Eager to explore the culture Arthur Golden celebrated in Memoirs of a Geisha, I set off for Kyoto, where the ancient arts of the Japanese tea ceremony, flower arranging and entertaining wealthy men are still practiced by contemporary geishas. Today, they choose their lifestyle rather than being forced into it, as Golden's heroine was. At 15, girls so inclined apply for residency in an ochaya and begin five years of training designed to transform them into full-fledged geishas.
I was spellbound by the demure maiko in her final year of training who performed a ceremonial tea service and traditional dance for me at Gion's Ochaya Tomikuku, on the eastern bank of the Kamo-gawa River. Run by the third generation of the Tomimori family, the 80-year-old establishment opened in the Shōwa era or "period of radiant Japan," during the 20th century reign of Emperor Hirohito.
In a stunning kimono with long flowing sleeves, opaque white makeup, red lips and a traditional up-do accessorized with silk flowers and a tassel, the nineteen-year-old floated ghost-like onto tatami mats before a golden screen. Eyes downcast at her high wooden sandals, she radiated bashful deference, like a torchbearer for an anachronistic, disappearing heritage.
After dancing, she played a rock-paper-scissors-type game with me; when I repeatedly lost and downed shot after shot of sake as a consequence, she finally smiled shyly and made eye contact.