager to embrace modernity, most homeowners were tearing down the machiya and putting up characterless but modern buildings in their place. Kerr acknowledges that machiya are dark and dank but they also reflect a lifestyle that is worth preserving. His Iori Trust retrofits traditional machiya with modern plumbing and electricity and rents them out to tourists at five-star prices.
I meet Kerr at an Origin Arts workshop he conducts in Kyoto. Superbly designed and executed, these experiential workshops offer interested participants an insight into the traditional Japanese arts—tea ceremony, calligraphy, flower arrangement, music, dance and drama. I am there because I want to get an overview of some of the arts that the geisha have to master. Gei-sha after all means arts person and mai-ko means dancing girl. I want to simulate, if only for two days, the training that the geisha undergo for years.
Kerr is an excellent teacher. He simplifies Japanese aesthetic concepts and places them in context. He says that Japan is a great storehouse for the Asian art forms because it was the “end of the line” that stretched from China. “Japan had 2000 years to refine and polish these arts. And nothing got lost,” he says.
Geisha played a key role in preserving the arts. In the early days, this was how they differentiated themselves from the courtesans of the Pontocho pleasure quarters– by studying the arts with a discipline that would give a Russian ballet dancer a complex. In winter, they would dip their hands into ice and then sit outside in the freezing cold with their frozen hands and play the shamisen strings till their fingers bled. Or so the tale goes.
I remember this during my next lesson, which involves turning myself into a geisha, quite literally. Kyoto these days has several shops that offer to turn you into a Geisha or, for men, a samurai. My guide, Koko Ijuin, tells me that they are very popular with visiting Koreans and Chinese. She says it disdainfully and wonders what the real geisha think about the fake geisha who don’t know how to walk properly.
Ijuin or Koko-san as I call her is a dainty woman who spent part of her childhood in America. Trained in the classical Japanese arts, she tells me that there is a proper way to do everything including opening a sliding door, the fusuma. It goes like this: kneel directly in front of door; place fingertips in handle; slide open 5 cm; place same hand on frame about 24 cm above the floor; push it open halfway; change your hand and push fusuma open the rest of the way. Stand up and back away. I am speechless at the level of precision. This, I think, is the secret of Japan: to see greatness in small things and smallness in great things.
Yume Miru Yume, where Koko-san takes me is a tiny make-up studio near the Yasaka shrine of Kyoto. The narrow cobblestone street is typical of Kyoto. Calligraphed signs on translucent rice paper, red lanterns, bamboo walls, people wheeling bicycles, retired men sitting on benches reading the newspaper. It could be a village in inner France were it not so Japanese in character—the faces, the alphabet and yes, the sloping-roofed shrine at the top of the hill.
Three women descend on me like fluttering sparrows and whisk me up a flight of stairs to the kimono-room. The Japanese love of seasons is reflected in their kimonos too. There are chrysanthemums, azaleas, weeping willows and sakuras (cherry blossoms). Since one size fits all, I can choose any of the two dozen garments hung by the wall. I pick a royal blue kimono with red and green flowers climbing up the sides. My obi, the wide brocade belt tied around the kimono is black and gold. It is 8 meters long.
Two attendants dress me in several layers of undergarments. We adjourn to the make-up studio below where the kao-shi or ‘face master’ smears white paint all over my face and neck. She murmurs appreciation of my eyes as she lines them with black liner, mascara, and then inexplicably, red liner around the edges to make them ‘sexier.’ My lips are drawn thinner than they are and painted bright red, like a rosebud. The hairstylist applies wax to the front of my hair so that not a strand is out of place. Then comes a wig with an elaborate hairstyle—not the famous split-peach one suggestive of the vagina but another updo. The hairstylist adorns my wig with lacquer combs, tortoise-shell bow-clips and hanging silk flowers.
The otoko-shi (dress-master) wraps the kimono and obi around me, an exercise somewhat akin to Scarlett and her Mamie. I suck it in as the surprisingly strong Japanese waif tightens the obi around my waist. The kimono looks best on women with no curves, they tell me approvingly. Small waists are in fact supplemented with towels so that the kimono can hang perfectly straight. I don’t need any towels. I conform to the iki standard of beauty if not the western one.
Finally, I am permitted to look in the mirror. An exotic stranger stares back— white face, red lips. I look Japanese. “Kawaii,” exclaim the girls. “Cute.”
