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.