KYOTO, Japan — The night began with Champagne and French wine in the Old World, wooden-framed home of a friend of Akiko Fukai, Japan’s leading dress historian and curator, whose Kyoto Costume Institute collects ultra-modern dresses, à la Comme des Garcons.
It was to end in the small hours in the heart of old Kyoto, where the lamps blow between the timber houses, with the white face powder of a geisha—or geiko, as they are known locally—smeared across my face, her floral business card in my purse, and an offer to stay at her house.
In keeping with the Old World vibe, I was staying at the Hoshinoya Kyoto, the most luxurious addition to the Kyoto ryokan, or traditional inn scene. It’s in a former merchant’s house from centuries ago, in the neighborhood of Arashiyama, between the mountains and the choppy waters of the river. I looked on as boat loads of tourists were met by locals touting hot tea and rice cakes, swooping in to meet the new arrivals as they edged toward the bridge marking the beginning of town.
Earlier that day, I’d already had my first introduction to the geisha world, when Aya, my helper in town, dressed me in a summer kimono known as a yukata, in which I attempted to hike through the mountains to a small temple upriver.
I had descended from the tourist train that toots along the other side of the riverbank, the sole passenger to alight at a stop recommended for walking, which happened to be in the middle of nowhere. I found a collection of locals across the bridge eating lunch, which they shared with me: Egg cakes, rice, and tea were swallowed down before I hit the road in my new dress.
The temple was nowhere to be found, and I soon found myself hitchhiking. I was picked up by a young chef and his wife, who were amused to find a lost English person dressed in a traditional outfit. They took me to a friend’s house in the hinterland—a well-known textile designer, Jun Tomita, whose pieces are featured at MoMA and were purchased by the late Steve Jobs. On my way to inspect his looms in an old greenhouse, an old lady tutted and tried to straighten my outfit, which was cool but rather hard to keep straight.
If only she knew what I would look like by 3 a.m.
Dropped off later that evening at the Hoshinoya resort, I dressed instead in a long black dress and made my way to the home of the friend of Akiko Fukai, not quite sure how to tell my host that I had a double date with a media mogul who had invited me to a dinner starting at the ungodly hour of 6 p.m.
I gulped down as much Champagne and wine as possible in the hour I had before being hurried to the other side of town by a media mogul’s minion. I found a room of Japanese businessmen sitting cross-legged on tatami mats in a private room at a luxurious restaurant, surrounded by geisha, one of whom sat down opposite me to entertain me. I was the only other woman in the room and thanked the Champagne for helping me find the scene somewhat amusing.
The idea of starting at 6 p.m., it seemed, was to fit in as many bars as possible before dawn. The English have nothing on the Japanese in this department, I was to learn as the night proceeded.
Next up was Kannabi, a beautiful riverside bar on Shimbashi, once dubbed by Lonely Planet Asia’s most romantic street, where the cherry blossoms fall into the water like candy floss and the geiko sit entertaining behind the vast glass windows.
Demurely they poured drinks and politely tried to speak English. “Who is the most famous kimono-maker in Kyoto?” I asked, as I admired their beautiful silk outfits and their starched white faces and hair sculpted around their pretty faces. “Chiso,” they said in a chorus.
“Stop that,” said Hiroshi Osaki, the CEO of Yoshimoto, a media company that manages 6,000 comedians, and my host. It was an hour later and I, somewhat drunk, was powdering my brown foundation onto the geisha’s face while she attempted to paint mine white. “Come and live with me,” said the geisha. “I want to learn English.” I began to ponder my new life in the geisha world as we tottered off through the narrow streets to the next bar, where some more demure geiko greeted us and seated us inside a small bar. There an old man sang dirty songs, strumming an instrument that looked like a lute, as we nibbled on snacks and drank more sake, the maiko—or young apprentice, traditionally paid half the wages of the geiko—smiling on in approval, their heads bobbing up and down from the sake. A mama geisha held court behind the bar.
The geiko began to tell me about their culture, including the dancing of the maiko, who dance in a nearby theater, an act of extraordinary beauty that we were to witness the next day. (Think delicate fan movements, fabulous outfits, and minimalist movements and sets.) They talked about the history of these female entertainers and servers, who are trained in the arts. We talked about how long it takes for them to get dressed. “About an hour,” they said.
We went to another bar with beautiful flower arrangements, where a man in a kimono took care of us, and then to another where we sat on the tatami mat floors in a drunken noisy heap, before being shipped home in the early hours in taxis, clutching prettily wrapped bags of cookies and tea, waved off by these flawless women.
The next time I was in town, I called upon Chiso and was greeted by Emmy Kanasaki, a young woman dressed in a kimono. She led me through the streets on a bicycle to meet the artisans who spend month upon month hand-painting the colorful kimonos that one can see all about town and especially during cherry blossom season on Shimbashi, where the geisha disappear down wooden lanes as if time stands still.
We visited a dying workshop where they spent 10 years developing an indigo dye for one kimono, and the home of an artisan who was painting bright colors onto a kimono for a young woman.
There are different types of kimonos to denote something about the wearer, married or unmarried, young or old. “Kimonos have recently come back into fashion,” said Akiko Fukai.
The streets are filled with kimono-wearers each July for Japan’s most famous festival, the Gion Matsuri, which takes places in the heart of Kyoto, culminating in an ostentatious parade on July 17, when floats draped in gorgeous decorations roll through the streets on wooden wheels.
Old silk screens wrap around these elaborate contraptions, which carry young musicians playing flutes and tinkering on bells up above. The carts are pulled through the streets by ropes and teams of men dressed in traditional costume.
For three days before the procession, the floats are on display in the center of town, where visitors in kimonos fill the streets, feasting on local foods and teas. The local people open their homes to show off their treasures inside: artworks, Shoji screens, their homes.