Updated: 10/04/2013 19:00 | By Agence France-Presse

Colourful geisha trainees hit grey Tokyo streets

Trainee Japanese geishas wearing colourful kimonos and with full-face makeup were out on the streets of a grey Tokyo on Friday, drumming up tourist custom for the ancient capital of Kyoto.


Colourful geisha trainees hit grey Tokyo streets

Five trainee geishas try to drum up tourist custom for the ancient city of Kyoto during a photo opportunity in Tokyo, on October 4, 2013

The five "maikos", all between the ages of 16 and 20, met passers-by and handed out leaflets proclaiming historic Kyoto, 500 kilometres (300 miles) to the west of Tokyo, is alive and kicking, despite a recent lashing by a typhoon that swamped sightseeing spots.

The women, whose hair was elaborately held up with delicate pins carved in the shape of flowers to reveal their neckline used broad Kyoto dialect to greet Tokyoites hurrying past under leaden autumn skies.

Despite Western misconceptions, geishas are not prostitutes, but rather entertainers highly skilled in traditional Japanese dance, musical instruments and games.

Throughout history, wealthy and powerful men have spent time with geisha -- the name means "artist" -- who are rigidly schooled in the art of conversation and bound by strict rules of confidentiality.

High-flying politicians and businessmen continue to strike sensitive deals in the presence of geishas, paying hundreds or even thousands of dollars for an evening of entertainment and discretion.

In ancient Kyoto -- the capital of Japan until 1868 -- girls would be raised in geisha houses where they were coached from a young age in the many skills required.

Nowadays girls begin their training when they leave school, with recent popular novels and television dramas boosting the number of applicants for a small number of openings.

Successful trainees must submit to an austere regime of training in the arts, as well as playing their part in cooking and cleaning for the rest of the house.

"I wanted to become a maiko when I saw the life of a maiko in a TV documentary when I was in elementary school," said one of the apprentice geishas, 18, known by her adopted name Ichimari. "I enjoy every day of my life."

Tomitae, 18, said she had been fascinated by the beauty of kimonos since childhood. 

"I also wanted to become accomplished in traditional arts," she said. "I feel happy this way."

The maiko in Tokyo on Friday will become full-fledged geisha when they have mastered the art forms they are being schooled in.

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