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Walk through Gion in the evening and it's a bit like being on safari. As you slink along the alleyways of this Kyoto district, laughter and soft light creep out of squat, wooden houses, hinting at what you've come to glimpse.
Outside one of the most exclusive teahouses, Ichiriki Ochaya, tourists stand, cameras poised, ready to pounce. But the difference between Gion and the Serengeti is that the prey here is human: the geisha. Fancy-dress geishas are two-a-yen in Kyoto's tourist hangouts, but catching sight of the real thing is notoriously difficult. Spending an evening in a geisha's company is strictly by invitation only.
And that only happens when you've been to a party she's hosted several times before. Which, in turn, only happens if you are there as the guest of a friend. Without the necessary connections, your best chance of seeing one of Kyoto's authentic painted ladies is in Gion. One of five hanamachi, or flower towns as Kyoto's geisha districts are called, Gion has been famous since , when Arthur Golden set his best-selling novel Memoirs of a Geisha there.
The fictional story of an orphaned fisherman's daughter who rises through the ranks of Gion's geishas in the early s, it has been turned into a film starring Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon's Ziyi Zhang, and opens in Britain next week.
But what of the modern-day geisha? The man to ask in Gion is the Canadian photographer Peter MacIntosh, who takes geisha-spotting tours around the district. It turns out that my gei-dar is way off the mark. Further on, he nods towards a something woman loaded down with shopping bags. This takes the form of a tea party, which is "quite childish, a bit like a frat party," says MacIntosh. It never crosses the line of being vulgar, but they're not all prim and proper. I might take her to karaoke, or to an Irish bar.