Kawaii is a word used to describe maiko and it embodies their girlish giggles and presumed innocence. An American woman I meet later tells me that she detests the word. Kathy has lived in Kyoto for 25 years and that single word— kawaii– seems to wipe out a century of feminism; at least in her mind. Japanese men love this non-threatening cuteness, I am told. Young maiko are in fact told not to look men in the eye because it is disrespectful. Instead, their eyes ‘skitter,’ says Koko-san.
I angle my head slightly just like they tell me to and try to make my eyes skitter. My reflection looks deranged. It is show-time. I slip my feet into the high-heeled geta-clogs and step out into the sunshine. People start taking photographs— me holding a fan, an umbrella, me simpering and skittering. In that moment, I achieve my fantasy if not my goal. I am a Kyoto geisha but it is only as deep as my painted white skin; I have not yet been able to get under their skin and learn their secrets.
I hobble up the cobblestone street to the Yasaka shrine. “Softly,” says Koko-san. “Don’t stride. Make a figure 8 with your feet.” Koko calls the elegant shuffle of the Japanese ladies ‘shinayakasa.’ It suggests softness and ripples– like the waves, with one movement blending into the other. Young Japanese girls who have never worn a kimono “do not experience such movement,” says Koko. “This makes them look very ugly when they put on the kimono for the first time.”
It occurs to me that a western model’s strut on the catwalk is the exact opposite of the Japanese shuffle, suggesting once again that notions of beauty are not universal but relative and cultural. Angelina Jolie’s lips for instance would probably pose a nightmare for a geisha make-up artist because they don’t conform to the small beestung look that geisha sport.
Walking on a cobblestone in clogs is a nightmare for me so I quickly turn back. An assistant shampoos the wax out of my hair. Then we go shopping. Shoji street is atmospheric with paper lanterns, pickle shops and incongruously, a big Starbucks. As we walk along, we see a few maiko and geisha walking down the road. In their kimonoed finery, they look like peacocks. Is it okay to stare, I whisper. I think they expect it, Koko replies.
We enter shop after shop specializing in geisha accessories. A handbag costs $400, a lacquer hairclip, $483. A pair of zori sandals that look like fancy thongs is selling for $530. No wonder hiring a geisha for an evening can cost $1500. Good kimonos, I am told, can sell for $25,000, although second-hand ones are a mere $100.
Later, at a kimono workshop, I observe how individual kimono are designed, dyed, painted upon and then stitched together. It is in the picturesque Arashiyama district with its famed bamboo grove: a cool green path shrouded by bamboo on both sides. At dawn, it is sublime, my guide whispers, but when we arrive mid-afternoon, it is swarming with tourists. The main street has stalls selling sesame cakes, green tea icecream, radish and ginger pickles and fish sticks. We cut through meandering lanes, past Tenryuji, a UNESCO-designated Zen temple that was burnt down and rebuilt several times. Soon, we reach the Kurisho kimono workshop. Withered Japanese men in blue samurai robes sit before a loom-like apparatus, breaking off every now and then for a cigarette, and paint Japanese icons on to a kimono: weeping willows, waves, cherry blossoms, and Japanese cranes, symbolizing ‘luck, longevity and fidelity.’ Relative to its other arts, textiles aren’t a Japanese strength, at least in my mind. I’ve seen better weaves in Bali, Cambodia, Thailand and India. The reason why kimono cost so much is probably because labor is expensive in Japan, I conclude.
Old Japan was designed for kimonos— the squatting toilets, temple steps, and homes were all conducive to women wearing kimonos. Okiya teahouses measured their wealth by the number of kimono they owned. Now, they are all but invisible on the streets. WAK Japan, a company based in Kyoto, conducts kimono-wearing, and other classes for visiting tourists.
One morning I get picked up by a kimono-clad WAK representative for a dance class. Dancing is integral to being a maiko (the word means ‘dancing girl’) and I have decided to learn some basics. My teacher, an ever-smiling woman named Yayoi teaches me sliding walk which starts out slow and then goes faster. ‘Shin-gyo-so,’ she says, like a beat when I slide. She teaches me to ‘point at the chrysanthemum on the right’ and then at the left. Pretty soon, I am wielding a fan; twirling an umbrella, and cocking my head slightly like a Japanese crane.
Two hours later, Yayoi plays a Japanese song and to my surprise, I am able to put together all the steps into a semi-coherant dance. I won’t say that it looked beautiful— my teacher’s certainly did— but mine looked Japanese at least.
