Ikuko (pictured below), the "big sister" of Tokyo's Akasaka geisha district, came to the capital to seek her fortune in 1964, the year Tokyo first hosted the Olympics. But the novel coronavirus pandemic has made her fear for her centuries-old profession as never before.
Left: Ikuko combs her wig as she gets ready to work at a party being hosted by customers at a luxury restaurant where she will be entertaining with other geisha. Right: Old photographs of Ikuko that were taken after she moved to Tokyo in 1964.
Though the number of geisha - famed for their witty conversation, beauty and skill at traditional arts - has been falling for years, Ikuko and her colleagues were without work for months due to Japan's state of emergency and now operate under awkward social distancing rules.
"There were more than 400 geisha in Akasaka when I came, so many I couldn't remember their names. But times changed," Ikuko, now 80, said. Only 20 remain, and there aren't enough engagements to take on new apprentices - especially now.
Left: Koiku gets ready at Ikuko's home to work at a party. Right: Kimonos that will be worn by Maki, Mayu and Koiku are hung up at Ikuko’s home.
Michiyo Yukawa, an ex-geisha who owns an Akasaka bar and hosts occasional geisha events, thinks geisha may need to adapt so that more ordinary people can appreciate their charm.
"They have a special beauty," she said. "They've gone through training other people haven't, they spend a lot of money on this - and it's made them special. Having this disappear would be sad."
Ikuko fears an extended pandemic could prompt some geisha to quit.
"Now is the worst of the worst," she said. "How are we going to get through? It'll take all of our body and soul."
PHOTO EDITING MARIKA KOCHIASHVILI; TEXT EDITING SIMON CAMERON-MOORE; LAYOUT JULIA DALRYMPLE