The powder puff girls

My $5,000 night at the most exclusive geisha house in Japan.

Published June 13, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

My girlfriend Kaori and I are riding the Thunderbird 26 train from Kanazawa to Kyoto when her cellphone begins playing "Waltz of the Flowers." Mr. Nagata is on the line. The conversation is all Japanese to me, but amid the unintelligible torrent I hear the one word that tells me everything I need to know -- "Ichiriki." Kaori gives me the thumbs-up. Tomorrow night, Mr. Nagata will guide us into the inner sanctum of a disappearing order -- Ichiriki, the most famous geisha house in all Japan.

Anyone familiar with Arthur Golden's "Memoirs of a Geisha" will know the Ichiriki, a place few Japanese and even fewer foreigners have ever seen. (The Ichiriki's mistress contends that Golden has never stepped through its doorway.) Much of the action in his pre- and postwar tale of Japan takes place at this doyenne of Kyoto geisha establishments, located in the ancient city's Gion district.

Readers of Golden's beautifully detailed account will be aware that the Ichiriki is no samurai Studio 54. Greasing the bouncer's palm or being Gisele Bundchen will not get you past the lineup. There is no lineup. The right to patronize the 400-year-old Ichiriki is, like the right to Japanese citizenship, a very tough nut to crack, sometimes involving generations of history. It's also jaw-droppingly expensive, but that's just an afterthought -- the real trick is to establish a relationship. Mr. Nagata is president of a company that has patronized the Ichiriki for more than a half-century. That gives him the right to invite guests for an evening's frolic. That and about 5 grand U.S.

Mr. Nagata is a very successful businessman. That he is also a believer in tradition shows not only in his enthusiastic support of Japan's vanishing geisha tradition, but also in his relationship with Kaori -- Mr. Nagata is her go master. Teaching the intricacies of Japanese chess to a select few students is both a hobby and a calling for Mr. Nagata, himself a champion-level go player. Hearing that his student's gai-jin (foreigner) friend was accompanying her to Kyoto, Mr. Nagata felt honor-bound to showcase for us the ultimate in Japanese culture.

Before embarking upon this adventure, Kaori insists, it will be necessary for me to adjust my "Memoirs"-derived terminology. Apparently, no one in Kyoto uses the word "geisha" at all. Here, full-fledged members of this honored sorority are referred to as "geiko" (gay-ko), while apprentices are known as "maiko" (mike-o).

Confusion about the geiko world is not limited to foreigners -- Japanese citizens, too, are more likely to be familiar with baseball's Ichiro than Gion's Ichiriki. Guidebooks such as Lonely Planet and even the official Japan Travel Bureau publication contain misinformation or frequently no information at all. Since the Ichiriki and other ochaya are so difficult to access, it would seem there is little point in educating tourists about them.

One misunderstanding in particular raises Kaori's ire. Throughout "Memoirs of a Geisha" and in books such as "Lonely Planet Japan," places like the Ichiriki are referred to as teahouses. Kaori shakes her head emphatically at this. The Ichiriki, she says, is an ochaya -- a place where geiko entertain. The word "ochaya," it's true, can also be translated as teahouse. But the Japanese language has many words that carry double meanings. "Kumo" can mean spider or cloud; "hashi" can mean bridge or chopsticks. And, Kaori tells me, the Ichiriki is no more a teahouse than the Rainbow Bridge can pluck sashimi out of Tokyo Bay.

The Ichiriki's Japanese renown has nothing to do with "Memoirs of a Geisha," which is largely unknown here. Nor does its reputation come merely from age. In Japan, where thousand-year-old shrines can be found wedged between sweet shops and hunkered down in the modern shopping centers that have grown up around them, 400 years is no big whoop. No, the Ichiriki's prominence comes largely from its role in one of Japan's favorite historical tales -- "The Legend of the 47 Ronin."

According to the story, in 1701 there was a headstrong young regional warlord named Asano-Takuminokami. His samurai, numbering more than 300, were led by the roguish Oishi Kuranosuke, a warrior fiercely loyal to his boss.

One day at the Edo palace of Japan's supreme leader, the Shogun Tsunayoshi, disaster struck young Asano. Goaded into anger by a treacherous old don named Kira Kouzukenosuke, Lord Asano lashed out with his sword, wounding his enemy slightly. The shogun was outraged -- Asano had tarnished the dignity of the palace with his attack. The disgraced young master was forced to commit seppuku, or ritual suicide. Kira had outmaneuvered his naive young adversary in a fatal game of court politics.

