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The Geisha Stylist Who Let His Hair Down

After years of practice, Ishihara's breakthrough came in the mid-1970s, when a woman who was then Kyoto's last specialist in that type of hairdressing fell ill and died. With the sudden drought of stylists for tayuu, Ishihara was asked to stand in at their guild headquarters.

Gradually, he triumphed in a woman's world: "They realized I was good at it, that a man could really do this." Geisha of all ages started coming to his salon. "Now, we have a great relationship. It doesn't bother them in the least that I am a man," he said.

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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That is partly, he insists, because geisha "are like men. They may seem feminine and slight on the outside, but inside, they are tough, dedicated and firm."

In Kyoto, Japan's stubbornly noble 1,400-year-old former capital, many residents still consider the 19th-century relocation of the imperial family 280 miles east to Tokyo a regrettable mistake. Here, introductions, connections and secrets of craft are considered assets to be jealously guarded and offered only at a high price.

Thus, Ishihara-san's public openness with the secrets of geisha hair -- particularly his recently published step-by-step catalogue of traditional hairstyles -- has raised more than a few heavily waxed eyebrows.

One high-ranking official from a Kyoto geisha guild, who agreed to talk on the condition of not being identified, curtly reminded a journalist that Ishihara is not the only keppatsu-shi in town. Calling him "a self-promoter," the official conceded that he "is making a lot of effort to do research and preserve the tradition of hairsetting, and we appreciate his taking on such an important task."

Kachie Nishimura, now in her fifth decade of geisha hairstyling, said Ishihara "is trying hard, as the only male in the job, after learning under his master," who was a woman. She added that "every hairsetter has a different view of him."

Ishihara's three-room salon is a place where geisha can let their hair down while getting their hair done. When they come here, they fret openly about their evening engagements or complain about a particularly arduous dance. And when they submit to Ishihara's hands, they get the chance to practice another key element of their craft: witty, often suggestive banter with men.

On a brutally hot afternoon, Hisacho, 16, sat in Ishihara's hot seat. One of Kyoto's most popular maiko, she looked postcard-perfect in an indigo and white kimono-like robe, a flowered mauve sash tied delicately around her waist. She beamed her biggest smile as Ishihara approached bearing his wooden comb.

"Teacher," said Hisacho, a Tokyo junior high school graduate who debuted last March as a maiko after one year of intensive training, "the head of my geisha house said the sides of my hair should be slightly larger today." Her head mistress now wanted her to look more mature.

"You shouldn't rush to look older; you'll look too old soon enough!" he taunted.

She gasped in mock horror.

"Now, this won't hurt a bit," he said wryly, raising his handmade, $300 comb designed specifically for geisha hair. He dragged it roughly through the remaining bits of wax in her tumbling locks. She had shampooed the night before in preparation for her session with Ishihara, who once a week sculpts the coiffure she will wear for six nights straight.

"Teacher," she said, comically over-wincing as he tugged at her hair, "with you, it never hurts!"

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