Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Short Story - The Floating World


The foreigners were always taking photos.
She loved it, being photographed. Kumiko made sure never to look at them or indicate that she knew they were there - the ones who were afraid to come close and ask, that was. When a Japanese tourist approached and asked for a photo, she always nodded demurely, never parting her lips or raising her eyes.
She also never posed. Kumiko preferred for her admirers to believe that she was always off to her next engagement; one delicate step away from being whisked off to the floating world, where some lucky men who could afford the price of high culture could see her in her element.
The foreign tourists were suitably awed, and the Japanese tourists were always excited, but it was the locals that she appreciated most. They were easy to identify by the way they whispered ’geiko!’ - for no Kyoto-born would ever use the word geisha among themselves; bad enough that the rest of the country used the Tokyo word, when Tokyo’s geisha had all but disappeared. The ones Kumiko loved were the natives who could correctly identify her as an apprentice; a maiko. When someone called her a maiko, she knew that she had passed their test.
Kumiko had wanted to become part of the floating world since she was small. She had seen them on television - the images of the beautiful Kyoto geiko, hidden behind their fans, fingers draped over their koto strings like so much silk. Her mother had bought her a fan that Kumiko had carried for weeks, practicing folding and unfolding it, like the opening of a lotus.
She had been to Gion many times of course, since she was born and raised in the city, but the day she had debuted in a true costume was at sixteen, not so soon after the age that Kyoto maiko often had their misedashi.
On that day, standing in the studio with her giggling classmates, Kumiko had wondered what had caused her to forget her dream of being a geiko. Was it her clumsiness? Joining the softball club in fourth grade? Some other childish whim? She hadn’t thought about it in so many years. She’d even hesitated at the invitation from her friends today. As the kimono dresser tied her obi, though, she could hear her classmates admiring themselves, squealing over how authentic they looked. Just like real geiko!
When she turned, though, and looked at them through red-lined eyes, Kumiko didn’t think they looked like geiko at all. Their posture what all wrong, and Eri stood with her legs apart, like a soccer goalie waiting to make a dive. They smiled with their white teeth shining through the lipstick. No - not even close.
Kumiko couldn’t say anything, though, because she felt as real as they did. When she looked at herself in the mirror, plain old Yamamoto Kumiko was gone, and in her place was someone beautiful, someone exquisite. The green kimono she had chosen flowed like water over her small frame; the long furisode sleeves hid her hands at first, but when she freed them, she could imagine that fan again, opening slowly; the lotus awakening after sleeping away countless winters.

When the photographer pushed a prop fan into her hands and stood her against the backdrop, Kumiko knew just what to do.