Instantly, Oishi Kuranosuke and Asano's other samurai were adrift. They had become ronin -- in effect, freelance samurai. Everyone waited for Oishi Kuranosuke's inevitable revenge on the hated Kira.

And Oishi Kuranosuke said -- don't hold your breath. Telling anyone who'd listen that he had no interest in anything but the good life, Oishi holed up at the Ichiriki, partying like it was 1799. While the Ichiriki's exclusivity kept Oishi safely out of sight from any of Kira's mercenaries, the unemployed warrior proceeded to play Hef with a string of Gion's loveliest.

When almost two years had passed and his enemies had long since relaxed, Oishi Kuranosuke put down the sake bottle and gathered his 46 remaining warriors around him. On a winter morning in December 1702, the 47 ronin attacked the castle of Kira Kouzukenosuke and overwhelmed the defenders without losing a man. They found their hated rival hiding in an outhouse. Soon Kira's severed head adorned the grave of Lord Asano.

Impressed at their loyalty, the shogun granted a reward. Rather than ignominious execution, he allowed the ronin to commit seppuku as honored warriors (only the youngest was spared). A truly Japanese happy ending. The 47 ronin passed into legend -- and with them, the Ichiriki.

On this early May evening in Kyoto, Kaori and I are to meet Mr. Nagata at the Ichiriki. Our cab pulls up in front of the hotel and, as with all Japanese taxis, the back door swings open unaided. It's one of those freakish little pieces of everyday Japanese technology, like umbrella laminators. More clues that you're not in Manhattan anymore: The cab is as spotless as Grandma's living room; the driver wears white gloves and a peaked cap; there is no tipping.

We drive away, turn off the main thoroughfare and crawl through the narrow streets of Gion. The sight of two women in kimonos excites me, but I am a raw rookie -- they are just bar hostesses. The shops look modern and the street like any Japanese nightclub district, until we cross Shijo-Dori and suddenly the architectural styles recede centuries in an instant. Immediately we stop in front of a large wooden building with red walls and a sloping tile roof. A man in traditional dress greets us and leads the way through the gate into an outer courtyard. There is scarcely time to pause for a moment's disbelief at the ease with which we have penetrated an invisible barrier -- the one separating modern Japan and its companion, guidebook Japan, from an ancient world that still carries on alongside, like Brigadoon made visible.

Smiling and bowing in the entrance, an older woman in a kimono bids us trade our shoes for sandals and, eyeing my 6-foot-2 frame, points to the archway by way of warning. Chips in the wood indicate the long history of tall people who forgot to duck. Down red-paneled halls we go until we are shown into a spare Japanese room lined with tatami and furnished only by a low central table with a red lacquer surface. Mr. Nagata stands to greet us.

He is a small, balding figure in a well-tailored blue suit, a fit-looking man in his 60s with an ever-present smile and an intent gaze that suggests your every reaction will be instructive for him. (Kaori believes he looks like a Japanese Danny DeVito. It's a bit of a stretch, but OK.) We sit with our legs in the well beneath the skirted table, and Kaori translates my profuse thanks to Mr. Nagata for the opportunity he has given us. We have brought omiyage, the gifts of greeting and/or gratitude that Japanese friends exchange at every opportunity. We have brought chocolates from Vancouver, British Columbia, and a large bottle of Kanazawa-style sake. But before we can present them the door opens. Our first geiko has arrived.

No matter how many photos and documentaries I've seen, it's impossible to be prepared for this moment. Or perhaps it is precisely the many photos, books and documentaries I have absorbed that increase the sense of wonder and import, yet still leave me unready for the magnificent presence that joins me now. She backs into the room, turns and smiles, a red lipstick slash on a shocking white background topped by an elaborate coif of jet-black hair. Finally she kneels to bow and says "okoshiyasu," a welcome peculiar to Kyoto.

Her name is Yuiko. Just 20 years old, she graduated from the ranks of the young maiko only a year ago -- her white collar indicates that she is now a geiko. Green and pink flowers decorate her kimono of bright yellow silk, secured by an obi of burgundy with a white bamboo design. When she turns, pink flesh is visible at the back of her neck where the white makeup suddenly stops. I had heard of this sly technique, intended as an alluring hint of the naked skin beneath the careful makeup. Having spent some time on the Web examining enough female anatomy to pass a gynecological exam, I had been skeptical. And yet the effect of that pink patch is exactly as advertised -- a powerful reminder that beneath this awesome finery is the body of a young woman.

