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Sun 6 Sep 2009 04:00 AM

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Geisha turn barmaids to keep Japan’s ‘Floating World’ afloat

Japan's geishas face competition from thousands of bars where men pay for chit-chat with women.

Geisha turn barmaids to keep Japan’s ‘Floating World’ afloat
Geisha turn barmaids to keep Japan’s ‘Floating World’ afloat
Japan once had an estimated 80,000 geisha.

In the stifling summer heat at the roadside Yebisu Beer stall in Kyoto's Gion district, Sakiko, dressed in a thick floral kimono, face plastered in white make- up, looks flustered as two foreign tourists photograph her.

"Pouring beer here is different but fun," said Sakiko, one of about 90 apprentice geisha, or maiko, left in a shrinking industry that's seeking ways to adapt as Japan emerges from its worst postwar recession.

"I get to talk with people I wouldn't meet in my usual work."

Filling mugs at European-style pubs and using English-language websites to attract business is a long way from the discreet private dinners traditionally organised by the teahouses where geisha train and live.

A traditional two-hour dinner with a geisha, who will entertain with music, dance performances and conversation, can cost as much as 67,000 yen ($715), more than half of which goes to the teahouse and an arranger, said Chris Rowthorn.

For the past four years, Rowthorn has been organising geisha entertainment in Kyoto, Japan's ancient capital and the birthplace of the performing art about 400 years ago.

"It's a luxury industry, and like the high-end hotels, it has dropped," said Rowthorn.

Bookings have declined 50 percent since last October, the month after the collapse of [financial services firm] Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc, he said.

"A lot of companies with expense accounts for entertainment have cut back."

At their peak in the 1920s, Japan had around 80,000 geisha, according to Lesley Downer, author of ‘Geisha: the secret history of a vanishing world'. Now, about 1,000 remain, said Osamu Itoh, head of a Kyoto association that promotes traditional arts.

Competition has come from the thousands of bars in Japan where men pay for flirtatious chit-chat with women who pour drinks and light their cigarettes.

"Demand for geisha has declined," said Itoh. "You can now go to a club or snack bar to talk with a hostess."

For 1,800 yen ($19) at the Kamishichiken Beer Garden in Kyoto's northwest, you can enter the geisha's "Floating World", a term coined by 17th century writer Ryoi Asai to describe the pursuit of pleasure and the transience of life. The fee buys you a beer, snacks and a chat with a maiko or a geiko, as geisha are known in Kyoto.Although you can't see the geisha dance and they wear light robes called yukata instead of kimono, the restaurant is packed with customers each night in summer.

"It's a pretty cheap way to be able to talk with a maiko," said Daniel Milne, a 28-year-old Australian university student who was there for his second time. "It must be very tiring for them, though."

Amid the shrill of cicadas and chatter of patrons, Ichimomo, a 16-year-old maiko, practices her conversation skills with beer drinkers at the garden three or four times a week. "We get many types of people here so it's quite fun," said Ichimomo. "I enjoy explaining to them what a maiko is."

Takemoto, a teahouse in Gion with two resident maiko, started an English-language website last year to reach foreign customers. Its online presence brings in two or three groups of clients each month, said Alex Jenner, a Briton who runs the site in Kyoto.

For geisha, making a public appeal for business is out of character, according to Downer, who wrote in his book: "Far from seeking publicity, the geisha shun it; their whole profession depends on their ability to keep secrets".

Such discretion was traditionally essential, as geisha entertained at parties where Japan's business and political elite met to unwind and make deals over a meal and cups of sake.

The elusiveness of geisha makes seeing one an unusual sight for tourists in Kyoto, which attracted 50 million visitors last year. Kyoto once had as many as 2,500 geisha. Now there are only 200 left in Gion, according to Itoh.

The large numbers of tourists has led to some problems for maiko, and in December last year, the Kyoto Tourism Council placed a notice on its website asking visitors not to "follow maiko in the streets or touch their kimonos".

Girls are usually around 15 when they apply to a geisha house, or okiya, and need to spend at least five years learning traditional music, dance and the art of conversation. It's a painstaking transition akin to the arduous training that apprentice wrestlers undergo to ascend in the world of sumo.

A maiko's day can start at 6am and typically begins with cleaning the okiya before putting on a kimono to practice music and dance. Applying the makeup to prepare for the evening's appointments can take up to an hour.

Ichimomo, the maiko at the Kamishichiken beer garden, has two days off a month and sometimes entertains until 2am. The training and long hours are worth the reward of becoming a geisha, she says, but she hints at an uncertain future.

"I guess these days, the number of customers isn't like the old days," she said. "Ours is a world that still isn't open."

This article is courtesy of Bloomberg.

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