Before I visited Kyoto, I had read countless articles saying the same thing: True geisha are notoriously difficult to spot. Perhaps an indictment of the human condition, the more of such articles I came across, the more determined I was to not leave Kyoto without seeing the real McCoy. Locals clad resplendently in their silk and satin kimonos were indeed a sight to behold yet it would not suffice, I had to see a geisha in the flesh. In retrospect, I guess this desire could be termed an obsession, although not to the mythic proportion Captain Ahab had for his fabled white whale.
The first few days in Kyoto, I chanced upon many ladies, locals and tourists both, taking the dainty steps their kimonos graced them with. Close but no cigar. A growing sense of dismay started to insinuate itself into my psyche. And so it happened on my penultimate day, a brochure describing Gion, the most exclusive and famous geisha district in the Land of the Rising Sun, caught my eye while I was leaving my hostel. Poring quickly through it, it came to my attention that Gion Corner had evening shows daily, one of the items being mako performing traditional Japanese dances. If I was not fated to see a geisha on the streets of Kyoto, the next best option was to pay to see them on stage. As I resolved to purchase the tickets later, my disappointment ebbed, before dulling into a Zen-like acceptance.
Later, I meandered the quaint alleyways of Higashiyama district, searching for the entrance to Yasaka Pagoda, its wooden frame firmly in my field of vision, its entrance stubbornly remaining elusive. Swiftly turning a corner, what I saw next stilled my breath, the electrifying mixture of elation and excitement coursing through me a heartbeat later. It was akin to the feeling of finding a shining Pikachu after hours of tramping through the tall grass in the 8 bit world of Pokémon. Two geisha, spring flowers dotting their crimson and lime garbs, faces chalk-pale, lips pursed into a tantalising bud of cherry-red, yellow-red blossoms blooming from ebony hair, appeared. The noise of the world receded, their costumed loveliness a focal point for my captive gaze. Afterthought: I wondered how it was possible no-one else on this relatively quiet street was as stricken by surprise and wonderment as I had been. Instincts kicked in. I whipped out my camera, my steps rapid with purpose. Our eyes met and the faintest trace of displeasure touched their ashen faces, ripple on a pond, their repose robbed. Sharp, flashed a twinge of shame, followed by a slower recognition. One of the texts I had read mentioned genuine geisha were extremely shy and disliked having their photographs taken. While inwardly issuing an unheard apology to soothe my conscience, I attempted to maintain an unthreatening distance away, biding my time for the perfect moment. They came to a tiled path, paused, equal parts serenity and beauty even in the mere act of removing their sandals, paying scant heed to the rude gai jin looming too close.
It is this portrait I remember. To others, it might simply be two geishas setting aside their footwear. I take it in, the symphony of emotions plays, unbidden, the crescendo always, always the sting of guilt as I see the look in her eyes.