Yuiko is followed shortly by two new arrivals. Like a tiger and its keeper, they present a striking contrast -- Komomo, a modest-looking young geiko without makeup or elaborate hair, dressed in a subtle pink kimono and black obi; and Teruhina, as brilliant as her companion is discreet, clad in shimmering green with white, purple and gold flowers, her red and white obi trailing behind, an elaborate hairpiece of long white flowers and dangling silver bars swaying as she turns and laughs.

Teruhina is a maiko. Like all geiko and maiko, she belongs to an okiya. An okiya is more or less a geiko stable, run by a "mother" who trains and outfits her charges and manages their affairs (and of course takes the money they earn). The Ichiriki has no exclusive claim on Yuiko, Teruhina or any of Gion's star performers -- they might turn up at any ochaya, so long as the guests ask for them and agree to pay their rates. More popular geiko and maiko can charge higher fees. That may seem only natural but, Kaori points out to me, it represents a contrast with traditional Japanese corporate culture. Too often Japanese companies are gerontocracies where seniority, regardless of ability, inevitably means prominence. By contrast, Gion is a ruthless meritocracy. Charm or die.

Teruhina's gorgeous plumage is not a case of the bridesmaid upstaging the bride -- young novices traditionally dress with more flash and color than older, established geiko. Teruhina is just 18 and joined her okiya two years ago, fulfilling a dream first inspired when a maiko visited her classroom at school. As an apprentice, she spends her days studying dance, flower arranging, Japanese drums and shamisen, the three-stringed lute that all geiko are expected to master. "It's more fun than I thought it would be," she insists to me in unsteady English.

The presence of a maiko represents no bargain for Mr. Nagata. In fact, one Japanese friend suggests to me later that ochaya guests must pay more for a maiko, despite her comparative lack of training and experience. I could hardly pose such rude questions to my hosts but based on what I have seen, even in modern Japan, the claim rings true. Girlish sexuality is prized here in a way that can make visitors squeamish. Cartoon posters of barely pubescent nymphs are publicly displayed without shame, and pachinko parlor patrons may be welcomed by sweet junior high students in short skirts and go-go boots.

Teruhina's dazzling costume, so soon to be put away forever, may well be intended to mimic the first, passing blush of virginal beauty. And while a refined ochaya patron might prefer the company of a mature geiko, it would not surprise me to discover that the company of the less experienced Teruhina brings a higher price.

Just what price I will never know, since Mr. Nagata refuses to say. But Japanese acquaintances suggest that $5,000 would be a very conservative estimate. Mr. Nagata would have been offered a variety of options for our evening's entertainment, including traditional games that geiko sometimes play with their guests. He selected for our benefit a sort of introductory primer -- some dance, some conversation; some geiko, some maiko. He will be billed accordingly. You might recognize the figures if you've ever made a down payment on a house.

I don't know exactly what was on that menu, but I'm pretty sure what was missing. If you're looking for sex, the Ichiriki is not the place. Other parts of Kyoto can help you out with that and, incidentally, save you a whole lot of money. Although many geiko are kept as mistresses by wealthy patrons, the Western image of geiko as prostitutes has now largely faded. Still, when one hears of the fantastic sums paid for an evening's entertainment at an ochaya it seems that anything must be permitted. On the other hand, considering that the going market rates for sexual services are a fraction of what Mr. Nagata will pay tonight, it also seems clear that the Ichiriki must be trading in another line entirely. At any rate, my own experience here would prove entirely chaste. Not without sexual tension, but chaste.

Now comes an unexpected honor -- the mistress of the Ichiriki arrives to pay her respects in person. Kyoko Sugiura is a lovely woman, perhaps mid-40s, in a trim hairdo and white and gray kimono. She joined the Ichiriki 19 years ago via marriage to the owner's son. As Kaori translates for me, Ms. Sugiura reminds us that the Ichiriki is no drop-in center. Wads of money are sometimes offered by casual would-be visitors, but to no avail. We are here solely by the grace of Mr. Nagata -- his wads will be gratefully accepted on our behalf. Ms. Sugiura explains these things with a pleasant smile; her manner indicates that we are nonetheless honored guests. For now, at least.

