In a narrow alley, I spotted her: a young maiko (geisha-in-training) wearing distinctive white make-up, a neon-bright kimono, silk flowers in her hair and four-inch-high wooden sandals. Eyes downcast, she scurried by me, enroute to work in one of Gion's exclusive nightlife establishments. Colleagues arrived in limos accompanied by wealthy gentlemen, their jobs cut out for them as they have been for centuries—entertaining rich men through the ancient arts of the Japanese tea ceremony, dance, musical instrument playing and flower arranging.
Unlike Sayuri in Arthur Golden's bestselling memoir, contemporary geishas choose their lifestyle rather than being forced into it. At age 15, girls so inclined apply for residency in an ochaya and begin five years of intense training in the rigorous arts of the geisha. Successful applicants become full-fledged geishas, often practicing their arts in Gion, Kyoto's renowned entertainment and geisha district on the eastern bank of the Kamo-gawa River.