For Westerners, for the world really, the geisha is an iconic image of Japan. We are drawn to their beauty, their grace and their mystery. Like a rare bird, you don't see them very often. The uninformed tourist often mistakes any women dressed in a kimono for a geisha. The geisha live and work in specific districts called hanamachi and it is unlikely you will see them outside of these areas. Kyoto has five such districts. I happened to stop for lunch in one - Gion-Higashi.
There is an odd little cafe there called Rinken with as many doors as seats. The place is so small that passage behind the barstools is impossible. Their rather clever solution to this problem is to have a separate door for each of the six seats. There is something kind of regal about Rinken, like it's from another era, another place, maybe London in the early 20th Century - the royal blue lacquer doors, the cherry red upholstery and curtains, the gold patterned wallpaper, the delicate hanging milk-glass lamps. They have a fine selection of beers and coffee here is a wondrous, almost scientific performance involving a bulbous glass apparatus and Bunsen burner.
I knew it was a class joint because the only two other customers were women dressed in gorgeous kimonos. The younger of the two I learned from the barman was a maiko, a geisha apprentice. Without the white makeup I wondered how one could tell. Apparently there are many tell-tale signs including their kimono sleeve length, the knot and position of their obi, their application of lipstick and color of eyeliner.
I was fascinated by this lovely creature sitting at the opposite end of the counter. I had struck up a conversation with the charming barmaid, who as it turned out was also a painter. I was showing her photos of my work when the maiko left her seat and joined us. This was a thrill. Tourists or gaijin do not meet maiko or geisha. They foolishly insist on taking photos with them on the street, but they do not sit in cafes and have conversations about art. She looked through the photos and told me she liked my paintings.
She left a little while later. I finished my beer. Before I settled my bill the barman told me he had a present for me. Huh? The maiko had left for me a personalized uchiwa, a hand-made flat fan. There is a tradition in the hanamachi where special patrons as well as shops and restaurants frequented by maiko are given these fans with the crest of the geisha house on one side and their name on the back.
This is my luck in Kyoto.