Mr. Nagata nods in acknowledgment of his honored position. He knows Gion well and proclaims the Ichiriki to be the best ochaya of all. Which is a lucky thing, he adds with a roar of laughter, because even if the Ichiriki were the lowliest of geiko houses he would have no choice -- he must spend his money here or stay home. For ochaya are not merely hard to enter -- once entered, they are difficult to leave. The anonymous barfly is free to flit from speakeasy to roadhouse, but those whose custom is accepted by an ochaya are locked into a relationship that tradition expects to be monogamous. Mr. Nagata's company patronized the Ichiriki long before his time. When he joined the firm he joined the Ichiriki, for life.

I've brought along my copy of "Memoirs of a Geisha," wondering what the habituis of modern Gion will think. The mistress of the Ichiriki is familiar with the book and also with author Golden's chief source, former geiko Mineko Iwasaki. Iwasaki recently brought suit against Golden, alleging breach of privacy. Ms. Sugiura thinks the suit is misguided. "Mineko's career came after the war," Ms. Sugiura says, "and most of the book takes place before the war. No one would think the book is about Mineko."

As filtered through Kaori, Ms. Sugiura's attitude toward "Memoirs" seems dismissive. She points out that to the best of her knowledge the author has never been inside the Ichiriki. Nobody in Gion cares about the book, she claims. Maybe not, but Komomo has certainly read it. "I'm Komomo, not Hatsumomo," she laughs, making reference to "Memoirs'" nasty geiko villain. "She's cruel!"

Komomo, visually the least prepossessing of the trio, makes up for her relatively plain appearance with skill and accomplishment. Her presence tonight probably has something to do with her English, which though limited is by far the best of the three girls'. More talents soon become evident.

Komomo, Yuiko and Teruhina leave the room briefly. Komomo soon returns with a shamisen. Taking it to the far side of the room, she kneels and waits. Now Yuiko and Teruhina reenter, each carrying a cone-shaped platter covered with pink flowers. As Komomo begins to pluck the shamisen and sing a quavering melody, they dance. Their song is called "Flower Umbrella," and they perform without expression. Emotion is conveyed through movement, not mugging.

The next song causes Kaori to sigh -- her mother sang it to her long ago. As Yuiko and Teruhina glide through a wistful pas de deux, Komomo sings of life in Gion -- pain and grief unseen beneath white makeup. "Gion, kanashiiya darari-no-obi-yo"; Gion, like a sad, drooping obi, trailing behind a maiko as she walks.

After loud applause from our small group, the performers return to their social roles at the table. Mr. Nagata is well past his first sake and looking quite at home. I am striving to converse with my exotic table-mates but frequently require translation by Kaori and Komomo, and in the general hubbub the system often breaks down -- I ask a question about go and get an answer about golf. Most of what is being discussed flows past me like water over a drowned corpse. (In fact, I later learn that entire parallel evenings are going on without my knowledge; for example, Kaori's valiant efforts to parry constant paternal questioning from Mr. Nagata about the exact nature of our relationship.)

Sake and conversation are central to the geiko's art. It has been said that a superb geiko will entertain through wit and charm while a lesser talent, if she's wise, will pour sake down a customer's throat until wit and charm become irrelevant. All of which makes me sorry for my new friends, since I represent a geiko's worst nightmare -- I speak no Japanese and don't drink. This could prove to be the Japanese equivalent of a sober St. Patrick's.

Still, we all struggle for common ground. I speak of my wonder at the breathtaking speed and energy of Tokyo, pointing out that the Japanese capital has a population equal to that of my entire nation. And since that nation is Canada, my geiko companions assure me of their sincere intention to visit Niagara Falls someday.

"I like the music of Alanis Morissette," Komomo informs me, displaying her ready knowledge of Canadian pop stars. "I once neglected my studies for an important exam so that I could see Bryan Adams in concert."

Yuiko and Teruhina also express their admiration for the Vancouver-raised rocker. And to my horrified amazement, I find myself talking about the night he sat at the table beside mine in an all-night restaurant. Well, damn it, I'm not faced with a lot of conversational options here.

But this nattering about celebrities is oddly fitting. In a way, the world of the Ichiriki is like the world of "Entertainment Tonight." The modern worship of fame has created an entire population that would swoon over the merest brush with Brad Pitt. And the aura and spectacle of this geiko world has left me eager to make any contact, forge any bond, with these women. Their job is to entertain and yet, conditioned by decades of desperate party chatter, I am incongruously worried that they'll get bored with me.

