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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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Sayuki wears shoes that are too small to make her feet look more petite.

Photo Credit: Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/Magazine

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Sayuki's geisha mother told her she passed muster just three weeks before her training was due to end. "I felt overwhelming relief," Sayuki says. Yukiko lent her an exquisite powder-blue kimono and an obi, or sash, worth a total of $20,000, and then Sayuki traveled around the geisha district by rickshaw to formally introduce herself to teahouse owners, shopkeepers, and geisha colleagues. A debut is a private geisha ritual, so Sayuki's parents and sister back in Melbourne were not invited. "But of course, they were very proud," she says.


It's the afternoon of her big banquet, and Sayuki is getting ready at the local Geisha Association office, a modern building behind Sensoji Temple where geisha business is coordinated. In a sparse back room with tatami-mat flooring, she transforms her more natural daytime geisha appearance into the full-blown banquet look, with thick white rice-powder paint over her face and neck, black eyeliner, ruby-red lips, and a black wig — a look that replicates Japan's original 17th-century fashions. The final touch is black-colored contact lenses "to match the wig," she says. She's lucky, she adds, that her other Western features are not prominent. At 5'6", she's not the tallest geisha in her district, but her long arms mean the sleeves of her hand-painted silk kimonos must be painstakingly lengthened. Tonight she's wearing a light-green kimono with a cream obi. The transformation is stunning. With the mask of makeup and old-style wig, her appearance finally matches the way she sees herself: as a geisha first, and a foreigner second.


ON THE WAY to the banquet, Sayuki's rickshaw passes a bar where several businessmen are sitting outside. Thrilled to catch a glimpse of a real geisha, they ask her to stop and chat. Sayuki is in a hurry, but leans over to hand out calling cards bearing the address of her website, sayuki.net. Today, many savvy geisha have their own personal websites to attract new clients. Geisha work on an independent, freelance basis after they debut and can earn up to $20,000 per month, or eight times the average female office worker's salary of $2,500 per month. Sayuki won't say what she earns, but the fact that she owns 20 kimonos costing around $5,000 each is a clue to her success.


The Ichimatsu Teahouse, the banquet's venue, is an exquisite old building with a carp pond in the garden. Sayuki's 17 clients this evening are a group of businessmen and academics, and a handful of career women. There's an atmosphere of festive anticipation as everyone sits at low tables and the sake begins to flow. There's no doubt that the clients tonight are keen to clap eyes on the country's only Western geisha. "I'm nervous and excited to meet a non-Japanese geisha," says one man. The verdict? "She's cute. She has big eyes, and she wears kimono well."


As Sayuki's clients enjoy their 12 courses of Japanese delicacies, she plays her flute, and two of her geisha sisters, Azuha and Kazumi, perform traditional dances. It's the first time Sayuki has worked with Kazumi, and she's relieved it's going well. "Kazumi is very stern, and she has often criticized me," says Sayuki. "It took a while for me to realize that she was being generous by pointing out my faults."


Sayuki insists there is little female jealousy in her district, but then, she could hardly admit otherwise, given her junior status. She adds that she plans to remain a geisha indefinitely so she can be at the forefront of a revitalized industry; after years of so-called internationalization, Japan's hottest trend now is a return to traditional culture. "In the 1920s, geisha were pinup girls, and they appeared in fashion shows and ads for things like Shiseido cosmetics. That kind of popularity is returning, and I want to be part of it," she says.


As for her personal life, the most she will reveal is that she enjoys hiking and chocolate and is currently single. It comes as no surprise when she finally discloses that she's been too busy as a geisha to do much else. But sometimes, she admits, she likes to slip back into Western clothes for a brief spell of anonymity. While walking through Asakusa looking like a tourist, friendly Japanese occasionally stop her to point out an exotic passing geisha. "I just smile and look excited," she says, "and keep my life as Sayuki to myself."


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