By Michael Jackson

The Laddie and the Geiko

Michael Jackson on his own whisky trail, re-orients himself
Harry’s Bar? No, Horie’s. Yes, really. I’ll figure out in a minute why it’s called Horie’s. It was that time, after a long day and a few drinks, when the waking hours start downloading into the memory …We arrived 10 minutes ago to a battery of smiles, and clinched our presence with handshakes. On the bar was a 15-litre cask that had until recently contained Beaujolais Nouveau. It now accommodated Ardbeg 10-year-old.The resiny whisky was soothing body and soul. Things were momentarily quiet. A bar doesn’t sound like a place to think, but can offer moments of reflection. My mind was still in Sweden. A blonde friend was offering me an overfilled glass of Chivas. She always does.Now would be a good moment. I wondered what she was doing tonight.“Mai. My name is Mai.” That sounded Swedish, too, but the apparition wasn’t Scandinavian. Nor was she a character in my day-for-night dream. She was in Horie’s bar, introducing herself. She had materialised as though from nowhere, silently.Her face, neck, and such limited décolletage as was visible, were all ghostly white. The effect of the white make-up was heightened by bright red in the outer corners of her eyes, and the precise delineation of her lips. Her jet-black hair was swept back, high, into a rounded symmetrical shape, held with decorative combs and pins.Her demure handshake confirmed she was flesh-and-blood. A geisha, of course. We were in Kyoto, a city famous for its geisha community. And for Horie Toshiyuki’s bar. ‘Geisha’ was not good enough – too general. In geisha neighbourhoods of Kyoto, there are maiko and geiko. Despite her name, Mai is a geiko, or so she told me.Maiko means ‘woman of dancing’; geiko ‘woman of art’. The maiko wears a brighter kimono and more ornate hairstyles. Having qualified, the geiko must dress less elaborately and attract attention through accomplishments, intelligent discourse, personality and behaviour. That hardly sounds fair.Mai told me it is possible to study from the age of six to become a maiko and later a geiko. She started her apprenticeship at 17. “It’s a job with status. You learn to sing, play an instrument, dance.” A maiko normally becomes a geiko at the age of 20 or 21. At the time of our conversation, Mai was 24, and emphasised this, as though her 25th birthday would make her irredeemably middle-aged. Age seemed a preoccupation, though she said she could pursue her career for as long as she wished. She was drinking from a glass decorated inside with a model cactus. She clutched it as though, among all the other symbols and rituals of geisha life, her cactus glass had its own individual place.Tequila, I supposed. Cuervo, she told me.I told her that Cuervo means ‘crow’, and that I have seen the living specimen in a cage in the courtyard of the distillery. There is probably a chapter in the geiko training manual headed: “Listening to an old fart”.I explained my appreciation of Tequila, both the place and the drink, but we were in a whisky bar. I asked if she drank whisky. The precision of her reply surprised me: “I know only bourbon.” I inquired which she liked.Again the answer was confident: “I.W. Harper, Old Grandad and sometimes Wild Turkey.”Horie’s is more of a Scotch place. She tried my Ardbeg, and pronounced it, “spicy but drinkable. Not for the younger person.” A 1990 Bowmore, bottled at 50% by Milroy’s, found a similar response. A 1986 Bruichladdich, at 46%, was knocked back in one, Kampai-style, followed by a hearty sigh. I was not sure whether this meant “thank God that’s over” or implied satisfaction.“I could recommend that to a beginner,” she said, with assurance. I wondered whether she tasted the passion fruit. She soon melted again into girlishness: “You will be coming back to Kyoto, won’t you?”
I was to pledge this. We interlocked little fingers. Who knows to what I have committed myself. At the very least, there is a bottle of Bruichladdich in a locker at Horie’s …