The conversation hiccups along carefully, through a combination of simple, direct statements and relayed translations. But so focused am I on bridging the linguistic divide, I soon realize I've failed to consider another gulf, wide as the Pacific -- these young women and I were born five U.S. presidents apart (Eisenhower for me; Reagan for them). Beneath its mesmerizing exterior, this encounter with living embodiments of Japanese history is basically a flirtation with near-teenage girls. One underscored by centuries of tradition and the weight of a nation's disappearing heritage, but nonetheless ...

Teruhina has moved to sit beside me now, poking through my reporter's notebook. Flipping to a back page, she draws a little heart. Then, touching her finger to her bright red lips, she transfers the scarlet smudge to redden the little ink heart on the page. "Secret," she tells me.

I impress Teruhina with the special Bruce Lee watch I bought in Tokyo -- his nunchucks move in time with the second hand. She responds by laying out her own personal treasures. Teruhina is bedecked with an emperor's ransom of finery -- the collar of her kimono alone probably cost $5,000, and she wears a jeweled belt with a diamond and ruby buckle that is among the most valuable possessions of her okiya, worth perhaps $50,000. But these are not the things she shows me -- my Bruce Lee timepiece requires a different response. Proudly she produces her own Hello Kitty watch, and a Tintin key chain. Soon she's admiring my new Astro Boy wallet, purchased in Tokyo's Ginza district. We're thick as thieves.

Five or 10 G's to trade pleasantries about Bryan Adams and Niagara Falls? It has a surreal quality best appreciated when the cash is coming out of someone else's shoe. But at last, God help me, I am beginning to get a glimpse of what really pays the bills in Gion. And it's not sex -- that's not even on the table, though it may be lurking under it, down in that foot well somewhere or peeking out of that little pink gap in the makeup. No, it's the chance to be flirted with by a sort of costumed superhero whose powers are of fascination -- Captain Coquette, Sultaness of Spark, has eyes only for me tonight.

But it's a sign of Teruhina's bright career prospects that she keeps an eye on Kaori, too. Unaware of our relationship when she entered the room (Kaori and I have been seated at opposite ends of the table all evening), Teruhina clearly figures it out pretty quickly and takes pains to put Kaori at ease. When Kaori innocently asks what Teruhina wrote in my notebook, the maiko happily displays her artwork with a friendly laugh. So much for our little secret.

Across the table Kaori is listening to Mr. Nagata, her face devoid of expression. I wonder what this evening at the Ichiriki means for her. If my experience is shaped and confined by language, how different must Kaori's experience be, untouched by the flirtation that gives these encounters so much of their flavor for men? It seems to me that her presence in this place where geiko and their male clientele have drunk and laughed for centuries must be a modern innovation as shocking to the Ichiriki as would be a television in the corner, blaring out "Larry King Live."

The Ichiriki's mistress, Ms. Sugiura, does not find Kaori's presence unusual. Women, she explains, have been guests at the Ichiriki for over a century. And as Kaori assures me later, the evening held considerable interest for her. Women love to watch other women -- all the more so when arrayed as artfully as these. "I enjoyed watching you, too," she tells me, with a look that mixes equal parts amusement and threat. Apparently I was not the only one taking notes.

By now Yuiko has excused herself to attend another engagement. Ms. Sugiura offers to show us around the Ichiriki. Down the hall we enter a large central room, used for hosting the largest parties. Traditional Japanese paintings on the wall date back centuries. Ms. Sugiura leads me over to a shelf where sits a model, a tiny theater holding rows of miniature samurai. These are the 47 ronin. Their shrine has been here for 150 years.

I am curious about the story's ending -- why did the ronin not seek vengeance against the shogun, who forced their master's suicide? And was their mass suicide really a happy ending? But Mr. Nagata and Ms. Sugiura agree that the shogun found the proper solution. The loyalty of the ronin had to be rewarded, and yet their defiance could not go unanswered.

Teruhina takes me over to the glass patio doors to show me the garden. Above us, the moon is nearly full. Teruhina howls. I join in and we burst into giggles. With Komomo translating, I tell her of the coyotes that howl at the moon near the town where I grew up. What is the word for wolf, I ask? "Oukami," Komomo replies. Suddenly Teruhina begins to sing to me, dancing lyrics that end with a repeated word --"oukami, oukami, oukami." Then I recognize the melody. Teruhina is serenading me, in Japanese, with "Who's Afraid of the Big, Bad Wolf?"

