The intimate details of Kyoto's intriguing and beautiful geisha culture

It's very Japanese to delight in the tiniest of things. This is a country, after all, with not four seasons but 24 sub-seasons incorporating 72 poetically named micro-seasons. Each of these lasts just five or six days. 

I'm visiting Kyoto in May. Checking the Japanese seasonal calendar reveals it's not the end of spring, as I thought, but the sub-season of rikka (beginning of summer). I'm here during the "worms surface" micro-season, which sits between "frogs start singing" and "bamboo shoots sprout". 

This attention to nature's clock inspires me to channel the Japanese spirit, noting the smallest details. This is how my fascination with kanzashi starts. Japan's ancient capital is an epicentre of geisha culture (in Kyoto, they're called geiko and apprentices are maiko).

If you see one perched in a passing taxi or slipping into a teahouse for work, you'll notice their jewel-like kimonos, towering okobo or raised geta (wooden sandals) that keep kimonos from brushing the ground, white face make-up and elaborate hairdos. Look closer and you'll see decorative hairpins (kanzashi) piercing their upswept hair and wigs.

The placement and profusion of kanzashi all mean something and it is maiko who wear the more elaborate hairpins.  

Originally, it was thought the kanzashi's long single pin could ward off evil spirits. There's even a theory that the pins could be used in self-defence.

Nowadays, there's a wide range of kanzashi – from a simple wooden bead skewered with a pin (tama kanzashi) to silver fans fringed with dangling metal streamers, and elaborate sprays of seasonal flowers. Some double as a practical grooming item, with an ear pick on one end. Visitors looking for a pretty souvenir in Kyoto can find kanzashi easily. 

I tumble out of my aviation-themed capsule hotel (First Cabin Kyoto Karasuma, with female-only floors and cute space-style pyjamas) thinking I'll stroll to the shops in Gion (home to two of the city's five geisha districts).

I stop in my tracks: there's a craft shop above my hotel's entrance. Sure enough, it sells individual silk flowers, created by a pinching technique called tsumami, which can be bunched into a floral hair ornament – or hana kanzashi. In April, it's popular to wear pink cherry blossoms, perhaps punctuated with tiny silver or gold butterflies. Chrysanthemums, a symbol of the Imperial family, are all the rage in October. Red, orange and gold autumnal leaves appear in November. 

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With my curiosity piqued, I cross the Kamo River to browse the stores lining Shijo Street all the way to Yasaka Shrine. The choice is mindboggling – there are single flowers from 500 yen ($6.60) all the way up to two elegant silver blossom kanzashi that cost 80,000 yen ($1050) a pop. I mull over the options as I head back over the Shijo-ohashi Bridge to see the Kamogawa Odori – a geiko/maiko dance extravaganza dating from 1872 that counts Charlie Chaplin and Jean Cocteau among past audience members. 

The dance is performed in the atmospheric Pontocho geisha district each May. You can try rolling up on the day and asking Pontocho Kaburenjo Theatre if tickets are available but mine are pre-organised through InsideJapan Tours and include a tea ticket.

Pre-show, we're ushered into the fourth-floor tea ceremony. A geiko and maiko seated at the front of the room appear inscrutable. We're poured a cup of green tea, given a Japanese sweet on a plate that can be wrapped and taken home, and ushered out again in about three minutes flat, wondering what that was all about. 

The show is also a little hard to comprehend – a dance drama is followed by a traditional dance known as a moving picture scroll – but live orchestra accompaniment from the side adds vigour to the second half. Our neighbour, a gentleman from Kobe, can't follow the storyline either but we all enjoy the exquisite beauty of what's presented over 75 minutes.  

Our InsideJapan tour leader, Englishman Richard Farmer, calls Kyoto home. He leads us past a series of ochaya – teahouses – and explains that some double as geisha accommodation.

We ask him to decipher a sign hanging beside an ochaya's entrance – it names the in-house hostesses who are schooled in conversation and traditional arts such as song, dance, calligraphy, flower arranging and tea ceremonies. "All geisha associated with one ochaya will take the same part of its name … so all of their names at this particular house will end in [the same suffix]," he says.

On my final night in Kyoto, I dash to Shijo Street from my new accommodation (the female-only, pink-themed, cute-as-a-button Cafetel Kyoto Sanjo hostel) just before the shops shut. It's the time when geiko and maiko are on the move and I spot one clip-clopping into her ochaya. I head to Kintakedo – a shop that's been in Gion since the Edo period – where maiko go to buy high-quality Japanese boxwood combs.

I rattle the glass and timber door shut behind me and, while the proprietor sits on an elevated platform behind the counter, I peruse his range before settling on a simple silk cherry blossom for everyday wear, a silver spray of foliage with dangling peach-hued beads, and a spectacular origami-style crane that will make my heart soar, no matter what the season.

This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale June 16.

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