World's oldest geisha looks to future

Her face creased with age and her hearing faltering, 98-year-old Kokin is proud to have dedicated her life to being a geisha, feted by men for her charm, wit and beauty.

But the world's oldest geisha also mourns a time before World War Two when Japan's geisha districts would burst to life as soon as the sun had set -- geishas in silk kimonos would rush by rickshaw to "ryotei" restaurants where they would entertain wealthy men at parties that went on until the wee hours.

These days the streets of geisha districts are quiet in Japan's neon-light cities where nightlife is more about dance clubs, hostess bars and karaoke joints than traditional Japanese entertainment, leaving many geishas nostalgic and unemployed.

"Customers long ago had so much to talk about," said Kokin, who only uses her stage name as is customary among geishas.

"The customers now, young people, they don't have anything to talk about with us. They go straight to karaoke."

Kokin, who wears a green kimono with a pink sash and freshly coiffured hair, still plays the three-stringed shamisen and sings classical songs at parties in the geisha district of Atami, near Tokyo.

She has no children to take care of her in her old age. But she still has memories of her heyday as a geisha, when men hired her by the time it took for an incense stick to burn out.

"I would be cooling myself on a bench in the summer with nothing to do, and someone would ask me if I was free and offer to pay for one incense stick," recalled Kokin, who likes to be called "Kokin neesan" (older sister).

"People would ask for me, even if it was just for an hour," added Kokin, whose photos graced newspapers across Japan when she turned 98 in September.

These days, there are only a few geishas left in a fading profession in which female entertainers sing, dance and engage in witty conversation at dinner parties for exorbitant prices.

Geisha numbers across Japan peaked at 80,000 in 1928 around when Kokin began her career, but now only 1,000 are left. In Tokyo, just 300 are left.

Contrary to perceptions that geishas are prostitutes, they are entertainers. While some in the past had patrons, and perhaps married them, most now live independently on modest incomes.

With their clientele of elite businessmen and powerful politicians shrinking, geishas are grappling with the need to branch out of their exclusive, so-called "flower and willow world" and look for new clients such as tourists and even women.

An economic downturn in the 1990s forced businessmen to cut back on entertainment expenses, while high-profile scandals in recent years have made politicians eschew excessive spending.

A dinner can cost around 80,000 yen ($730) per head, depending on the venue and the number of geishas present.

But even before the 90s, men were steadily giving up on late-night parties at "ryotei", restaurants with traditional straw-mat tatami rooms where geishas entertain, in favour of the modern comforts of hostess bars and karaoke rooms.

As the number of men who have been entertained by geishas' dwindle, the profession has scrambled to survive.

"A president of a company, if he is 50 years old, may have never gone out for a dinner with geishas," said Sumi Asahara, an author of books on the elegant entertainers.

"But without going, you don't know what it's like. And if you don't know, you wouldn't feel bad that this world is vanishing."

Alarmed that geishas are headed for extinction, community groups in Tokyo and tour companies have started making the entertainment more accessible in a trend already seen in Kyoto, Japan's ancient capital and the centre of the geisha world.

In Kagurazaka, central Tokyo, a non-profit organization began offering performances by geishas two years ago, unthinkable in a neighbourhood where geishas were rarely seen on the streets and were shrouded behind the gates of the ryotei.

"The geisha's tradition will survive within the ryotei for people who are willing to pay high prices," said Keiko Hioki, vice president of the group, Ikimachi Club.

"But to preserve the geisha's world as part of our culture, it must be better known to the general public."

Surprisingly, the performances are popular with women and the district is now opening up to foreign tourists, with travel agent Michi Travel Japan (www.michitravel.com) offering tourists the chance to experience authentic geisha performances.

Ryotei are also under pressure to change.

The restaurants, complete with rock gardens, rare art works and exquisite tableware, have traditionally pampered only "onajimi-san", or regular customers. Like the geishas, they have found that business has become slow and unprofitable.

Sakurajaya, a 64-year-old ryotei in Tokyo's Mukojima district, began hosting large tourist groups with tour operator Hato Bus in 2002. With a group of 30 tourists, one can enjoy a dinner with six geishas for less than 10,000 yen.

"Back when we were busy, we wouldn't have to do anything and customers would be at our door. We used to choose who came in," said Kazuko Amemiya, owner of Sakurajaya.

"Not any more. We let everyone in now."

Sakurajaya also uses its Web site to recruit new geishas, although young women who join the profession can expect an unglamorous lifestyle of rigorous training in dance, classical instruments and performing the ritual tea ceremony.

"Many people are geishas for 30 years and they don't go to lessons. They can't be called geishas, really," recalled Kokin who still takes shamisen lessons four times a month.

"Our world is changing."

Some purists are aghast at the changes underfoot, such as geishas performing for tourist groups. But for Kanae, a geisha from the Asakusa district in Tokyo, saving the geisha profession is about more than just preserving traditional arts.

"So much of Japan has become Westernized," she said. "Many people cannot speak proper Japanese any more.

"But in our world, the best of Japan remains. So I hope more people, both Japanese and foreign, come to experience it." ( Reuters )

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