“Chacha”, a geisha who asked to be identified by a pseudonym, dancing during an online drinking party with clients. Photograph:( AFP )
Geishas are entertainers and raconteurs highly skilled in traditional Japanese dance, musical instruments and games.
Japanese geisha "Chacha" sits on her knees with her fingertips neatly placed on the wooden floor, gracefully bowing to an audience sitting not in front of her but miles away, watching online.
Beneath spotlights, the graceful 32-year-old geisha performs a traditional dance, moving like a butterfly and artfully unfolding and fluttering her fan.
The audience would usually be a group of older, wealthy men, watching appreciatively inside a traditional parlour lined with woven tatami mats.
But today, Chacha's audience is looking back at her from a computer screen, and ranges from a young woman with a glass of wine in her hand to a family with several curious children.
"How have you been at home?" asks Chacha, addressing her audience.
Despite Western misconceptions, geishas are not prostitutes, but rather entertainers and raconteurs highly skilled in traditional Japanese dance, musical instruments and games.
Almost everything in the repertoire of these performers, from singing and dancing in small enclosed spaces, to entertaining customers with witty conversation and delicately pouring sake in a customer's cup, is at odds with the social distancing rules of the coronavirus pandemic.
That has been devastating for geisha like Chacha, who has seen her salary evaporate and is eagerly awaiting the arrival of government stimulus funds.
That's where the online service has come in.
It grew from a project called "Meet Geisha", initially conceived as a way to bring groups of tourists to see geisha perform on stage in a more relaxed and less intimidating environment.
Launched last year by an IT firm, it was supposed to capitalise on an influx of tourists, including those coming for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
But with the coronavirus pandemic forcing the postponement of the Games and shutting down international travel, the firm looked at other options.
"I was playing 'Animal Crossing' all the time during the state of emergency!" she added.
While Japan has been spared the worst of the coronavirus outbreak, a state of emergency was declared during a spike in cases and the pandemic has nixed most forms of nightlife, including geisha parties.
They approached the geisha community in Hakone, around 80 kilometres southwest of Tokyo, about an online option, said project manager Tamaki Nishimura.
While geisha culture is strongly associated with the city of Kyoto, communities exist throughout Japan, with about 150 active geisha in Hakone.