It was high time for a break from the pressures of jobs and family.

But for their "all-girls outing" the three working-mother friends opted against the stereotypical shopping spree or visit to a beauty salon. Instead, the trio decided to treat themselves to an in-depth, weekend course at Ito Onsen Ozashiki Bunka Daigaku (Ito Spa Parlor-Culture Academy) in Shizuoka Prefecture, where they learned how to walk, talk, dance and sing . . . like geisha.

"I always wanted to understand what geisha really are," said Hideko Watanabe, 56, a caregiver for the elderly, as her friends Se- tsuko Annan, 49, and Yoko Akiyama, 53, nodded in agreement. "I dreamed of stepping into their shoes at least once in my life."