Japan 1985

The bearded stranger’s friend translated what I said: ‘You have a horse’s eyes’. He looked a bit uncertain but here in Japan that is really flattering, a sign of beauty, something you can say to someone who is ‘kawaii’ (cute). It wasn’t really true – there aren’t many horses with blue eyes – but flattery is part of my job.

I was sitting at the counter of the bar in Toyohashi. It wasn’t a dressing-up night (yesterday we had been cowboys and Indians), and there were other hostesses like me at the bar. We chat to whoever comes in or, more usually, we listen. We, of course, fill up their glasses – though Japanese tradition demands that the customer or guest must lift his glass to be served again. And we smile, to show our special teeth.

The stranger said, through his friend, that he had just come from Kyoto where he had been on a cultural tour. The geisha woman who had done the tea ceremony had, he had been surprised to learn, had her teeth lacquered black as a traditional sign of beauty. I smiled again and he couldn’t avoid looking at my teeth. We Japanese girls often smile and laugh behind our hands – and some people say this is to hide the fact that we don’t have black lacquered teeth. I smiled openly, to show the jutting, pointed fang which hangs in front of the third and fourth teeth from the centre. The stranger may not truly have had a horse’s eyes but that fang really is a recognised sign of beauty.

 
Gion, Kyoto's geisha district

Gion, Kyoto's geisha district