That evening, I don a kimono and walk through the five geisha districts of Kyoto. The hanamachi or ‘flower towns’ are welcoming yet secretive. Light spills through the lattice screens and dapples the puddles on the road. Red paper lanterns carry the rounded image of the ‘dango’ lollipops that children eat. Beautiful geisha and maiko hurry between teahouses, going from one appointment to another. Tourist cameras click. The scene is both thoroughly modern and timeless.
The ‘flower and willow world’ or karyukai is both exacting and secret, one that prizes discretion (geisha never marry and never reveal the father if they have children), yet is open to misinterpretation. When the American GIs occupied Japan, they stood in the Ginza and chanted for ‘geesha girls,’ or prostitutes. Today’s geisha go to great lengths to explain that they are sophisticated entertainers, not prostitutes. They may hint at their sexuality using double entrendre and sexual jokes delivered with the most innocent of faces; they may draw out a man’s sorrows by listening to him sympathetically and pouring more sake; but they certainly do not sleep around like the ‘onsen (hot springs) geisha.’ Rather, they are refined artists who occupy a rarified realm in which women are both divas and directors. “In a system that was repressive to women, there were these airpockets in which women could be dominant,” says Kerr. “Geisha in that sense were the superwomen of Japan.”
The earliest geisha were in fact, men who played the role of court jesters to the feudal lords of the 13th century. When women were banned from performing the kabuki, they were forced to take their talents to the teahouses where the first female geisha made her appearance in 1751.
During the Edo period, the capital moved from Kyoto to Tokyo. Merchants, shoguns (army commanders), samurais and feudal lords travelled between the two cities and spent months in Kyoto finishing deals or monitoring projects. Kyoto teahouses were built to entertain these travellers. Many of the early geisha were daughters of these teahouses, a tradition that continues to this day with geisha being ‘adopted’ by the okiya (teahouse) mother, called okasan.
Naosome, the geisha I spend an afternoon with has been adopted by the Nakazato teahouse. She is all of 19. Our meeting is almost a roundtable conference: me, Koko, the fixer who got us this interview—a beautiful lady who we call Hamasaki-san, Naosome, the teahouse-mother (okasan) and her assistant who brings in cups of green tea.
Naosome is of erect bearing, exquisitely polite, charming, and for a geisha, candid. Actually, she is not yet a geisha but will be in a few weeks. To become a geisha at 19 shows how good she is at what she does, Koko says later. This means that she has found a danna (patron), who will fund her studies and perhaps have a relationship with her.
In her orange kimono with her scrubbed face and frequent giggles, Naosome looks far too young to have a danna, let alone be a geisha. When I mention how young she looks, she laughs. Compared to her friends back home in her village, she is very mature, she says. She has been to fancy restaurants and parties; met and interacted with important businessmen and dignitaries. “I can call them ona-san (big brother), laugh and joke with them,” she says. “Plus I get to wear a kimono, practise my dance and live in this world of beauty.”
By now, I am starstruck by her poise. What, I ask, does she do to maintain her beauty? Yoga, a special diet? She giggles again. “I only avoid things that will affect my work,” she pauses for a beat, “such as garlic,” she ends with great comic timing.
The room erupts in laughter. Naosome and her okasan tease each other gently about the number of kimono the okiya owns. Not nearly enough, says the okasan disparagingly. You own enough to surprise me, Naosome replies. This exchange is a contrast to the formal hierarchical relationship between the geisha and okasan that books describe. I ask the okasan how she picks the girls that she moulds into geisha.
She pauses for a moment and lets out a heavy sigh. They have to be beautiful of course, she replies; and disciplined because they work long hours with few holidays. They have to be smart and learn quickly how to play instruments, dance, do tea ceremony. After all, it takes three years to just get the basic stuff right: posture, hand gestures, and what she calls ‘piling up experiences.’ But in the end, it is a gut feeling she gets, says the okasan. “A geisha is like the sun. When she walks into a room, it becomes brighter.”
I sigh— at the poetry of the words, at the audacity of my attempt to emulate geisha. I can try to sit up ramrod straight all I want. I can even learn how to put on makeup. But flirting with decorum requires skill; innuendo while maintaining propriety requires talent. When I try this on my husband at home— serving him tea while batting my eyelashes ‘innocently’– he stares quizzically and asks if I have PMS. The reason geisha are more successful than I at this is because they have an exquisite calibration for appropriateness. They know when to flirt, and how do the right thing at the opportune moment— like Brooke Astor and Nan Kempner, who perhaps would have made great geisha. Like the great western hostesses, geisha have an uncanny ability to light up a party and switch on the atmosphere. They know exactly what to say to the shy wallflowers to draw them out without making them feel self conscious. The Japanese call this kikubari—paying careful attention to others and understanding their desires before they vocalize them. The art of conversation—wit and repartee—is a prized skill among geisha, as I see during my interview with Naozome.
