Australia-born Sayuki is an Oxford trained anthropologist who was working in 2006 on a documentary on geishas – the traditional performers of Japanese arts and music specialising in dance, song and a variety of instruments. It would document her progress over a year as she trained to be a geisha. “But training to be a geisha is like joining the army and going to boot camp,” she said. “You can’t make a documentary while you’re training to be a geisha.”
The documentary is still on hold but Sayuki debuted as a geisha in 2007 after 11 months of intense training to be one. She is now a geisha mother running a geisha house teaching young girls to be geishas. She also travels the world with her apprentices calling themselves the Fukagawa Geisha Sisters. Having performed in Al Falaj Hotel’s Tokyo Taro on Monday and Tuesday, they’ll head to Dubai on Thursday, followed by shows in Prague, Budapest, Rome and Bern.
Sayuki is the first white geisha in Japanese history and a 400 year old tradition. “A foreigner can’t become a geisha. You must have permanent residency.” Asked how she managed this seemingly impossible feat of being accepted in a community that is shrouded in myth and mystery while being considered the very icons of Japanese social grace and etiquette, Sayuki is the epitome of humility in saying, “It was amazing that they allowed me in because it is very conservative and traditional.”
Trained in several traditional instruments, including shamisen (three-string Japanese lute), and specialised in yokobue (flute), she received permission to play the flute at banquets from her teacher some time after she became a geisha while still learning from senior geishas and taking music exams in university.
Being one of a kind, Sayuki has appeared frequently in the Japanese media. But steeped in protocol due to the strict and conservative ways of the geisha world, it was unusual of one to appear in the media, so every interview and event that Sayuki had required the prior approval of the geisha association.
In 2011, Sayuki’s geisha mother fell ill and was no longer able to keep her in her geisha house, so she asked permission to open her own which was turned down because she was a foreigner. So she moved to a different district – Fukagawa that didn’t have such a rule - and opened her own geisha house. Sayuki is now a geisha mother to six girls.
When she moved to Fukagawa, geisha culture was in decline. “There were only a few older geishas in the district. Many of them have now come out of retirement and started working with me, teaching the special songs of the district and passing on their kimonos to the younger ones,” Sayuki said of the revival she triggered in Fukagawa.
So how do they take to a white geisha mother? “I’ve been a geisha now for 12 years and it makes no difference now. When the girls come in, they don’t know anything. They don’t know how to wear the kimono… they don’t know anything about the geisha world. I don’t think it really matters that I’m a foreigner and they realise that very quickly.”
Geishas train throughout their lives and some of the older women are considered ‘living national treasures’ going on to work in their 70s and 80s. The kimonos, which can cost anything ranging from US$2,000 to US$5,000, differ depending on the seniority of a geisha. Interestingly, geishas are allowed only three ornaments to distinguish them from the more flashy courtesans.
As for the question that jumps first to the mind on seeing a geisha – how long does it take to dress up with the white makeup and many intricate layers and folds of the kimono, Sayuki said, “In the beginning, about two hours, but once you get used to it, it can be done in about 45 minutes.”
Unquestioning acceptance and strict decorum in a geisha home means that an object is white if a geisha mother deems so even if it’s just the opposite. “But the way I train them is not so strict as the training that I had. You have to adjust some things to the modern age,” she said.
The overseas trips are part of that adjustment. “They should have an exciting, fun life even if they are geishas. It shouldn’t mean they have to forget about modern life. It’s really nice that we can work and introduce geisha culture to the world while we can have a holiday and have fun too.”