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Letter From Japan

The Geisha Stylist Who Let His Hair Down

By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, August 17, 2004; Page C01

KYOTO -- Here in the Gion geisha district of Japan's ancient capital, even one bad hair day can cost a girl her career. So it is no wonder that Tetsuo Ishihara is the man with the most popular hands in town.

The only man among Kyoto's last five keppatsu-shi, or hairdressers to the geisha, Ishihara is the coiffeur king of the most celebrated of the pleasure quarters surviving from old Japan. But his willingness to blab the secrets of his trade, as he has done in four TV documentaries, three books and his own DVD, has not sat well with many of the people who practice the ancient art of crafting hairstyles that to many Japanese are loaded with sexual suggestion.

Tetsuo Ishihara, referred to by his clients as the teacher, holds court between stylings in his three-room hairdressing salon in Kyoto's Gion geisha district. (Photos Anthony Faiola -- The Washington Post)

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For centuries, geisha hairsetting was the preserve of female stylists. For some of them, the fact that a loose-lipped man has become the most renowned of the keppatsu-shi has added insult to injury. These days, peers often turn up their noses when passing Ishihara along the willow-lined streets and Zen bridges of Gion, where the famous painted ladies of the East still entertain behind sliding paper screens.

Once doleful over the shunning, the dapper 57-year-old who started as a common hairdresser in the 1970s now wears his status of male upstart among female hairsetters as a badge of honor. "They would all be happy to take their secrets to their graves," he huffed one recent afternoon in his cozy corner salon. "It is that attitude that made me more persistent to learn."

Geisha hair "is an important part of Japanese history," he said, "and I did not want its secrets to die out."

Ishihara's beauty parlor, located below his private museum of 115 traditional hairstyles, each of which he personally made out of human hair, is an oasis for off-duty geisha. Proud professionals trained to entertain with traditional song, dance, tea ceremony and clever banter, they butterfly-shuffle inside, often without makeup, and flip through tabloids or send e-mails on their cellular phones as Ishihara works his magic on their tresses.

If his blood-red barber chairs could talk, they might gossip about the young, gangly maiko -- or apprentice geisha -- who can't manage to correctly use the wooden neck rest upon which she must sleep so as not to ruin a hairdo that with add-ons such as wax and animal hair can weigh as much as six pounds.

Or maybe they would whisper about the pudgy, older geisha whose bald spot -- all geisha acquire them after a few years of brutal styling with hot irons and wax -- is now so big that she needs extra yak hair stuffed inside her locks to keep them reaching sensuously skyward.

But Ishihara talks. "Ask me anything and I'll tell you -- or ask her if you want," said Ishihara, decked out in his trademark black and white suit as he eyed a young maiko who, trapped beneath an unattractive salon cape, forced a polite smile. He yanked hard at her cascading mane as if combing the knots out of a mare's tail. "This is my place, and I'm the boss. Here, they have to do what I say."

His clients say they comply, taking his playful doses of abuse, because the respected teacher, as they call him, has the right touch.

"He is always precise and quick," said Tsukasa, who is among the last of Kyoto's tayuu entertainers. In past times, tayuu were a type of high-class prostitute but today are similar to ordinary geisha, though having variant specialties in the arts and wearing the most elaborate hairstyles. Like most geisha, Tsukasa uses only a single professional name.

In less than 20 minutes, Ishihara whipped her hair into a massive sculpture of double wings, the masterpiece held in place with human hair extensions, stiff wax, silk ribbons, felt and inner bindings of rope made out of absorbent Japanese paper.

"Hair is an important element of our art," she said before dashing off to perform a tea ceremony for a busload of tourists. "I can come to the teacher and know that I will be well prepared for my appointments."

Such precision did not come easily. When Ishihara started out in Gion, the setting of Arthur Golden's best-selling novel "Memoirs of a Geisha," the then eight keppatsu-shi, all women, refused to teach him their art, something he describes as "the Mount Everest for hairdressers." So he enlisted the help of a retired keppatsu-shi, who specialized in doing the hair of tayuu.

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