The Aged Geisha

I was brought to the back of the salon.  To my left, my eyes were immediately drawn to a pale, well-groomed elderly Japanese woman.  She held a command within herself.  Sitting there, under a regular salon hair-dryer, reading a normal Japanese newspaper, you felt this woman’s heritage seeping out of her in waves.  Her well-manicured fingernails were glistening with brand new red polish and each finger was ordained with a gold ring.  Her wedding ring alone glistened like the eye of a cat in the darkness; large, glowing, overwhelming.

I took my seat and did my best not to stare.  I was new to this culture, after all, and wasn’t aware of how staring would be perceived.  I made small talk with the woman across from me, all the while being pulled in to the mystery of this heiress.

An even smaller, more elderly Japanese woman shuffled in from a back room.  She wore a tattered blue apron and shoes that were two sizes too big.  The soles were worn away on the bottom from so much use, and from her refusal to lift her feet as she walked.   She raised the hair dryer, lifted the plastic cap on the painted-face woman’s head and softly muttered something in Japanese.  She then bowed twice and restarted the dryer.  Her customer looked disdainful but not surprised.  The hair dresser slunk away, bowing as she went.

I watched this woman out of the corner of my eye – her broad, coated forehead was even – as if age did not apply to that area.  Her heavily made-up eyes scanned the paper and often rose to inspect herself in the mirror.  As we sat sharing the salon’s space, she’d often cluck and roll her eyes when the employees of the salon spoke excitedly or laughed while covering their mouths. I wondered how difficult it was to be her.  I was curious how demanding it was for this elderly woman to keep up appearances.  I wondered if she removed and then reapplied her rings every day.  I wondered what other jewelry she wore under her salon cape.  I pondered whether she had always been pretentious.  I wondered if these actions were engrained in her from birth, or if they were learned as she had grown and realized her beauty; and make no mistake, her age had not depleted her exquisiteness.

I speculated she was from old money, and therefore, a timeless heritage.  My awe of the woman was equally mixed with my disdain for her manner. The downtrodden stylist reappeared and began to move the hair dryer.  She carefully and slowly lowered the salon chair and removed the plastic cap.  Her raven-black hair was wrapped in countless coils around her head.  The stylist began to scrub furiously at the back of the Heiress’s neck where hair dye had stained her pale, delicate skin.

The regal woman sat taller and stared directly at the reflection of the stylist while she seemed ambivalent to the pain.  This was something that happened often, I decided.  This woman viewed the process of hair dye on her skin as a necessary evil to the upkeep of her appearance.

The manicurist doing my nails cleared her throat softly.  I tore my eyes from the elderly woman and glanced quickly at the young woman sitting across from me.  She smiled politely, turned her eyes to the woman I’d been staring at, and looked back at me as though she was bursting from within with the possession of a heavy secret.  I smiled and nodded as if I understood she wanted to relay something to me, but couldn’t.

The stylist began to slowly, mechanically, and delicately unwrap the regal woman’s hair from around her head.  After the third turn of the coil, I noticed that instead of the black, silky hair covering the scalp, a large bald spot was beginning to become uncovered.  The stylist unwrapped three more coils and I couldn’t believe my eyes.  This eagle of a woman was completely bald from the top of her head to the lower part of her ears.  I looked back at my manicurist in disbelief and she nodded as if to say, “That’s what I was trying to tell you!” I instantly felt uncomfortable for the woman.  Her face stiffened slightly as she felt the cold air cross her bald skin, but she remained imperialistically upright and proud.

The rest of her hair was incredibly long.  I imagine if she’d stood up, it would fall gracefully to the back of her knees.  The stylist rifled through her drawer and produced a very wide-toothed comb.  She began to gently comb through the woman’s strands.  She then separated the woman’s hair and pulled out a large, black, sponge-like material.  The stylist began pinning it over the bald spot to the woman’s remaining hair.  She took her time, but she was incredibly adept.  I began to realize the relationship these two women had.  This stylist had obviously served this woman for many years. They didn’t speak a word, but  the stylist knew exactly what to do.  She began to gently fold and wrap and pin and comb the painted woman’s hair into place.  She smoothed, combed, and smoothed again.  In a matter of 20 minutes, it became abundantly clear that the stylist was shaping the woman’s hair loosely into a “Tsubushi shimada” – or Geisha type of hair style.  I stared in mild wonder as this woman hid her bald spot by adopting a hair style that clearly belonged on her.