Coming back to Gion was hard at first. On Tuesdays and Thursdays she practiced tennis with her school club, a sport that sometimes left unsightly bandages on her hands. It was rare to quit mid-year, but Kumiko said good-bye to her tennis mates and went to join the tea ceremony club instead.
The tea ceremony club was just what she needed. She learned beautiful finishes for obi and yukata - though what she really wanted to learn was grace. There, in the quiet, sunny little room on the third floor, those sixteen tatami mats became Kumiko’s own little floating world. The girls taught her to prepare tea and serve it, and to drink it just so, with the most beautiful side of the cup turned out for all to see. She learned to smile with her lips closed and greet people with her eyes. And when the calluses on her hands had faded, rubbed every day with lotions and creams, Kumiko was finally ready to return to Gion.
She told no one, not even her new friends. It would be too much for someone to laugh now, after coming so far. Instead she went to the studio where she and her classmates had their photos taken in maiko dress, and made an appointment. It didn’t matter how much it cost, Kumiko told herself. She knew it would be worth it when she stepped out the door in those distinctive sandals and the parasol, holding her fan.
For an hour she strolled in the late September heat, teetering sometimes on the unfamiliar height of the okobo, but intensely proud of herself. She couldn’t fool a Kyotoite, she knew, or even the Japanese tourists - they spotted her somehow; in the way she carried herself or her unsteady steps. But the foreigners who walked out of Yasaka-jinja, they pointed excitedly and took her photo, and it was all Kumiko could do not to preen.
It cost too much, she realized after she had paid the bill, far took much for a high schooler’s savings. The idea of never putting on maiko garb again, though, was too much for her to bear.
She took a job at the McDonalds on Shijo-dori, far enough from school that she could count on privacy. It was depressing to be so close to Gion, but outside the Floating World. Kumiko bore it as the means to an end - her parents had no reason to question her days in the east end of the city as anything more than part-time work. She always worked weekend mornings; the shifts were ever-easier with the knowledge that transformation was not so far away. At noon, she could change into street clothes and hurry to the studios.
At first, she never visited the same one twice, but as plentiful as henshin studios were in Kyoto, it didn’t take long to run out. Fewer still offered the strolling packages that she so desired. The photos of her various kimono, chosen in all the colours of the rainbow, were treasures - yet what she wanted was not to pose for the studio cameras, but to walk among the people outside.
On her third visit, after a difficult shift at work, she realized she had reached a milestone. Two women, speaking in the clipped tsuguru dialect of northern Aomori, stopped her to shyly ask for a photo. It was the first time she had been approached by Japanese. Kumiko, her smile reaching all the way to her eyes, stood for them with her bag held tightly in her hands. When they went on their way, Kumiko knew this was the feeling she’d been craving. Acceptance. What did it matter if they weren’t from Kyoto? They had acknowledged her to be as beautiful as a realmaiko.
At club, however, Kumiko felt more and more like a fraud. Her upperclassmen were talented and beautiful - their tea ceremony was as practised and artistic as a true geiko’s. Desperately she threw herself into the routine, whisking tea late into the afternoons on her days off. In music class, she had already become the most skilled koto player, just in time for them to move onto guitar lessons. Feeling betrayed, Kumiko snuck into the music room at lunchtimes to practice alone.
She ran out of studios to visit on weekends, and returned to the small one in the backstreets of Gion. No one recognized her, even though she chose the samekimono as before. So many girls come through this shop, looking for a fantasy afternoon, Kumiko realized. I am just one girl.
Outside, though, she was anything but. The gentle clip-clop of wooden geta had grown musical to her ears, and her step was ever more confident, her movements ever more subtle. Rarely did she see real maiko - Kumiko never lingered where her idols might spot her. Sometimes, though, she would pass another maiko henshincustomer, and would give them the slightest of nods, the smallest of smiles.
She would never forget the first time she heard someone whisper “Ah, geiko!” and then correct himself, “Maiko!” Kumiko had just passed him on the cobbled street at the foot of Kiyomizudera’s hill. She dared not look back, but the man was surely Kyoto-born. She had done it, Kumiko realized with glee. She had finally acquired the air of a true maiko. It was all she could do not to fall to her knees and weep.
After that, it began to happen more frequently. Still she kept to the backstreets, but more people stopped her for photos, or watched her, awed, and she became less conscious of her voyeurs and more of her mannerisms, step by step, picking the familiar path between Shijo-dori and her studio of the day. The tiny imperfections caused by part-time work and school and sports festivals and marathon training and hormones and bad days all melted away when she was in kimono - she imagined herself as one changed from a caterpillar into a butterfly, the endless sleeves her wings. She was no longer Kumiko - she was a beautiful, mysterious, transcendant being who belonged not here, with the queues of men lining up for Big Macs, but somewhere in the clouds, with brocade pooling all around her like a pond guarding a magnificent temple. Sometimes the photographers asked her name, so she was Ichisumi the maiko one Sunday, and Komaki the next, drawing names from books in the library. Asakichi was her main choice for a while; after that, Wakagusa - the name she wore with the favourite green kimono. Kumiko the high school student, Kumiko the McDonalds part-timer was a person of the past. Wakagusa was resplendant and shining, growing like the tender grass of spring after which she was named.
The studio became a favourite, along with the green kimono and the walk and the hair accessories. She would stroll past the rikishi as the drivers smiled at her, and the foreigners took photos, and the locals looked on in appreciation. She even saw other studio maiko, high-schoolers hobbling along uncertainly in their too-tall sandals, laughing gaily as they snapped photos with their cell phones.
As she passed them, those one-hour maiko with their Tokyo accents, the girls looked back at her, awed, convinced. Wakagusa felt vindicated. She was not like them - she was real.