Glimpse of a Geisha

An American watches, listens and learns about life during her travels to Kyoto, a Japanese city steeped in tradition and mystique.

January 10, 2001|By Alice Steinbach | Alice Steinbach,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

KYOTO - Sooner or later every non-Japanese-speaking visitor to Kyoto learns that the taxi driver is a tourist's best friend. Usually it's sooner. Usually, after the first attempt to venture out on one's own in this city of more than a million people, the tourist learns that finding a specific destination is hopeless without two things: (1) the expertise of a taxi driver and (2) a note explaining in Japanese where the passenger wants to go.

Partly this state of affairs is due to the fact that Kyoto people (as the locals call themselves) insist on speaking in a foreign language - Japanese - and therefore cannot be considered reliable in their direction-giving. And partly it's because most of the streets in Kyoto have no names. Unfortunately those that do - mainly the major thoroughfares - have names impossible for a tourist to remember. Add to this the Kafka-esque twist that numbers on buildings or houses - if indeed they have a number - are meaningless; only Japanese postal workers know the rationale of why No. 52 is next to No. 854.

The resulting confusion leaves one American in Kyoto - we shall call her Madame-san - feeling like a 2-year-old who, upon venturing a block away from home, has no idea of where she is, where she wants to go or where she came from. Naturally, being the independent woman she is, Madame-san has tried to navigate the city on her own, using both maps and a guidebook to Kyoto. But she gave up her solo excursions after trying to follow these directions from the book: "Concentrate on Shijo-dori between Yasaka Jinja and Karasum Eki as well as Kawara-machi-dori between Sanjo-dori and Shijo-dori."

And so it is that Madame-san - who has an important appointment she does not want to miss - finds herself in the back of a taxi, clutching a note written by hotel staff in hiragana, one of two Japanese alphabets. The note supposedly instructs the driver to take his passenger to the Miyagawacho Dance School. But for all Madame-san knows, the note could say: "Take this woman to River Kamo and throw her in."

One look at the driver quickly banishes such thoughts. In his 50s, perhaps, the man temporarily in charge of Madame-san's life wears a gray suit, black silk tie and white cotton gloves. His dark, silver-flecked hair is stylishly cut and the wire-rimmed glasses he wears add a certain gravitas to his appearance. He looks like an Asian Pierce Brosnan, thinks Madame-san, or possibly a Silicon Valley venture capitalist with a penchant for wearing white cotton gloves. The driver bows when she hands him her note. After studying the message for a minute, he writes something in a leather-bound book engraved in gold.

What Madame-san hopes he has written down is: Miyagawacho Dance School. It is imperative she not arrive at the wrong location or even a minute late for her 11 a.m. interview at the dance school. After all, how many times in one's life does the opportunity arise to interview a geisha? Madame-san is excited about the interview but worried, too. How, she wonders, do you conduct an interview in a country where direct questions are considered rude, and no matter how politely a question is asked, answers are always indirect?

But Madame-san will find a solution to this problem; it is not her way to make excuses or complain. Still, she draws some comfort from knowing that her translator for the day will be Etsuko Kominami. Etsuko-san, married and in her 40s, is smart and modern and in previous encounters had expressed her ideas in a very forthright manner - a result perhaps of living for seven years in Lebanon, Ohio.

It is Etsuko who, in a discussion of novelist Arthur Golden's "Memoirs of a Geisha," dismisses the best-selling book as "soap opera" and its depiction of the "geisha mystique" as being "old Japan." Clearly, Etsuko is a woman with opinions; it is a trait that might make her more comfortable translating Madame-san's frank (some might say annoying) style of asking personal questions.

A myth debunked

The Miyagawacho Dance School is where apprentice geisha, known as maiko, take classes in dance and music. At a time when most young Japanese women are entering university or headed for careers, maiko are learning the same traditional skills geisha have studied for more than two centuries. Mastering these skills is crucial if an apprentice wants to advance to geisha; completing such training can take longer than earning a university degree. Or at least it used to.

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