When the stylist was finished, she deftly removed the styling cape.  I found myself holding my breath to see what this woman was wearing.  I was truly expecting a kimono.  Although she was dressed in a long, flowing dress, I was disappointed by her modern garb.  Her neck dripped with gold as her expensive taste displayed prominently in demonstration of her wealth.  She stood, inspecting her hair, make-up, and polish in the mirror.  She methodically reapplied her lipstick, re-powdered her face, and ensured every bracelet and ring were facing up in exhibition for others.  I was enthralled.   The stylist had left and returned with this woman’s coat.  She stood, waiting patiently for the Heiress to finish primping.  Finally, the woman finished.  Bowing and muttering, the stylist placed the coat over her arms and shoulders.

This woman approached the register where the cashier also bowed and refused to make eye contact. After she’d paid, she turned in a sweeping motion and said without emotion, “Arigato Gozaimasu” (Thank you) to the salon. She turned abruptly, sweeping her long dress in an arc, and exited.

The change in the salon and its patrons was palpable after her departure.  The salon suddenly brightened and the elderly stylist heaved an enormous sigh.  She shuffled, subjugated and exhausted, to the employee break room.  I heard her flop herself down in a chair.  I turned to the manicurist, eyebrows raised in question.

“She is very honored, generation Geiko – you know what Geiko is?” she prodded in her adorably broken English.  I shook my head no.

She continued in a very hushed whisper, “Geiko is like Geisha.  But Geisha word became known as bad or … dirty,” she paused trying to figure out if that was the correct word to use.   “Many Geisha sold their bodies?” she said it as a question.   I shook my head to show I understood. “Geiko were important arts women.  They perform only as living art.  They train others girls to perform only.  They have respect and are ancient importance. They cost very much for arts show.  She is a trainer and owner of Geiko training house.”

I smiled, holding back the grin I truly wanted to show.  I could tell this girl didn’t want to gossip out of respect, but just could not help herself.  The dirt was too good.  “Why does she come to this salon?” I asked.

“She like Harada-san,” she pointed her chin toward the break room. “They were young together.”  She shrugged, but I could see sympathy in her eyes.  I weighed whether I should ask more or wait.  I decided to wait.

The manicurist then looked me in the eyes and said, “It makes Harada-san feel small and bad when Geiko-woman comes.” I acknowledged her with a face of sympathy.  I didn’t even know the Geiko-woman and felt zapped of strength with her pride filling the room. “I see.” I said.  “Does Harada-san speak English?” I asked.

“Hai (yes),” the manicurist said with a sharp nod.  She finished her work and brought me over to the nail dryer.  I sat there, contemplating the gravity of the presence we’d all just been in.  The history of the Geiko/Geisha goes back to the 7th Century … that is 1400 years of history, warfare, culture, and tradition.  America is barely even 200 years old.

I felt reverence and veneration, and at the same time, immense sympathy for both of the elderly women that I’d witnessed.  The Geiko had to put on a front of pride, of elegance.  She had to hide behind a harsh exterior and consistently live up to the generational stigma of her title.  The stylist had to endure seeing this woman each time she’d come in for a service.  She was entrusted with the secret of this woman’s baldness – her physical unraveling – and yet she had to persevere through the belittling happenstance of serving this woman that she’d once known as a child.

I sat there, nails drying, trying to think of a way to help Harada-san feel better.  I wished I knew the culture better to know whether it would be considered rude to even approach her.  I wish I knew what would help her feel better from a cultural standpoint, as well.  In the end I figured, they’ll realize I’m an American, and American’s play by different rules.

I slowly got up and approached the back room.  I saw her, seated on a low stool, watching the towels in the dryer turn and tumble.  I pulled out ¥5000 (or $50), approached cautiously with my eyes down and softly said, “Harada-san.”  She looked toward me with a jump and stood, bowing. I held out the money in my hand and pointed to her feet. “For new shoes,” I said.  She adamantly refused, bowing, and shaking her head.  “No! No!” she said repeatedly.

“Please,” I slightly begged.  I waited a moment for her to stop resisting and then said, “please” again.  I said the second one softer.  I walked toward her and gently forced the money into her hand.

As I did so I looked her in the eyes and spoke with quiet determination, “She may seem very important, she may have a lot of money, but she’s bald and you are not,” I smiled in spite of myself.  I regained composure and continued, “She has to hide the real her, and you do not.  You are the lucky one. You are the wealthy one.”  I bowed and began to back out of the room.

I felt slightly embarrassed but I knew that if I’d left and hadn’t said anything, I would have regretted it for the rest of my life. I quickly turned, approached the register, paid my bill and hurried out, not looking back to see the reaction.  I’d like to think that what I said spoke to her somehow.  I’d like to think she went out and bought new shoes.  And I’d like to think that she’ll look back and remember the American that saw her for what she was:  more imperative than a cultural heritage, more significant than the burden of carrying it, and wealthier in soul than the Aged Geisha.

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