The romance of Voyage à Kyõto-shi
Jade waves spread over the surface of the pool; the Great Pavillon glistens with the gold of all Kyõto. In the Imperial garden, the writer sits down under the shade of a blossoming cherry tree: it’s early April. With notebook in hand, she has come to seek inspiration.
Two apprentice Geikos pass by. To stifle a laugh, one of them places her porcelain hand over her mouth, in an attempt at restraint. ‘How old are they?’ The writer asked herself. ‘May be fifteen or sixteen, at the most?’ Their wooden okobo, which they wear with white ankle socks, force them to make very tiny steps.
The young woman watched them pensively as they walked away. She scribbled a few notes. At the dawn of the twenty first century, the radiant, timeless Kyõto still directs the traditional ball with the maestro’s hand.
She became lost in her thoughts imagining the rest of the story. She was already imagining her heroine walking here, in the garden. ‘Would she be alone or accompanied? Alone,’ she decided. Madame M must distance herself from this married man who brings nothing but trouble.
Confident of where this new scenario was taking her, she picked up her pen and began to write:
In the land of the Rising Sun, Misia, puts down her luggage to watch the dance of the goldfish. Since that morning, she had been enjoying wandered aimlessly through the maze of Japanese alleyways. She was alone. Deliciously alone.
On the other side of the Pacific, Ernest has chosen to honour his vows. ‘Pauline convinced him to stay’, mused M with regret. And yet, their romance had started so well… The Florida Keys archipelago, then Tanzania, the island of Zanzibar. Happy memories!
M shrugged her shoulders, then decided to store this thought in a drawer of her memory. Hemingway was a ladies’ man… He was not for her, that was that.
Having recovered her good mood, she dived into street of Geishas. She was overwhelmed with a shower of colourful kimonos. During the day, these artistic women came and went, conversing just outside their Okiya, the boarding house to which they were bound. The silk kimonos, hand printed or dyed using the Shibori technique, were worth much more than the most beautiful jewels decorating their jet black hair.
M ventured a bit further along the paved back streets. Everywhere, at the edge of houses and shops, Japanese ideograms were sketched in a mysterious sign game which unfortunately she was unable to decipher.
Each red lantern seemed to symbolise the entrance to a tea house. Here and there, touts encouraged her to enter the establishments. Eventually, the young woman gave into persuasion.
She was shown into a covered garden; a small fountain flowed into a stone basin. Her host invited her inside. The narrow room was no larger than four tatami The young woman took her place next to the other guests. There were three other guests. Two Japanese men and one foreigner, like her.
The tea ceremony began. As tradition requires, conversation was kept to a minimum. The sound of running water, the beauty and simplicity of the house, the smell of incense and Matcha tea transported her to another world.
At the end of the tasting, the European man made a sign to the host to come closer.
How much is the Hanadai, this evening?’.
‘A Frenchman’, realised Madame M. She hadn’t noticed until now.
“For a dance?” enquired the host in return, in broken French.
“For a dance and a Shamisen song, if that is possible.” .
The host lent towards the guest and whispered something to him that M couldn’t catch. The Frenchman seemed satisfied with the answer. He confirmed with a nod. The host withdrew immediately and the echo of her order reverberated throughout the house. Then calm returned. Unable to stop herself, Madame M lent over to the man and asked him:
«What is Hanadai, in fact?»
“Geisha’s are not just artists, you know”, smiled the guest in return.
“No… They are much more than that. Geishas are flowers. The most delicate flowers in existence. Customers pay them in flower money. That’s what Hanadai means: flower money.”
At the same moment, a geisha, probably from a neighbouring Okiya, given the speed of her arrival, entered the small room. Conversation stopped. The dancer stood before them and bowed deferentially. Intuitively, M bowed her head in greeting.
The story already seemed clear on the dancer’s face: white powder, red blood, black night… The colours of her make-up only seemed to inscribe what tradition had laid down over the centuries. Madame M contemplated this incarnation of ideal beauty, where detail seemed to be the tyrannical master. She was speechless. During this time, the geisha picked up the Shamisen, plucked a few chords and began to sing.
“What do the words mean?” asked M after a while, dazzled by her crystal clear voice.
“… meet me, my beloved, in the paddy field of promises”, translated the Frenchman, as the song progressed. “Let us seal our union near the Koya sanctuary. One of the hundred and seventeen merciful temples will surely open its doors to us, my beloved…”
“Are the geishas allowed to marry?”
“No, exactly, that is what is so beautiful…”
And then the dance began. The geisha’s steps were lightness itself. It seemed more like a vocation than an apprenticeship. Her fan, which she handled gracefully, turned, turned, turned… Suggesting, depending on the way she paused, sensuality, modesty, and all the poetry of her art. Madame M held her breath.
‘She is dancing as if she was giving all of herself’, mused M, hypnotised by so much beauty. ‘As if she was selling her soul.’
The writer put away her pen. The red sun had run its course. At high speed, the Shinkansen train took the young woman to the other side of Suruga Bay. Later, Mount Fuji put in a brief appearance between the clouds. The famous Lotus peak watched over the resting place of its Samourai.
The countryside flew past, as she sipped her Bubble tea. In the twilight, she finally saw the first electric light of the great metropolis, where princes and princesses were born and reigned… but not only. Far from Kyõto, another crimson halo appeared, the glow of Neon Lights. Midnight Tokyo was starting its shift.
The Shinkansen stopped. Excitedly, she closed her notebook to join the night owls. Her heroine’s journey was only just beginning.Back