Over the next few days, I bump into Naosome many times— at the Kaburenjo theater where she rehearses for a performance the following week, during a street parade in honor of the Kitano Tenmangu shrine when she and other geisha stand in front of their teahouses as the faces of Kamischiken geisha district, smiling at passersby and having their photos taken by hordes of Japanese tourists. Naosome chats with a gray-haired man who never leaves her side. Is he her danna, I wonder. He looks old enough to be her grandfather and perhaps he is.
One evening, Naosome entertains us at her teahouse. I have brought my daughters along. They are 6 and 11, dressed in recently purchased kimonos and looking slightly bemused at the unfamiliar jelly-like Japanese food placed in front of them. How will Naosome handle us, I wonder. I am worried that my kids will be their usual forthright selves. Right off the bat, my six-year-old announces that the food tastes ‘wierd.’ The waitress giggles politely. Naosome speaks only Japanese and we don’t speak the language. The evening is going to be a washout, I decide.
What Naosome does— after treating us to a traditional fan dance– is play games. She teaches my girls a song called ‘kompeena hune hune,’ that provides the background beat to several games like ‘rock paper scissors.’ Within minutes, my kids are entranced— by Naosome’s grace, her giggles, the softness of her touch as she hugs them when they win, and the game itself. The evening passes in a whirl of perfume, giggles, unobtrusive service and for a finicky kid’s palate, mediocre food.
“Most foreigners think geisha only play games,” laughs Sayuki, an Australian anthropologist with an MBA from Oxford when I recount the evening. We are sitting at a café in Tokyo. I have just taken the shinkansen or bullet train in from Kyoto.
Sayuki is a geisha, albeit a non-Japanese one. She wears a kimono, speaks fluent Japanese and entertains clients at teahouses. Trained in western classical flute, Sayuki graduated from Keio University in Tokyo. It was through Keio’s alumni network that she accessed the geisha world, she says. Some of her college classmates had relatives who owned teahouses.
Spurred by the dream of actually living in what social anthropologists call the ‘target society,’ Sayuki (she won’t reveal her real name or age) decided to become a geisha. She took lessons in the shakuhachi or Japanese bamboo flute and made her debut a year later, an event that attracted a lot of press attention. She says that she wants to use her marketing savvy to take young geisha abroad.
Sayuki is controversial amongst geisha mostly because they prize discretion above all and she is nothing if not media-savvy. She agrees to see me only if I will mention her website in my article. I agree because I would have done it anyway. Such straightforward negotiation seems normal in modern business but comes across as coarse in a world where a geisha’s time is measured by the number of incense sticks used while she entertains in a teahouse. A couple of the Tokyo geisha tell me that they don’t know what to do with this gaijin (foreigner) who appears on TV, talks about the geisha life and plans to document it in a book and a documentary. On the other hand, Sayuki is able to offer a fresh perspective on this veiled world. It was she who first introduced me to the notion that geisha were not the doormats that they were thought to be. “Geisha can offer the kind of intellectual evening that you might enjoy in Oxford– which can be hard to find in Japan,” she says. “They have a very sophisticated wit.”
For a foreigner, Japan can seem impenetrable. Part of it is the language; part of it is the intrinsic reserve of the Japanese, their incredible self-discipline. Nobody ever jaywalks on Tokyo streets, nor do they jump the queue while waiting for the shinkansen (bullet trains). But it is more than that. It is an attention to detail, an appreciation for order. At the restaurant where I meet Suzuno-san— my etiquette teacher, I take off my shoes before entering the tatami room. Right behind me comes the waitress. Without so much as a hello or a bow, she bends and re-arranges my off-center shoes so that are perfectly in line with the other geta-clogs. Plus, she turns them around so that I can slip right in when I come out. I don’t think she did this because it is her job; I think the off-kilter shoes just offended her sensibilities.
