KYOTO (Reuters) - Just eight years ago, Komomo was a Japanese teenager living in Beijing, riding her bicycle around the city and playing pool with her friends on weekends.
Now she is a geisha in Kyoto, Japan's ancient capital, a proudly elegant member of a centuries-old but fading profession of female entertainers celebrated for their beauty, skill at traditional dance and music, and witty conversation.
Unlike the old days when girls would become geisha through personal connections, 23-year-old Komomo (Little Peach) took her first steps towards the vocation by e-mail.
As Komomo recounted in "A Geisha's Journey," a book of essays and photographs by Naoyuki Ogino due out in May, she had no way of learning about the remote and secretive geisha world until she found a website run by Koito, a Kyoto geisha who also ran an okiya (geisha house). (www.e-koito.com)
"I wanted to know more about my own country and that's why I chose this world," Komomo told Reuters.
Dressed in a formal crested black kimono with a brocade sash, her face covered in white makeup with just a touch of red at the eyes, she added: "I wanted to make Japanese history and customs a part of my daily life, not just wearing a kimono occasionally but every day and living life as they did in the old days."
But this seemed impossible until she found Koito's website, one of the first written by a working geisha.
"I was so excited that I e-mailed Koito-san right away, telling her my dream of becoming a maiko, an apprentice geisha, but that I didn't know how to begin," she wrote.
The two corresponded for three years, until Komomo graduated from junior high school. Shrugging off the opposition of her parents, who wanted her to take a more conventional path of university and marriage, the 15-year-old headed for Kyoto.
"I thought she wouldn't last," said Kimiko Nasu, Komomo's mother, who was visiting her only child. "She has a strong will, and in the geisha world you have to make yourself disappear."
Komomo moved into Koito's okiya in Miyagawa-cho, a cluster of narrow, stone-paved streets lined with wooden houses in central Kyoto. Her first weeks were spent learning to greet people with polite bows, wear kimono, and speak in the soft Kyoto dialect.
"In the first year, every single day, it seemed I was scolded all the time. That was my job, to be scolded," said Komomo, who stands barely 150 cm (4 ft 11 inches) tall.
"At evening gatherings, no mistakes are permitted, and this isn't something you can just learn suddenly. It has to be driven home, as part of your daily life, so you won't do anything embarrassing in front of the guests."
Each demanding day begins with lessons in dance, singing, tea ceremony and music, and continues with parties -- the geisha's real work -- from six until midnight.
With only one day off every two or three months, Komomo at first sometimes longed for the life of an ordinary teenager, able to see movies on a whim.
But she only thought of quitting briefly, during her first two weeks, when another girl decided to leave.
"I realized then what my true feelings were. I thought, since I decided to do this, I might as well try really hard."
Wearing an elaborate maiko kimono with long sleeves and a wide, trailing sash, and learning to walk in the costume without bumping into anything or anyone, especially during dance performances, was hard. Komomo also forgot rules and lost hair ornaments.
"In our okiya we didn't cry that much," she said. "My time in China was actually much harder at first."
Komomo's life overseas -- born in Mexico, she spent some years in Japan before moving to China -- has been a plus by helping her break the ice with guests. But there were problems.
"At first I think I had some friction with ordinary life in Japan, and I was a bit cheeky. Here they say it's best to act as if you know nothing, but actually be really clever.
"Every so often, I got conceited from all the attention, but somebody soon brought me down to earth," Komomo said of her five years as a maiko.
"It was actually refreshing to finally become a geisha because you're not forced to be 'on' for 24 hours a day."
She declined to say what she earns, but bystanders at the theatre where she took part in a dance performance said she is popular. She owns a house, and its main room boasts a huge flat-screen TV and new model Macintosh computer.
"I was told when I began that I'm not an incredible beauty so I should try to always keep a smile on my face. Beauties get work easily, but I need to work at it," she said.
Even so, she confessed to worries about the future. There are no pensions for geisha and they are not permitted to marry, though in the past some were supported as mistresses. Some even became single mothers.
Though Komomo says she wants children, she has only been a geisha for two years and hasn't thought about the future yet.
"I don't even have a boyfriend," she said. "I'm too busy to meet anyone, and the guests at the parties are my father's age."
Of greater concern is the fate of the geisha world itself.
Geisha numbers in Japan peaked at 80,000 in 1928, but now only 1,000 are left. One of the six geisha districts in tradition-bound Kyoto has folded due to lack of business.
The economic woes of the 1990s slashed the expense accounts of business executives who were once the mainstays of geisha, while politicians now shun lavish spending after scandals.
A dinner with a geisha present can cost around 80,000 yen ($785) a person, depending on the venue and the number of geisha.
Another problem is that men today tend to prefer less formal entertainment like karaoke or hostess bars.
Many people, including Komomo, say the geisha world needs to open up more, and they say the Internet is an ideal tool.
"In the old days, people only got to know geisha through introductions, but now people rely on the Internet to gather information," said Kyoko Aihara, a geisha expert and author.
"Miyagawa-cho has introduced themselves on the net. They're more flexible than some of the more traditional geisha areas, they want people to have fun -- and this is working for them."
In a move to gently ease neophytes into the geisha world, Koito, who trained Komomo, runs an elegant bar on the first floor of her okiya where guests can meet geisha for relatively inexpensive prices.
"History changes, so if you just offer the same thing it's no good," she said. "The service you provide has to match the age."
"We need to keep providing things the world needs," she added. "If we're not needed anymore, all we can do is disappear."
(For a related story, click [ID:nT304684)
Editing by Megan Goldin