The Apprentice: Memoirs of a Chinese geisha wannabe in Japan

Fri Aug 10, 2012 12:40am EDT
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By Hyun Oh

SHIMODA, Japan (Reuters) - It takes Rinka at least two hours to apply her thick white makeup and get dressed in an elaborate kimono on formal occasions, as is typical of most trainee geisha.

But 29-year-old Rinka is different. She is a Chinese national hoping to take her place among the ranks of Japan's ancient but fading profession of female entertainers known for their beauty, skill at traditional arts and witty conversation.

Born in Shenyang, China, she grew up as Zhang Xue before moving to Japan at the age of 14, one of only a handful of foreigners to try to join the geisha ranks.

"When I first came to Japan, I had a neighbor who was a geisha. She played the shamisen (Japanese stringed instrument) daily and wore a traditional Japanese kimono," Rinka said in the port town of Shimoda, 200 km (120 miles) southwest of Tokyo.

"It was really pretty so I, too, wanted to wear a kimono."

She took a series of part-time jobs for years before finally taking advantage in September of a special one-year subsidized training program offered by Shimoda city.

There are only seven geisha left in Shimoda, including Rinka, compared to nearly 300 in the 1950s. The ranks of geisha across all of Japan peaked at 80,000 in 1928, but now number roughly a thousand.

Though Shimoda geisha lack the fame of their sisters in the ancient capital of Kyoto, their training is no less rigorous. Rinka trains five days a week in traditional forms of singing, dance and music and more esoteric arts such as how to walk.   Continued...