Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Short Story - The Floating World

The foreigners always took photos.
She loved it, being photographed. Kumiko made certain never to look at them or indicate she had become aware of their presence - the ones who were afraid to come close and ask, that was. When a Japanese tourist approached to ask for a photo, she nodded demurely, never parting her lips or raising her eyes.
She also never posed. Best for her admirers to believe she was always off to her next engagement; one delicate step away from being whisked off to the floating world, where some lucky guests who could afford the price of high culture witnessed her in her element.
The foreign tourists were suitably awed, and the Japanese tourists excited, but it was the locals she appreciated most. They nodded her way, whispering 'geiko!' - for no Kyoto-born would ever use the word geisha among themselves. Bad enough that the rest of the country used the Tokyo term, when Tokyo’s geisha had all but vanished. The ones Kumiko loved most were natives who correctly identified her as an apprentice; a maiko. When someone called her a maiko, she knew she had passed their test.
She'd yearned to be part of the floating world since she was small. Kumiko had seen them on television - the images of beautiful Kyoto geiko, hidden behind their fans, fingers draped over koto strings like so much silk. Her mother bought her a fan that Kumiko had carried for weeks, practicing folding and unfolding it, like the blossoming 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 at sixteen was 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 wondered what had caused her to forget her dream of being a geiko. Was it fear of her clumsiness? Joining the softball club in fourth grade? Some other childish whim? She hadn’t considered it in so many years. She’d even hesitated at this invitation from her friends today. As the kimono dresser firmly knotted her obi, though, Kumiko heard her classmates admiring themselves, squealing over how authentic they looked. Just like real geiko!
When she turned and looked at them through red-lined eyes, Kumiko didn’t think they looked like geiko at all. Their posture was 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 flowed like water over her small frame; the long furisode sleeves hid her hands, but when she freed them, she could imagine that fan again, opening slowly; the lotus awakening after sleeping through 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 called for unsightly bandages on her hands. It was rare to quit a club mid-year, but Kumiko said good-bye to her tennis mates and entered the tea ceremony club instead.
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 eye-catching side of the cup turned out for all to see. She learned to smile with her lips closed and greet others with her eyes. And when the calluses on her hands faded, dutifully cared for daily with lotions and creams, Kumiko felt ready to return to Gion.
She told no one, not even her new friends in the tea ceremony club. It would be too much to take for someone to laugh now, after coming so far. Instead she went to the studio where she and her classmates had their maiko dress-up, and made an appointment. It didn’t matter how much it cost, Kumiko told herself. 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 late September heat, teetering sometimes on the unfamiliar height of the okobo, but intensely proud of herself for coming so far. She couldn’t fool a Kyoto-ite, she knew, or even a Japanese tourist - they spotted her somehow; perhaps 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 as she paid the bill, far took much for a high schooler’s savings. The notion of never putting on maiko garb again, though, was unacceptable.
She took a job at the McDonalds on Shijo-dori, far enough from school that she could count on privacy. Being so close to Gion, but outside the Floating World, was depressing. 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 on weekend mornings; the shifts were ever-easier with the knowledge that transformation waited not so far away. At noon, Kumiko 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 of options. Fewer still offered the option to stroll outside. Kumiko's photos of herself in various kimono, chosen in all the colours of the rainbow, were her treasures - yet what she wanted was not to pose for the studio cameras, but to walk among the people outside.
On her third sojourn, after a difficult shift at work, she reached a milestone. Two women, speaking in the clipped tsuguru dialect of northern Aomori, stopped Kumiko to shyly ask for a photo. It was the first time she had been approached by another Japanese person. Her smile reaching all the way to her eyes, Kumiko stood for them with her bag held tightly in her hands. When they went on their way, she knew this to be the feeling she’d been craving. Acceptance. What did it matter if they weren’t from Kyoto? They acknowledged her to be as beautiful as a real maiko.
At club, however, she felt more and more like a fraud. Her talented and beautiful upperclassmen seemed unreachable - their tea ceremony was as practised and artistic as a true geiko’s. Desperately Kumiko threw herself into her practice, whisking tea late into the afternoons. In music class, she had already become the most skilled koto player, just in time for them to move onto other lessons. She snuck into the music room at lunchtimes to practice alone.
After running out of studios to visit on weekends, she returned to the first small one in the backstreets of Gion. No one recognized her, though she chose the same kimono as before. So many girls come through this shop, looking for a fantasy afternoon, Kumiko realized. I am just one girl of thousands.
Outside, though, she felt 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 calculated. Rarely did she encounter real maiko - Kumiko never lingered where her idols might spot her. Sometimes, though, she would pass another maiko henshin customer, and give them the slightest of nods, the smallest of smiles.
She never forgot the first time she heard someone whisper “Ah, geiko!” and then correct himself, “Oh. Maiko!” Kumiko had just passed him on the cobbled street at the foot of Kiyomizudera’s hill. She dared not look back, but that man was surely Kyoto-born. She had done it, Kumiko realized with glee. She had 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 and more. She kept to the backstreets, but people stopped her for photos, or simply watched her, awed, and Kumiko became less conscious of her voyeurs and more of her mannerisms, step by step, picking out the familiar path between Shijo-dori and her studio of the day. The imperfections in her life caused by part-time work and school and sports festivals and marathon training and hormones and bad days all melted away when she wore kimono - she imagined herself as one changed from a caterpillar into a butterfly, with endless sleeves serving as her wings. She was no longer Yamamoto Kumiko - she was a beautiful, mysterious, transcendent being who belonged not here, with the queues of men lining up for Big Macs, but somewhere in the clouds, brocade pooling all around her like a pond surrounding a magnificent temple. Sometimes the photographers asked her name, so she was Ichisumi the maiko one Sunday, and Komaki the next, impetuously calling on names from books in the library. Asakichi was the main choice for a while; after that, Wakagusa - the name she wore with her favourite green kimono. Kumiko the high school student, Kumiko the McDonalds part-timer was a person of the past. Wakagusa the maiko was resplendant and shining, growing like the tender grass of spring after which she was named.
That studio became her favourite, along with the green kimono and the strolling path and the hair accessories. She would amble by the rikishi as drivers smiled at her, and as foreigners took photos, and the locals looked on in appreciation. She even spotted other studio maiko, high-schoolers hobbling along uncertainly in their too-tall sandals, laughing gaily as they snapped photos of each other 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.