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|Written by Kimi Sekhon|
|Sunday, 02 September 2007 19:00|
A two-year stint in Kyoto, Japan, as an English Teacher was drawing to a close and pressure was mounting to accomplish all the goals on my ‘to do in Japan’ list. Thus, shortly after climbing Mt. Fuji with Penny, a fellow teacher and friend, I resolved to become a geisha, if in regalia only. I embarked on this quest by asking some of my Japanese students about businesses that would indulge such a fantasy; Emi, one of my students and a friend, was successful in securing an appointment for me.
…It was a hot and dry Sunday afternoon and the narrow cobblestone streets of Kyoto’s Higashiyama area were relatively peaceful compared with the hustle and bustle of shoppers in the downtown core. As Emi and I entered a traditional-looking home, we were greeted with the traditional irashaimase (welcome) and ushered into a small room, where I was asked to change into a light, knee-length, robe of white cotton. After donning the robe, my hair was tightened into a small bun, preparing me for the make-up portion of my transformation. Throughout this process, I eagerly anticipated the most dramatic stage in the metamorphosis unfolding before me - the mask that would transform me from an ordinary world-wearied woman into a part of the floating, or willow, world of art, beauty and desire (karyukai)…
First, a clear wax-oil known as bintsuke-abura was smoothed onto my face and neck so that the white foundation applied next would adhere. My face was now a white canvas upon which my eyelids were painted light pink and my lips were transformed into a small, red rosebud. I felt like a pampered model receiving the undivided attention of a professional make-up artist.
The next step required two women to prepare my long and lanky frame for a printed black silk kimono. After I slid my arms into the kimono, cotton bands were tied around my upper waist. Once the kimono was secured, a sash or obi, was wrapped around my waist and secured in the back with an elaborate bow. Although my posture improved, I felt as though my waist had been sandwiched between two wooden boards. To add to this discomfort, a two-kilogram wig was placed and adjusted on my head. All that remained was wearing a pair of two-toed tabi socks and slipping my feet into the geta or shoes that are a cross between clogs and flip-flops.
With the stiffness of the kimono, the weight of the wig and the height of the geta, I began to wonder how I would navigate the streets of Higashiyama gracefully, while being photographed attempting to pull off a genuine geisha persona. Within the first two blocks of leaving the house, I was complimented by two elderly Japanese ladies, who exclaimed, “How pretty she is!” “KIREI DESU NE!” Once I reached the more touristy part of the city, I became the centre of attention.
Upon greeting a curious Australian family in English, I answered their questions and posed for their cameras. Although I enjoyed the attention, I developed a terrible headache as a result of the summer heat and wig crowning my head. Despite this, my final request was to be photographed in the stunning 130 year-old home in which I lived. It is here that my friend Emi took a series of sepia and black and white photos as I sat in front of the sliding doors on tatami mats and, more hauntingly, as I gazed at the tiny gourd-shaped Japanese-style garden located in the rear of the house. I couldn’t help but think of all the former residents of this house who had done the same over the past 130 years. Did they, too, appreciate the simple aesthetics of this home, with its tatami mats, sliding doors and wooden floors that, with time, had become as smooth as satin? What was the history of this home, what were the thoughts, feelings and ideals of its residents? What were their lives?
The elderly woman who lived opposite me and also resided in a house that could be considered a cultural treasure, told me of a time when the narrow cobblestoned street in front of our homes was paved with dirt and that cattle could be seen walking by. I had not made my entrance into this world then…but here I was now, living in a part of that world that still remained…
The fun, however, did not end that day. When I returned to the school where I taught with photographs in tow, I proceeded to tell the Japanese secretaries of my experience meeting and photographing a geisha in Gion, a district in Kyoto also referred to as karyukai, or the flower and willow world of art, desire, pleasure, beauty in which geishas have been entertaining for centuries. I drank up all the compliments – one by one - and when I could no longer maintain my composure, I revealed the identity of the geisha in the photographs. The air was pierced with screams of delight and shock, as the other foreign teachers came running and we all had a good laugh.
I enjoyed the experience of being fascinated by people who were fascinated by me.