Geisha in Kyoto

This is an excerpt from my book, BIG LIKE: CASCADE INTO AN ODYSSEY.

Kyoto, April 1996. We leave our slippers next to dozens of identical slippers at the edge of the dining area and continue in socks across the tatami to a low table. Two thin cushions serve as chairs. We sit on our heels. Having practiced that excruciatingly painful position every day while doing chopstick exercises, I can hold out for a few minutes. Izumi translates the menu, but even she has trouble reading the bold cursive columns of kanji. A yudōfu set catches our fancy.

A waitress in kimono hefts a pot of broth and tofu cubes on a hot plate in the center of our table. Next to it, she places a platter of tempura-fried lotus root, eggplant, yam, and pumpkin. Then she covers the rest of the table with a variety of bowls—rice, bonito broth, pickled mountain vegetables, bite-sized rolls of soymilk skin, a paste of ground sesame and kudzu starch, and a variety of condiments.

When there’s no more room left on the table, she gives her spiel about each item. Izumi says, “Hai, hai, hai. I nod knowingly. As soon as she’s gone, I straighten out my tortured legs in a direction where my soles don’t point at anyone. Which isn’t easy in a crowded place. But pointing your soles at people is against the rules, my guidebook says. Or maybe not anymore. I ask Izumi.

“No problem,” she says. “You can do it.”

“Would you point your soles at people?”

“I might not.”

“So, it’s a rule?”

“Not rule,” she says, forehead rumpled into a quizzical frown.

I’ve run into this before. She denies there’s a rule but follows it anyway. I want to follow these rules, whether they exist or not, because I want to be a good gaijin, but learning about a rule that doesn’t exist and then following it is hard.

Izumi adds condiments of grated daikon, green onions, bonito flakes, raw ground ginger, dried seaweed, and ground pepper to her bowl of bonito broth. I do the same. Into this, we dip pieces of what honest folks admit under their breath is bland tofu. But it absorbs the sauce and resurfaces piquant.

“The secret of tofu is the dipping sauce,” she says between bites.

“That’s the way to eat toffff—”

The piece I’m holding near my mouth disintegrates between my chopsticks, splashes into my dipping sauce, and splatters a brown Rorschach test with condiments on my white shirt.

Izumi freezes.

I have the urge to cuss. But in Japan you don’t cuss. Not even between your teeth. One of the rules. I do damage control with my napkin, which is ludicrous. The stain stretches from my belt to my sternum. Patrons pretend it hasn’t happened and try not to snicker. Waitresses dissipate politely into thin air.

“Happens to everyone,” Izumi says when the shock subsides.

We hike up the alleys to Kiyomizu-dera Temple. They’re lined with noodle shops, cafés, snack shops, and souvenir shops in wooden buildings, some with multilayered curved and pointy roofs and patinated copper gutters. Guys in traditional or maybe fantasy outfits wait by their rickshaws and invite us with a bow. Random utility poles with spaghettiesque cables, a standard Japanese urban feature, dominate the sky even here. Two geisha hobble arm in arm out of a side alley. Their flamboyant kimonos, theatrical makeup, and dramatic hairdos attract giddy onlookers who yank out cameras and shoot photogenic geisha-in-alley pictures. My guidebook says Kyoto is the only city in Japan where you can still chance upon them.

“They’re maiko, not geisha,” Izumi says.

“What’s the difference?”

Maiko are apprentice geisha.”

“How can you tell?”

“By their hairdo and makeup.”

The maiko try to get away, but their high geta are ill-suited for speed, or for normal walking, or for anything else other than standing in four inches of muck without getting your feet dirty.

“They’re faux maiko,” she says. “They’re girls who purchased a maiko package. Ads are all over Kyoto. A day package with makeup and accessories costs one man five-thousand yen.”

“Why would anyone do that?”

“Lots of girls dream of being maiko for a day.”

Excerpt from my book, BIG LIKE: CASCADE INTO AN ODYSSEY.

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