Being from India and having been subject to questions like, “Do all Indians ride on elephants?” cultural stereotypes make my hackles rise so I shouldn’t be saying this but it is true: Japan has an aesthetic that is both refined and contrarian. Consider: most ancient civilizations base their notions of beauty on symmetry. Think of the Taj Mahal, the pyramids, the Parthenon. Japan does the opposite. It worships asymmetry. Most Japanese rock gardens are off-center; Japanese raku pottery has an undulating unevenness to it. Asymmetry and ‘astringency’ or “reduction of a thing to its essence through space and time,” are part of Japan’s aesthetic norms. Unusual, isn’t it? Most of us haven’t even heard of astringency, let alone develop an aesthetic sensibility around it.
Aesthetics are cultural. The Chinese like round faces while the Scandivanians, high cheekbones. What’s unusual about Japan is that its aesthetics are highly evolved, almost modern, given its vintage as a civilization. Fragmentation, for instance, is a modern photographic idea but the Japanese had figured it out eons ago. Japanese paintings depicts a branch instead of a tree. A fragmented moon hidden by clouds is considered more beautiful than a full in-your-face moon. They call this mono no aware, which implies an acute sensitivity to the beauty of objects, the “ahhness of things,” as the Japanese would have it. Mono no aware attunes people to the fragile and the transient. It values the soft patina of age more than the sparkle of newness. Mono no aware or empathy towards objects, arguably is the root from which stem Manga comic books, anime, Pokemon, Nintendo, Toyota cars and yes, Hello Kitty dolls.
The third concept in Japanese aesthetics is wabi-sabi which again is contrarian. The Japanese are a perfectionist race yet wabi-sabi honors the old and the vulnerable; the imperfect, the unfinished and the ephemeral. While other ancient cultures emphasized permanence and endurance— in their buildings and works of art (Indian stone sculptures were built to last forever as was the Sphinx and the Sistine Chapel), Japan celebrated transience and impermanence. The tea ceremony which is often considered the acme of Japanese arts, leaves nothing behind except a memory. Japanese pottery, going all the way to the Jomons, has a rustic simplicity to it. Wabi-sabi connotes ‘spiritual longing’ and ‘serene melancholy,’ which sound pretentious but make perfect sense when you visit rural Japan. The cherry blossoms are ephemeral and therefore wabi-sabi; the tea ceremony connotes loneliness and longing for a higher spiritual plane, hence it is wabi-sabi. The old cracked teapot, the withered fabric, the lonely weeping willow are all wabi-sabi. The geisha are anything but. “Just as the tea ceremony represents the wabi-sabi aspect of Japanese culture, geisha represent the opposite— the effervescence of the culture,” says Toru Ota, a scholar and confectioner who teaches at Kyoto Women’s University and owns Oimatsu, one of Kyoto’s best confectionaries. I meet Ota-san above his shop where bejewelled pastries in candy pink, baby blue and melting orange are displayed like works of art. A slim man who vaguely resembles Jackie Chan, Ota-san looks ascetic but he is in fact an aesthete, pursuing a life revolving around beauty. He is a painter, tea master, confectioner and a patron of the arts. A Japanese Renaissance man who has demonstrated the tea ceremony at the Japan Society in New York. He invites me to witness a tea ceremony at his rural retreat in Ohara. It is right next to a town called Obama, he says with a laugh, which has now become popular all over Japan for its American connection.
An hour outside Kyoto by taxi or bus, Ohara is famous for two things within Japan: the Sanzenin temple and its autumn colors. Like most Zen temples, Sanzenin has a complicated history with multiple rebuildings and changing of site. More interesting than the beatific Buddha inside are the mossy grounds, smiling stone statues amidst trees, and carp filled ponds. In the autumn, Ohara becomes Japan’s Vermont with lines of orderly tourists enjoying the blaze of maple trees.
Ota-san’s home is surrounded by rolling hills. It is dusk when we arrive at the bungalow with its slanting roof, pebbled driveway and shoji-screened doors. My guide and I stand uncertainly in the gathering darkness and then, suddenly, we see him in the far end of the garden, wearing a simple blue robe and raking the leaves that have fallen from an ancient gnarled tree. A solitary Japanese scholar, silhouetted against an indigo sky. That’s wabi-sabi, I tell myself. Serene melancholy.
The tea ceremony is exquisite. For someone who is used to the casualness creeping into the modern world— even Japan with its spiky-haired teenagers populating Tokyo’s Roppongi Hills isn’t immune from this— the tea ceremony can seem longwinded and needlessly formal. There are at least 16 steps including cleaning of the utensils, admiring the teapot, exchanging greetings, eating the tea sweets and then drinking the matcha (strong) and sencha (light) tea. In ancient Japan, chado or the Way of Tea was considered the essence of civilization. In order to enjoy chado, you have to get into a state of mind that we call Zen.
