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November 9, 2009

Meet Japan's First Western Geisha

She's got a Ph.D. from Oxford, but Fiona Graham spent a year learning how to pour tea. Oh, and she has to greet her senior geisha sisters on bended knee. In a Marie Claire exclusive, she describes how she became the only foreign geisha in town.

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geisha on train

Fiona Graham, who goes by her geisha name of Sayuki, on a Tokyo subway train.

Photo Credit: Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/Magazine

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THE ELEGANT WOMAN in the pink silk kimono attracts admiring glances from be-suited businessmen and elderly Japanese women as she walks through the narrow, tourist-choked streets leading to Tokyo's Sensoji Temple. The locals here in the old district of Asakusa know a real geisha when they spot one — even if she is a tall Westerner with olive-green eyes. From her rounded bun hairstyle to her pigeon-toed tabi socks, Sayuki, otherwise known as anthropologist Fiona Graham, is decked out so immaculately in true geisha style that her admirers utter the same compliment as she passes by: kirei desu ne — she's beautiful.


Sayuki denies she's a flawless example of Japan's ancient flower and willow world. "Being a geisha takes a lifetime to perfect," she deflects, as she clacks along in lacquer sandals that she wears slightly too small to make her size-8 feet look more petite. Sayuki, who was born in Melbourne, Australia, became the first foreign woman in the notoriously closed profession's 400-year history to formally debut as a geisha two years ago, in late 2007. "I've only just begun," she says. "To many of my geisha sisters, I'm still a walking disaster."


It's all relative. Near Sensoji's majestic red gateway, gaggles of female Japanese tourists are clad in flowery kimonos — a new retro fashion trend. Sacrilegiously, they've added lace and frills to the fabric and wear garish costume jewelry. "Also, they don't wear underwear. The geisha elders are scandalized," laughs Sayuki, with only a faint Aussie twang in her girlish voice. "I'm wearing four layers of lingerie under my kimono, so at least I've got that right." Flaunting womanly curves is considered vulgar in the refined geisha realm; the layered undergarments, resembling silk bandages, ensure a tubular, demure silhouette.


"Geisha are full-time working artists, not sex objects," says Sayuki, apparently eager to dispel the popular myth that geisha are prostitutes or subservient, glorified waitresses. As highly skilled practitioners of traditional Japanese music and dance, she says, their role is to provide classical entertainment to rich and powerful Japanese men. The profession originated in the 17th century in response to male demand for cultured female company. According to Confucian custom, most marriages were loveless affairs arranged purely to produce heirs. While licensed courtesans existed to meet men's sexual needs, geisha carved out a separate niche as artists and erudite female companions. Their clients today include politicians, businessmen, and celebrities, who each pay an average of $400 per hour to attend private banquets and relax in an atmosphere of nostalgic beauty. "An experienced geisha can converse knowledgeably on any subject of interest to her clients, from international trade relations to domestic political intrigue, and she'll never reveal what was said," says Sayuki.


NEXT PAGE: BECOMING A GEISHA


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