Spotting a geisha is tricky. They are famous for their discretion, after all. Dipping in and out of tea houses and traditional restaurants, they are very rarely outside.
They spend their days learning the ancient skills like calligraphy and playing traditional instruments. Then, when the evening draws in, they have appointments. These could be a music recital, a dinner party, a dance, or just some time to mingle with businessmen and engage in conversation (timed by the burning of an incense stick).
Their world is notoriously secretive, and rumours that some geisha still engage in more than just a chat with their clients are hard to prove. Geisha literally means ‘person of the arts’, and despite their WWII ‘geisha girls’ connotations, they are a more courtesan than call girl.
Geishas are a very distinctive part of Japanese culture, but they are far removed from day to day life in the modern city. Much like our Beefeaters or the Guards outside Buckingham Palace, they are more of a symbol. They are living relics of a time gone by, and tourists bloody love them.
When wandering the narrow alleyways of Gion, it feels like stepping back through time. The paved streets, red lanterns, shutters and hand painted signs are like another world. It’s well worth a stroll in the twilight anyway.
But everyone there is secretly hoping to clap eyes on one thing – a creature that has captured the imagination of poets, film makers and writers the world over (the locals call her a geiko).
Most people can’t stump up the cash for a tea ceremony or entertainment over dinner. And more often than not, you have to be personally invited to attend these things anyway. So their only chance of spotting these secretive ladies is to wander the narrow alleyways of Gion and keep their eyes peeled.
I spotted a maiko (apprentice geisha), and unlike her more established colleagues she was more than happy to giggle in front of the cameras. She was even more amazing in the flesh.
Next time: Budget Airline Bugbears…