IZUNOKUNI, SHIZUOKA PREF. - Isabella Onou is struggling to keep her hands from shaking. As she peers into the mirror and attempts to dab away a smudge of stray lipstick, she lets out a quiet, almost diffident giggle.
“I worry that customers won’t warm to me, that they might not approve, maybe even criticize me,” says the Romanian from Bucharest after making her stage debut at the Genji Ayame Festival in the Izu-Nagaoka hot spring area in Shizuoka Prefecture. “From the start I had a real complex: Would people ever really accept me as a geisha?”
She looks down at her still trembling hands holding a tissue now dashed with crimson, and for a moment there’s a tinge of sadness, or regret, in her strikingly decorated eyes.
It turns out to be neither. She raises her head, a smile slowly breaking across her whitened face. “I couldn’t have been more wrong,” she says. “They are so kind, even when I make mistakes. And I do make mistakes.”
With that, Onou raises her hand abruptly toward the side of her head in a gesture of self-depreciating exasperation, pulling back just in time to prevent herself from disrupting her beautifully presented head dress.
She then stands and bows deeply to a senior geisha who passes by, chirping out a farewell greeting spoken in impeccably polite Japanese, before hurrying off, flowery kimono restricting her gait to a well-rehearsed shuffle, to change for an evening booking.
Onou has been in high demand since being accepted into Japan’s “flower and willow world” three months ago. People have traveled from far and wide to see her, one group of 30 recently venturing from Hamamatsu, more than three hours away.
“I was shocked when I was told they wanted me,” says Onou.
“But at the same time I thought, ‘This is what makes the struggle and the pain worthwhile.’ “
The “struggle” started 15 months ago, when she began her mandatory one-year apprenticeship after being invited into the sisterhood by Kumi Miyamoto, a geisha who, along with her geisha sister are heiresses to one of Izu-Nagaoka’s okiya, or geisha houses, run by their mother.
Onou at first shied away from the offer, unsure she would be welcomed into a world that has had little foreign representation over its 400-year history and one that is notoriously demanding and protocol-driven.
But with the encouragement of Miyamoto, who had agreed to become the Romanian’s onee-san (literally “older sister” but meaning “mentor”), she embarked on a journey that today few Japanese are prepared to traverse.
Miyamoto began to teach Onou the basics required to be officially accepted as a geisha. She not only had to change the way she walked and talked, but also the way she thought, she says.
“Europeans are passionate and express their emotions, but now I was told I had to control them, to maintain the same level of calmness whatever I felt inside,” says Onou. “This was a real battle for me.”
She was also required to learn traditional dances and musical instruments, such as the three-stringed shamisen, and minyo folk songs, which she practices almost daily.
In April, Onou passed an official test that confirmed her as a full-fledged geisha. She also was given her own professional name, Fukutaro, which she says is named after a confectionery sold at a shrine in nearby Mishima.
“It’s also a man’s name, but in the geisha world this is thought to be lucky,” she says. “And I feel extremely lucky. It’s like a dream come true.”
Onou’s dreams of Japan began when she was in her early teens having happened upon numerous tomes about the country, such as James Clavell’s “Shogun.”
It was a time, she recalls, when her own country was going through huge changes during the last years of Nicolae Ceausescu’s communist government. Her father worked in a hotel, her mother in a fabric-making factory, whose products were exported worldwide, including to Japan.
Qualified in dressmaking and fascinated by kimono, Onou had a chance to visit Japan in 1999 and immediately fell in love with the country and its people.
She was also particularly intrigued with the world of the geisha, particularly the dances they perform, and was happy to discover that some of the stereotypes she had read in books — particularly that of geisha being an established part of Japan’s sex industry — were part of a wider set of stereotypes and misconceptions about Japan.
Four years later, she returned to Japan to work in a friend’s sushi restaurant, where she first waited tables before being promoted to the kitchen.
It was shortly after when she first met Miyamoto, who, visiting the restaurant she was working at, saw in Onou virtues that she believed would make her a good addition to her family’s okiya.
“Fukutaro has a sense of refinement that many Japanese seem to have forgotten,” says Miyamoto, adding that she has heard that Onou is now the only foreigner officially accredited by a geisha association in Japan.
“Many people have commented that Fukutaro is more Japanese than many Japanese. She is determined, practices hard and is very stoic.”
Stoicism is something that Onou has learned the hard way. At work, many of the hours she spends serving and entertaining guests are passed sitting in the time-honored seiza position, with legs tucked under her backside.
As a result, she has endured serious problems with her legs — serious enough for her doctor and family to urge her to quit.
Which would be a huge loss to Izu-Nagaoka, whose geisha numbers have dwindled drastically over the past 40 years from 400 at its peak to 40 today, according to the local geisha association.
Yet, a recent visit by Onou’s mother nearly brought about her withdrawal. “She told me I must leave, that I would ruin my legs forever,” says Onou, adding she has suffered broken blood vessels on numerous occasions.
“Then she watched a performance and the subject wasn’t mentioned again. I think she finally understood why I choose to endure the pain and live out my dream.”
And what do her friends and four siblings back in Romania think about her becoming a geisha?
“Their reaction was half amused and half ‘wow,’ ” she says with a laugh. “Which is natural enough. I am a geisha: I am still a bit ‘half wow’ about that myself.”