Pictures are posed for and small gifts of Canada left behind -- chocolates for Ms. Sugiura, maple syrup for our geiko and maiko entertainers. I promise to return tomorrow to drop off personal cards for Yuiko, Komomo and Teruhina. As we stand at the front archway waiting for our shoes, Teruhina stands close and looks up at me. "I hope to see you again," she says, pronouncing the English words carefully. Her serious tone may reflect the caution of someone repeating a memorized foreign phrase, or perhaps the formal presentation of a ritual farewell. Or perhaps her unlikely wish is sincere. Maybe she actually likes me.

Kyoto women suffer from a stigma among Japanese -- they are legendary for their supposed insincerity. There are humorous advertisements playing on the idea that a Kyoto woman's smile cannot be trusted -- and naturally a geiko, as a professional courtesan, must be the most insincere of all. Even Mr. Nagata confides to Kaori that he considers the pleasant companionship of his Ichiriki evenings to reflect nothing more than the painted-on gaiety of Gion 's social mercenaries.

And Kyoto is insular. In Japan they say that unless you can trace your Kyoto roots back at least three generations you will not truly belong, and in this too Gion is the wellspring from which the harsh reputation flows. The geiko world is like a permanent carnival. Years ago in a dingy pub, a couple of midway mechanics passing through my hometown bluntly explained to me the carnival philosophy. "There's only two kinds of people in the world," one said. "There's carneys -- that's us -- and there's marks. That's everybody else."

But so what? Yuiko and Teruhina told Kaori privately that they liked me. Who am I to doubt it? They're just 20 and 18, surely too young to be jaded, and probably don't see a lot of goofy foreigners in funky glasses sporting Bruce Lee watches and holographic Astro Boy wallets. I am choosing to believe.

Back on the street again, Mr. Nagata decides that our night should not yet end. He leads us around a corner and into a narrow alley lined by solid wooden fences, stopping at a small door cut into the high wooden wall. We step through, and it's a rabbit hole into Wonderland -- in a beautiful floodlit garden, a path leads past the long, tall windows of a secluded bar. This is the Fukushima ochaya. Like many of its competitors, Fukushima has been forced to find new revenue streams, and a drop-in bar (albeit an exclusive and hidden one) helps augment the more traditional geiko party business.

We enter and take a small table. Once again we are joined by the proprietor -- Mr. Nagata is a treasured customer wherever he goes. A maiko sitting at the bar is drawn to our table and poses for pictures. Kaori notes details that escape me -- this maiko's bright yellow kimono, she tells me, is not in the same league as Teruhina's. (Later, as we examine the photographs from Kaori's digital camera, she notes disapprovingly that this maiko leans against me provocatively. In my photos with Komomo and Teruhina, Kaori points out to me their sweet discretion -- they sit upright beside me, and yet their sleeves are gently touching mine.)

The young bartender drops by our table to chat, and I show her the digital photos we took at the Ichiriki. Kaori taps my arm urgently and gives me a warning look -- if I'm not careful I will get Mr. Nagata into trouble. The proprietor of the Fukushima, sitting close by, must not know where we've come from. Likewise, the mistress of the Ichiriki would not be pleased to discover our presence at the Fukushima. Mr. Nagata is, in effect, cheating on her.

Later, we walk out to the quiet streets of Gion and pile into another impeccable cab for the return home. Japanese taxis are a little pricey, but what the hell. The advantage of spending the cost of a used Honda on an evening's entertainment is that you stop sweating the small stuff. Offering heartfelt thanks, we part company with Mr. Nagata at our hotel, and he waves the driver on.

Kaori and I spend the next day exploring Kyoto. Late in the afternoon we arrive back at the Ichiriki on foot. I am carrying in my backpack the promised cards for Yuiko, Komomo and Teruhina. As I breeze into the courtyard to look for last evening's maitre d', I fail to notice that Kaori is hanging back reluctantly. Puzzled staff eye me as they hurry past with trays and laundry. Soon the man who guided us through the gate last night emerges. I proffer the cards and begin my explanation, but he merely shakes his head. "Geiko house," he says, motioning for me to leave. "Members only."

Can he have forgotten so soon? I offer my explanation once more in a stuttering English torrent. He is implacable, insistent that I leave at once. I turn to look for Kaori, but she has moved a little way down the street. "Help me," I call, but Kaori remains rooted on the pavement. "I can't go in," she says.

I stand on the sidewalk as bicycles and pedestrians amble past. The little Gion street is bright and clear in the sun. Inside the open gateway, the courtyard of the Ichiriki is shadowed beneath the trees.

By Steve Burgess

Steve Burgess is a Salon contributing writer.

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