Spotting a young geisha in training, a “maiko” in Japanese, on the streets of Kyoto is always a bit unnerving. Despite her opulent silk kimono and the brightly painted bamboo and paper parasol she carries to shield herself from the heat of the summer sun, the first thing you notice is her lips. They are mesmerizing and you cannot look away. It’s an intentional effect that she has spent months learning to perfect and, against the traditional stark white facial makeup, offset by her dark eyes and framed by her carefully coifed hair, they form a shocking, unnaturally red bow that commands your complete attention.
She gives the impression, as she walks so demurely along the street, that she wishes she could disappear into the background and yet, thanks to the cameras of National Geographic, we know that this particular girl arose before dawn and spent hours preparing for what is actually a very public appearance. We watched her awake, fold her futon and eat her breakfast. We have heard the advice of her master and the more senior girls as she prepared for her day out and then followed, via the magic of television, as she has gone from her front door to the busy city streets where awestruck people step aside and watch with an almost reverent respect as she passes by.
Despite years of living in Kyoto, I too am awestruck as I watch the scene play out on the TV screen half a world away. It seems so otherworldly to me, utterly foreign and incomprehensible and yet – I feel a synapse fire somewhere deep inside my thick skull – it is unnervingly familiar. It’s an odd sensation, more solid than deja-vu, and I am caught off guard by its power. But as the camera pulls back and gives us a wide angle shot of the girl walking along the busy city street, the memory rushes to the surface.
Bosozoku. The word conjures up a lot of images for those of us on this side of the Pacific, but when you are sitting next to one at a stoplight, the word that springs most readily to mind is “irritating.” I had heard him approach, the clapped-out bike he was riding had no muffler and he relentlessly revved the engine over and over in some sort of odd repetitive pattern that was probably some sort of code. I suppose it could have been the first few lines of War and Peace, but from where I was sitting all I could hear was “Look at me! Look at me! Look at me!” Finally I did.
He was a skinny, greasy looking punk in a ratty tank top and wearing a pair of dirty white pants with enormous puffy legs that bloomed out comically just below his narrow waistline the legs of which were secured around his ankles by elastic bands. His helmet was one of those cheap Styrofoam half-helmets you could buy at any hardware store, and, because the law required he wear one but did not specify where, it hung loosely on the back of his neck, secured around his throat by its straps. He saw my sideways glance and gave me an evil sneer as he once again twisted the throttle hard and redlined his engine.
Without warning, the light changed to green and I jumped hard on the gas, winding my bike’s engine right up to its 18,000 RPM redline before snapping it into second gear without using the clutch. The little CBR was high strung, making most of its power at the top of its rev range, and it charged across the intersection as it came into the meat of its power band. It wailed like a GP bike and its glorious noise echoed off the tall buildings in the center of town as the punk fell away behind. Behind me, I could hear him struggling to narrow the gap, but I had caught him flat footed and my advantage was too great. My victory stolen would be short lived, however, as ahead the light was changing to red. The next fight, would have to be fair.
Sure enough, a mere moment after I had pulled to a stop the bosozoku was once again alongside. This time there was no odd pattern to his revving, his intent was clear, and like two wild beasts trumpeting their challenges, I answered the noise of his engine with my own. The hour was late and ahead the road was wide open. It ran straight through the heart of the city and in the daytime it would have been clogged with traffic and pedestrians but now it was only the two of us. As the light switched that controlled the cross-street turned to yellow our revs turned into a steady, high pitched scream as we prepared for our launches and when the light flicked to green, we dumped our clutches as one.
Again the little CBR surged forward and I hammered it upwards through the gears without using the clutch. The punk, too, knew all the tricks and he matched me move for move. The bikes seemed an even match, but as I outweighed him by at least a hundred pounds he had the advantage and, as we screamed down the street and through the successive intersections, he gradually, painfully, began to ease away. By the time we hit the bridge, almost a mile away from where we started, he had a full bike length on me and the contest was decided. Ahead, the light changed to red and I shut down the throttle and began to work my way down through the gears. A moment after he stopped, I was alongside him.
After the sound and fury of our contest, the bikes seemed to whisper as they sat next to one another at idle. The punk turned his head and gave me the once over, perhaps for the first time noting my full size. He had been victorious, but instead of a sneer he gave me a broad, genuine smile. Beneath my full face helmet I smiled too but realizing he could not see it, I added a thumbs-up. In that moment I was able to look past the greasy smile and the dirty clothes and actually see the person underneath. He was a Bosozoku, literally a member of a “restless tribe” and, although he could not know it, I was a “Gaijin” — an outsider. Fate had thrown us up against one another and although I had lost, we both knew that the struggle had been honorable.
The light changed and we eased our bikes forward, running alongside each other for another block until the time came to separate, him towards his next adventure and me, back towards the small one room apartment I had rented some miles to the south. In the days and weeks that followed, I would think fondly of the night’s adventure but as new memories crowded in upon the old it gradually slipped away. Then, one day, years later and quite literally on the other side of the planet from where it had taken place, it would come back again thanks to an old documentary about the life of a Geisha girl. I wonder now, what his next adventure was and I almost wish I would have followed him.