The world of flower and willow is back in vogue.....
David Atkinson visits Gion in Kyoto, the former capital where much of Memoirs of a Geisha is set.
Sayuri-San, one of Japan's most famous geisha, began life living in basic accommodation in a small fishing village. Sadly, as was common among families who fell on hard times, she was sold to a wealthy teahouse in Gion at the tender age of nine, where she began her training to become a geisha - a professional female entertainer. Her repertoire included performing traditional arts such as flower arranging and tea ceremonies, and playing the shamisen, a three-stringed musical instrument.
Young women traditionally start the five-year training that takes them from maiko (apprentice) to geisha at the age of 16. Only after graduation will their hair be ceremoniously cut and they finally get to wear the kimono and geta (clogs) of a fully-qualified geisha. They can then practise their art in the teahouses of Kyoto's five ancient geisha districts, of which Gion is the best known.
Arthur Golden's 1997 novel, Memoirs Of A Geisha, spawned new interest in the ancient world of the geisha. The film starring Ken Watanabe from The Last Samurai and Michelle Yeoh from Tomorrow Never Dies, put Japan both on the big screen and on every traveller's hot list.
Since the novel's word-of-mouth appeal first spread, Gion has become a place of pilgrimage for geisha fans. Clutching their cameras they hope to spot discreet, kimono-clad young women shuffling along to appointments at local teahouses.
In reality, however, catching sight of a genuine geisha is not easy. The girls are notoriously shy. Maiko do reluctantly appear at Gion Corner to provide displays of traditional dance and music for tourists, but their facial expressions betray a sense of terminal boredom endured solely to generate income for the teahouse that is sponsoring them.
It's almost impossible to experience a teahouse first hand unless you are introduced and loaded. An hour in the company of a geisha, a cuppa and a few buns can cost hundreds of pounds.
A cheaper insight into their mysterious world is provided by Kyoto Sights And Nights. It's a 90-minute walking tour led by ex-pat Canadian Peter McIntosh, who guides small groups through the backstreets of Gion to explore the legend.
While much of Kyoto has succumbed to the wave of concrete construction sweeping Japan, Gion continues to captivate with its sense of living history.
It retains the artisan boutiques and traditional coffee shops where off-duty geisha come to pass lazy mornings.
Among the back streets it feels like one place where old ways survive behind the bamboo scrolls and heavy wooden doors.
With dusk falling and the lights of Gion reflecting in puddles, Pontocho, a narrow street crammed full of restaurants, comes alive with red lanterns illuminating the entrances.
This tiny area is the beating heart of Gion with the smells of exotic dishes filling the dusk air and a busy mix of locals and curious visitors brushing past each other.
Despite the bustle, however, a sense of refined calm reigns with the discreet restaurant signs and curtain-shrouded entrances providing a contrast to the garish neon that illuminates other parts of the city.
Peter, who is married to a former geisha, guides us through alleyways patiently answering questions about the geisha world.
We stop at a geisha school, where maiko are practising their dance moves, pass traditional boutiques selling green tea, hair ornaments and scrolls, and end up outside a traditional teahouse, tucked away behind a wooden façade and a zen-style garden.
It is behind this façade where geisha entertain their clients and entrance is on a strict introduction-only basis.
From the outside many of the buildings look quite unremarkable, but behind the closed doors ancient traditions live on.
That is the essence of Gion.
Blending in quietly is far preferable to vulgar shows of ostentation, and minimalism wins over fussy style every time.
For dinner at the Hotel Granvia Kyoto we sit down to a traditional menu of seasonal dishes, followed by a geisha performance of music and dance. When the geisha arrives, chopsticks are laid quickly aside in preparation for the display of traditional arts.
While the film is sure to excite interest in geisha this year, in reality they are declining in numbers.
At their peak in the early 19th century, Kyoto had around 700 teahouses that provided work for 3,000 geisha.
Today, there are about 200 geisha working in the five districts of Kyoto, plus around 50 maiko, with 10 new entrants to the profession each year.
One of them is 18-year-old Toshiaya Fumiju, who is currently studying to be a geisha under her mentor, or "elder sister", as she calls her.
"In many ways I am like any normal 18-year-old - except that it's hard for me to blend in as I can't take my hair down, " says Toshiaya bashfully as we grab a few words after her performances of traditional Japanese dance.
"There is now so much competition from other forms of entertainment that less people are joining the profession, " she says. "But, " she smiles, "I think there will always be geisha in Kyoto."
GETTING THERE: Kyoto Sights and Nights (from UK: 00 81 75 525 3339/ http://www.kyotosightsandnights.com) offers a 90-minute geisha walking tour from 4,000 yen pp (£20). Booking is essential. The Hotel Granvia Kyoto (http://www.granvia-kyoto.co.jp/e/) offers one night's B&B and a meal with a geisha performance from 50,650 yen pp (£250). Twice-nightly shows at Gion Corner cost from 2,800 yen pp (£14).