In a dark tatami room lit by candles, Ota-san boils water for our tea. He mixes powdery matcha tea and offers it to us in a bowl. Just as I am about to keep it to my lips, he casually lets it drop that the bowl I am drinking from is worth $1 million. I stop sipping and carefully place it down. We all laugh. The next round of tea which is more dilute is offered in a bowl that he picked up in Brazil, he says. It is almost worthless, he says and laughs.
I gaze at the bowl from Brazil. The two countries could not be more different. Brazil with its colorful straightforward exuberance is extrovert and open. Japan with its penchant for gray, its reserve and formality is as yin as Latin America is yang. I try to picture Ota-san in Copacabana beach. It is impossible.
Which is the best tea ceremony you’ve ever done, I ask? I expect him to mention one that he did for knowledgeable Japanese scholars who knew the various steps of the tea ceremony. By now, I am able to intuit that a tea ceremony can be like a symphony—if all the players know what to do, the experience can be sublime. Ota-san has done the tea ceremony for famous personalities including architect Tadao Ando and fashion designer Issey Miyake, both of who were guests at the very tatami room I am kneeling at. So which is your favorite tea ceremony, I press. “This one,” replies Ota-san.
His answer reminds me of a Zen koan (riddle). Ota-san tells me that he gears each tea ceremony to its guests. The scroll, the flowers, even the choice of tea utensils is based on what he thinks they will like. But how do you know what they will like, I ask. I look at their shoes, he replies. A riddle-like answer.
After tea, we have a hot pot dinner prepared by the same Hamasaki-san who fixed our interview with Naosome. Turns out that she has a Ph.D. in incense. What’s that, I blurt out? She describes it as somewhat akin to being a ‘nose’ in a French perfumery only with a much older provenance. Hamasaki-san and Ota-san are partners in an enterprise called Ren that aims to promote traditional Japanese culture. I wonder if they are a couple. It’s hard to tell—she is beautiful; he is obviously successful but much older than her. He doesn’t mention a wife or family, but that, my guide tells me is not unusual in Japan. Most Japanese men wouldn’t talk about their wives in public, he says.
Later, much later, Ota-san drives us all back into Kyoto in his Mercedes. It is pitch dark. The road winds. A stream gurgles nearby. We are happy. We chat about Barack Obama, Nepali restaurants and Kyoto’s beauty. “Enjoy the light spilling through the lattice work,” says Ota-san as he drops us at a street corner. “That’s the beauty of Kyoto.”
Sayuki, the Australian geisha I met in Tokyo says it differently. “Cultures die if they don’t evolve; they get diluted if they change too much,” she told me. “The Geisha culture of Japan is evolving. The fact that I, a foreigner can become a geisha is proof of it. I am the revolution.”
Postscript: Travel broadens your horizons, the cliché goes. It changes you. Well, it has been two months since I got home and the geisha of Japan still influence my thinking. I pay attention to how I walk, to my movements, whether they are compact and graceful. These are small things, you might say. But to the Japanese, the small is big; the simple is profound. I am still feminist but Japan seems to have rubbed off the edges. I tolerate stuff from my husband that I previously wouldn’t have. Again, it is small things.
Yesterday, for instance, my husband went on a rant about our newly acquired puppy. She is peeing all over our flat and driving us all nuts. Over dinner, my husband went on and on about how I ought to housebreak her, and how I ought to fix the problem. In my previous avatar, I would have jumped right back. Why is the puppy my headache, I would have asked and gone on a tirade about shared chores and equal marriage, and how he had it easy, given his travel schedule. We would have exchanged words. The whole thing would have spiralled downward and out of control.
Post-Japan, I just listened to him vent. The man is distressed, I thought. What would a geisha do, I wondered. And I took it. I shut up and let him get it all out.
I went to Japan to learn about allure. I went to Japan to improve my marriage. I can’t say that I’ve become more alluring but I’ve certainly become more patient. I try to appreciate the present and watch the moon—wabi sabi, you know. Allure can be a sideways glance, a hand gesture, or just keeping quiet and listening to a man vent. Allure can be the simple realization that I am not letting down a whole generation of feminists by being more attentive to my husband. For that, I have the geisha to thank.


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