“Kawaii!” is a word used to describe maiko—their girlish giggles and presumed innocence. An American woman I meet later tells me that she detests the word; to her, it seems to wipe out a century of feminism. Japanese men, however, love this non-threatening cuteness. In fact, young maiko are told not to look men in the eye because it is disrespectful. Instead, their eyes “skitter,” says Koko-san.
It is showtime. I slip my feet into the high-heeled geta clogs and step into the sunshine. People start taking photographs—me holding a fan, an umbrella; simpering and skittering. I hobble up the cobblestone street to the Yasaka Shrine. “Softly,” says Koko-san. “Don’t stride. Make a figure eight with your feet.” Koko-san 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-san. “This makes them look very ugly when they put on the kimono for the first time.” For a few minutes, 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.
That evening, I walk through the five geisha districts of Kyoto, also known as hanamachi, or flower towns. Light spills through the lattice screens and dapples the puddles in the road. Beautifully made-up geisha and maiko hurry between teahouses, going from one appointment to another. Tourists’ cameras click. The scene is at once thoroughly modern and utterly timeless.
The geisha’s karyukai, or “flower and willow world,” is both exacting and secret—one that prizes discretion (geisha rarely marry and if they do, they retire and never reveal the father of their child or children), yet is open to misinterpretation. When the American GIs occupied Japan, they stood in Tokyo’s Ginza district 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 entendres 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. Rather, they occupy a rarefied realm in which women are both divas and directors.
The earliest geisha were in fact men who played the role of court jester to the feudal lords of the thirteenth century. During the Edo period, merchants, shoguns (army commanders), samurai, and feudal lords spent their time traveling between Tokyo, the new capital, and Kyoto, where they might remain for months finishing deals or monitoring projects. Kyoto teahouses were built to entertain these travelers. 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—okaasan.
Naosome, the geisha I spend an afternoon with, has been adopted by the Nakazato teahouse. She is all of nineteen. Our meeting is almost a roundtable conference: me, Koko-san, the fixer who got us the interview—a beautiful lady called Hamasaki-san—Naosome, the okaasan, 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. The fact that she is becoming a geisha at nineteen shows how good she is at what she does, Koko-san says later. This means that she has found a danna, or 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 with 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 oniisan [big brother], laugh and joke with them,” she says. “Plus I get to wear a kimono, practice 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 affect my work.” She pauses for a beat. “Such as garlic,” she ends with great comic timing. The room erupts in laughter.
I ask the okaasan how she picks the girls that she molds 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 that she gets. “A geisha is like the sun,” says the okaasan. “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 the geisha. I can try to sit 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. A good geisha knows when to flirt, and how to do the right thing at the opportune moment—like Brooke Astor and Nan Kempner, who would have made excellent geisha. Geisha have an uncanny ability to light up a party and switch on the atmosphere; they understand and prize the art of conversation. 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.
One evening, Naosome entertains me and my children at her teahouse. My daughters are six and eleven, dressed in recently purchased kimonos and looking slightly bemused by the unfamiliar Japanese food in front of them. Right off the bat, my six-year-old announces that the food tastes “weird.” How will Naosome handle us? She doesn’t speak English, and we don’t speak Japanese. 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 that provides the background beat to several rock-paper-scissors-like games. Within minutes, my kids are entranced—by Naosome’s grace, her laughter, the softness of her touch as she hugs them when they win. The evening passes in a whirl of perfume and giggles.
“Most foreigners think geisha only play games,” says Sayuki, an Australian geisha, whose condition for meeting me is that I will list her Web site, sayuki.net. Such straightforward negotiation seems normal in modern business but comes across as blunt in a world where a geisha’s time is measured by the number of incense sticks used while she entertains. In the wispy smoke trailing from the stick lies the key to an entire subculture.
It is near the end of my time in Japan, and while I know I shouldn’t say this—being Indian, I’ve been treated to my own share of cultural stereotypes—I am convinced more than ever that Japan’s aesthetic is singular, so distinct that it can make the country feel, at times, almost impenetrable. Consider: Most ancient civilizations base their notions of beauty on symmetry. Think of the Taj Mahal, the Pyramids, the Parthenon. But Japan worships asymmetry. Most Japanese rock gardens are off-center; raku ceramics have an undulating unevenness to them.
What’s also unusual about Japan is how highly evolved, almost modern, its ancient aesthetic traditions are. Fragmentation, for instance, is a modern photographic idea, but the Japanese had it figured out aeons ago. Japanese paintings, for example, often depict a single 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.
Another important concept in Japanese aesthetics is wabi-sabi, which again is contrarian. The Japanese are a perfectionistic people, yet wabi-sabi honors the old and the vulnerable; the imperfect, the unfinished, and the ephemeral. While other ancient cultures emphasized permanence and endurance (Indian stone sculptures were built to last forever, as were the Sphinx and the Sistine Chapel), Japan celebrated transience and impermanence. The tea ceremony, which is often considered the acme of Japanese arts, leaves behind nothing but a memory. Wabi-sabi connotes “spiritual longing” and “serene melancholy,” which sounds pretentious but makes 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 weathered fabric, the lonely weeping willow are all wabi-sabi.__
Geisha, however, 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 sweets shops. I meet Ota-san above his shop, where bejeweled 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 is in fact an aesthete, pursuing a life revolving around beauty. He is a painter, a tea master, a confectioner, and a patron of the arts—a Japanese Renaissance man. He invites me to witness a tea ceremony at his rural retreat in Ohara, an hour outside Kyoto, for my final lesson in the Japanese arts.
The tea ceremony is exquisite. For those accustomed to the casualness creeping into the modern world, it can seem long-winded and needlessly formal. There are at least sixteen steps, including cleaning 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 a dark tatami room lit by candles, Ota-san mixes powdery matcha tea with hot water and offers it to us in a bowl. Just as I am about to sip, he casually lets it drop that the bowl I am drinking from is worth a million dollars. I carefully put it down, and 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 extroverted 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 at 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 performed the tea ceremony for famous personalities including architect Tadao Ando and fashion designer Issey Miyake, both of whom were guests in the very tatami room I am kneeling in. So which is your favorite tea ceremony? I press. “This one,” replies Ota-san.
His answer reminds me of a Zen koan, or riddle. Ota-san tells me that he gears each tea ceremony to the 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. Much later, Ota-san drives me 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 latticework,” Ota-san says as he drops us at a street corner. “That’s the beauty of Kyoto.”
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 ranted about our new puppy. She is peeing all over our apartment and driving us nuts. Over dinner, my husband lectured me about how I should fix the problem. In my previous avatar, I would have lectured him right back. Why is the puppy my headache? I would have asked, and gone on a tirade about shared chores and equality in marriage. The whole thing would have spiraled 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 so I shut up and let him get it all out.
I can’t say that I’ve become more alluring after my time in Japan, 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 listening. 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.