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Maiko in Gion.


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The best of Kyoto

Steeped in symbol and tradition, Kyoto is Japan's wellspring of culture and refinement, writes Pat Nourse. Drink deep and find inspiration and restoration both.

Snow is falling on Kyoto. It falls on ceremonial pines, and flutters past doorway lanterns casting keen kimono colours - pink and orange, lemon and red. It carpets the cobbled streets of Gion and blows through the ghostly bamboo groves of Arashiyama. Inside, we're sitting warm by the window with Tanefumi. A maiko of House Toshi, she's drinking from a glass of hot shochu flavoured with umeboshi. She's 20 years old, speaks a little English, and a mutual friend fills in the gaps. She's keen to chat.

Even in the heart of Kyoto where it's commonplace, the appearance of a geiko or maiko - the hostess-performers known outside Japan as geisha - still draws everyone's attention. Heads turn, shutters snap. How these women live with such constant scrutiny is hard to understand.

"I was quite surprised on my first few outings by how many people were watching me, but you get used to it," says Tanefumi. What seems odd now, she says, is when she goes out without her hair or make-up done on her one or two days off a month and she doesn't get a second look as she walks down the street.

The most fun parts of her job, she says, are meeting people, talking, going to kabuki theatre and the dancing. She starts her night at six, finishes work at one, but taking care of her hair and clothes before bed means she doesn't really clock off till three in the morning. "But I like it."

Read more about what to eat, drink and do in Kyoto here.

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