"The flower is Miyagawa, the flower is Miyagawa. Yooi, yoi, yoi."
On April 4 in Miyagawacho - one of the Gokagai, or five areas of geiko (geisha) quarters in Kyoto - the curtain rose on an established spring tradition, the public dance performance of "Kyo Odori."
A total of 33 dancers performed the finale of the "Miyagawa Ondo." In the back row, new maiko (apprentice geisha), Toshiemi, 16, made her debut.
While trying her best not to disturb the perfect order of movements of her senior geisha, she relished the joy of finally appearing on stage.
Miyagawacho is on the Kamogawa river in Kyoto, a little south of the Minamiza theatre. Though it is near the traditional Gion area, it features a different kind of charm with its relaxed elegance.
"This isn't going well."
It was the beginning of March in a geisha house called Komaya of Miyagawacho.
Toshiemi used foundation to fix the outline of her lip colour. Her cheeks, forehead and the nape of her neck were coated with powder. Her lower lips glowed crimson with lipstick. She had already been applying makeup for an hour, but she still didn't seem satisfied.
Her real name is Asaki Hasegawa. On Feb. 26, her training period ended, and she made her debut as a maiko.
She is the second-oldest girl of four siblings and grew up in Ota Ward, Tokyo. While attending public middle school, she took hip-hop and jazz dance classes at dance school.
Two springs ago, she was staring at the screen of her smartphone, trying to learn about Kyoto before her school trip there, when her eyes fell upon a photo.
"I've never seen such a beautiful person," she thought. They were pictures of geisha and maiko dancing in a tatami room and walking along flat stone streets. She saved all the pictures to her phone.
"I want to become maiko," she said to her mother.
"What are you talking about?" her mother Tomomi, 44, said. "If you do, you can't just quit halfway through."
Though she expressed her wish to her mother, she failed to gain support.
A month and a half later, one of her daughter's friends said to Tomomi, "Asaki says that she wants to become a maiko."
Tomomi began to realise her daughter was serious. She knew that once her daughter had her mind set on something, she would do it.
"You really want to do this?" Tomomi asked her daughter. Asaki nodded. They then talked for an hour, and Tomomi knew her daughter was serious.
The vice principal of Asaki's middle school, Akihiko Chine, 57, was surprised to learn from a guidance counselor that one of his students wanted to become a maiko.
Eight years earlier, he had visited Miyagawacho with a coworker and experienced the culture of the geisha quarters.
Chine called Asaki into a classroom after school and pointed at the blackboard.
"What colour do you see?" he asked. "In that world, if your seniors say this is white, then even though you know it's black, you'd have to say 'white.' Going to high school would be easier."
In the world of geisha, the pecking order and learning the techniques are strict. Geisha and maiko also carry the great responsibility of promoting traditional arts. They are a symbol of Japanese culture. He taught her what little he knew about geisha banquets.
Tomomi, who also knew nothing of the geisha world, bought a book about the geisha quarters, read it, and then bombarded Chine with questions like, "Can they have cell phones?" and "What about their salaries?"
"Putting aside whether or not you will become one, you should first at least have a look," Chine told Asaki. On a school field trip in the middle of June, Chine took Asaki to have a look around Miyagawacho with her homeroom teacher during the evening's free time.
They passed maiko hurrying off toward nighttime dinner parties. They saw white-powdered necks, willow-shaped hairpins and loosely fitting kimono sashes.
The dreams she saw on her smartphone were now moving in front her eyes. Asaki's convictions became stronger than ever.
Two months later, she still said, "I want to become a beautiful maiko."
Asaki visited Miyagawacho along with her mother and expressed her thoughts to, and interviewed with, the proprietress of Komaya, Fumie Komai, 70.
Before heading off to be a maiko, Asaki said to her mother, "Please just let me enter one last dance recital."
She danced on stage at their local hall for a performance on April 20 last year. As she finished dancing with 30 of her friends, tears started to overflow.
"I have no more regrets," she said.
Two days later, she said goodbye to her dance friends and classmates on the Shinkansen platform at Shinagawa Station and then headed off to Kyoto.
This spring, in Miyagawacho, Asaki took her first steps toward becoming a maiko by making her debut.
Rise in Internet recruitment
In 1965, there were 538 geiko and maiko in the five areas of Gokagai (Gionkobu, Miyagawacho, Pontocho, Kamishichiken, and Gionhigashi), but there are only 244 today.
For a while after the war, there were many girls from the geisha quarters familiar with the arts, and there were many cases in which girls were trying to support their poor family members.
In recent years, most cases involve girls becoming fascinated with the lifestyle through school trips and the Internet. With maintaining numbers being a serious issue, the number of geisha houses that recruit maiko through the Internet has risen over the past 15 years, even in Miyagawacho.