Included in these determined travelers to Phuket are media and tourism officials from around the world invited by the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) to explore the cleaner beaches and other natural attractions reminiscent of past decades before the invasion of mass tourism.
Recently, the TAT invited a delegation from Japan to explore the island and report back to the Japanese media the obvious local charms for those nearly desperate to have a holiday. Included in the delegation was a remarkable classically trained geisha, Sayuki of the Fukagawa geisha district in Tokyo. Of particular interest is that she was born Fiona Graham in Melbourne, Australia, of Western parents and today is the only non-Japanese woman to have her own geisha house in Japan.
Sayuki first lived in Japan as a young student.
“When I was just 15, I wanted to go abroad and saw a notice board that advertised an exchange student program to Japan and I was accepted,” she explains.
Later she attended Oriel College at Oxford University where she studied social anthropology and wrote her doctoral thesis on Japanese management. She then made a variety of documentaries for the BBC, National Geographic and NHK before deciding to do a documentary on the real life of the geisha in Japan.
“I was intrigued about the role of the geisha in modern society and found that the institution that supported geisha culture was under threat. I had to go through 11 months of training and become a Japanese permanent resident to become a geisha myself. It’s a very highly ritualized tradition. For my debut, I wore a kimono of my geisha mother that cost 10,000 dollars.”
Not content to just perform as a geisha with her acquired skills in the Japanese flute and three-stringed lute, Sayuki decided to open her own geisha house in the Fukagawa geisha district, the oldest geisha district in Japan.
“All geisha houses are in geisha districts. There are only about 50 districts in all of Japan. The houses are where the geishas live and they go out to perform in the finest tea houses, restaurants and for prestigious events. This normally includes an elegant performance of dance and music. Japanese dance is a kind of pantomime where the dancer tells a story using the dance fan to illustrate the story,” Sayuki explains.
Sayuki also lectures on geisha culture at various universities in her belief that the geisha tradition that reached its peak 100 years ago should be supported and enjoyed. She often travels with her geisha troupe abroad. In 2019, she performed in nine countries including in the Middle East as well as in Hungary, Norway and Italy.
“I am delighted to be back on Phuket, one of my favourite holiday destinations. We have not been able to leave Japan for a year and a half so the Phuket Sandbox was a welcome opportunity. I think many countries are looking to Thailand hoping this programme is successful as it may be the path for gradual international travel in this region once again,” she says.
Sayuki has brought from Japan 45 kilos of silk pieces from kimonos no longer in use to be fashioned into silk purses and obi belts by the local Good Shepherd charity.
“It’s wonderful to be able to help these women create some revenue in these difficult times by recycling these elegant Japanese silks,” she says.
Sayuki will extend her visit to Phuket so she can focus on getting even more fit and healthy. She’s enrolled at Revolution Muay Thai for training and when she’s completed her Sandbox stay of a mandatory 14 days, she will travel to Koh Pha-ngan to ULU Yoga for a more spiritual retreat.