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.
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.
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.
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!"
After rapidly applying the right thickness of wax according to the day's humidity, he tied a string of paper to hold her hair in place, tightening it with his teeth. He then put his hands on her porcelain-white neck, stuffing required patches of yak hair to give her a variation of the split-peach geisha hairdo that some Japanese consider highly suggestive.
"This one," Ishihara said, "she's a good sleeper."
He was, of course, referring to her ability to keep her hair in pristine condition each night.
"The maiko I had in yesterday, she has no idea what she's doing and breaks her hair" on her wooden bed pillow. "But I love her for it; she has to come back to get fixed all the time. But not this one," he scowled, looking at Hisacho. "She's too good. She doesn't give me enough profit!"
A bystander in the salon came to her defense, saying she looked beautiful, profit or not.
"Ahh," scoffed Ishihara, dismissing the comment with a wave. "It's her hair that's beautiful, not her!"
Hisacho feigned shock, putting a sleeved hand over her mouth. But Ishihara settled her down with another joke.
"Don't worry," he said. "I never call the really ugly ones ugly. So you're safe."
Special correspondent Akiko Yamamoto contributed to this report.