KAMAISHI, Japan, March 28, 2011 (AFP) - Tsuyako Ito, the last working geisha in the Japanese steel city of Kamaishi, is no stranger to disaster -- having survived devastating US air raids in World War II and three major tsunamis.
"But this tsunami was the worst of all," the 84-year-old said of the monster wave that engulfed towns such as Kamaishi, along Japan's eastern coast on March 11.
The tsunami struck as Ito was preparing to go to sing and play the traditional three-stringed shamisen for guests at a luxury restaurant.
The wave gutted her house, sweeping away all the prized tools of her profession.
|The Japanese flag flies half mast on the top of a building in Kamaishi, in Iwate prefecture on March 25, 2011. The death toll from a massive earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan's northeast coast topped 10,000. AFP|
"Kimonos, bands, two shamisen, hair accessories -- everything has gone. How can this happen?" she said.
Home is now a futon sleeping mat in a local school gymnasium, where Ito fled with around 100 mostly elderly residents from her neighbourhood.
"But I still have my performing skills and spirit. This is my pride," she said. "Even a tsunami cannot take them from me."
One of Ito's earliest memories is of a natural disaster.
"My mum ran, carrying me on her shoulders, a long, long time ago in another tsunami, when I was a baby," she recalls.
After the early brush with death, she began her geisha career at the tender age of 12 in Kamaishi, a once bustling steel city 450 kilometres (280 miles) north of Tokyo.
"I started geisha to support my family after my dad fell ill, but I found it a lot of fun," said Ito, whose geisha name is Chikano Fujima.
The spiritual home of geisha is Japan's ancient capital Kyoto, where the tradition took hold in the 18th century before spreading to other major cities.
A skilled singer, dancer and musician, Ito used to be one of 100 or so geisha working in Kamaishi, where Japan's largest steelmaker Nippon Steel still has its furnaces.
The city was a thriving industrial hub in the post-war years but went into decline in the 1980s, as the steel mills grappled with a series of recessions and increased competition from foreign rivals.
"So all the geishas have gone now. I'm the last and only geisha left," Ito said, shrugging her shoulders, but adding: "I have no regrets in my life. My master told me work hard, so that you can have something that no one can take from you."
A number of her regular patrons -- nearly all far younger than her -- were among the 1,250 dead or reported missing in the city so far since a massive 9.0-magnitude quake sent the wall of water surging across the region.
She described the tsunami as "a dreadful memory", recalling the moment when "I found a car and a dead body in my house".
"The hardest thing was that a lot of my fans passed away," she said. "My heart was broken."
The confirmed death toll across the entire region stood at more than 10,000 on Monday with nearly 17,000 missing and 3,000 injured.
But despite the devastation around her, and notwithstanding the loss of her kimonos and instruments, Ito said she still has the urge to perform.
"I even want to sing and dance for everybody here (in the shelters)," she said.
She plans to continue working until the retirement age of 88 that she had set for herself.
"I want to please everybody with my performance once the city's restoration gets under way," she said. "I want to be active. Although I have no geisha friends any more, I will still play and dance.
"And If I'm still alive in three or four years' time, when I'm 88, and if my guests still want me to perform, I'll hold my retirement performance.
"Until then I will get on with my life," she added.