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Authors: Lesley Downer

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Women of the Pleasure Quarters




To the memory of my father and mother

Gordon Downer


Lilian Downer


First of all I would like to thank the many Japanese women who have, over the years, befriended me and opened their world to me and with whom I have spent many hours enjoying women’s pursuits, women’s talk, and women’s life. I should also record my debt to Arthur Golden and his wonderfully evocative novel,
Memoirs of a Geisha.
It inspired me to look again at Japan, its women and their history, and made me curious to meet the real geisha and look into the living reality today.

In researching the world of the geisha I was immeasurably helped by the work of many great scholars. Like everyone who studies the geisha, my first step was to turn to Liza Dalby’s brilliant anthropological analysis,
the bible of geisha studies. Ms. Dalby generously offered suggestions and encouragement in e-mails and phone conversations.

One important source in examining the background and the rise of the geisha was Cecilia Segawa Seigle’s marvelous
a fascinating work of scholarship which provides huge amounts of detail about the Yoshiwara and evokes it very colorfully. Searching out details of the hidden history of the geisha I scoured many other scholarly works, beginning with the classic texts by the grand old men of Japanese studies, Donald Keene and Edward Seidensticker. I was fortunate to have access to the unparalleled collections of the School of Oriental and African Studies library at the University of London and also the fine collection at International House in Tokyo; both include many rare and wonderful Victorian volumes.

Hiroaki Sugita, recently retired from the
Kyoto Shimbun
(newspaper) and author of many scholarly works, was a fount of knowledge on the history of the geisha. He introduced me to Sadayakko, loaded me down with books, and took me to tiny historical nooks in Gion connected with the geisha.

Many Western scholars of Japan offered friendship, suggestions, introductions, and inspiration. I am particularly grateful to Patricia Fister, who shared time and friendship as well as her great scholarship with me, and also to Monica Bethé (thank you for recommending the book on
!), Richard Emmert, Drew Gerstle, who kindly read through the historical section of the first draft (though all errors, of course, are my own), Peter Grilli, Gaye Rowley, and Timon Screech.

In Japan many friends, both new and long time, were unfailingly kind and also helped to provide introductions.

In Tokyo I should like to record my debt of gratitude to Yutaka and Kazuko Aso and to Julia Boyd, who kindly introduced me to them; to Koichi Tsuzuki, maverick author, who provided a mobile phone as well as friendship; Johnny Walker, Svengali of my Tokyo social life; and Junko Koshino, who kindly introduced me to Toshiki Takahashi of the Wachigaiya. My old friend Seiko Taniguchi of the Japan National Tourist Organization introduced me to Mr. Mochizuki of Ryokan Sadachiyo in Asakusa, who in his turn introduced me to Shichiko (to whom much gratitude for friendship as well as help). Junichi Yano and Kazuko Koizumi-Legendre of the Foreign Press Center provided sterling backup. I am also grateful to Takashi Azumaya, Shi Yu Chen, Mr. Fukumoto and Mr. Kubota of All-Wave Productions, Toshiaki Honda of Tokyo Video Center, Keisuke Muratsu, Kiyoha, Iwamoto-san, Donald Fontayne (even though we failed to meet) and the geisha of Shimbashi, Asakusa, Akasaka, and Mukojima who were very generous with their time and hospitality. Many of these people became my friends and played a huge part in the making of this book. I hope they are pleased with it. Thanks also to Bernard Krisher and my old friends Michihisa Kitashirakawa and Yukiko Shimahara.

I have fond memories of all the people who were kind to me in Kyoto, starting with Mr. and Mrs. Sawai, whose inn became my home away from home, and the master and mistress of Suzuya, where I breakfasted. Many of the geisha, older sisters, and house mothers of Miyagawa-cho, Gion, Gion Higashi, and Kamishichiken were exceedingly generous of their time and hospitality and I am very grateful to all of them. I would like to express my thanks to Haruta-san, Imae-san of Daimonji teahouse in Kamishichiken, Ishihara-sensei of Yamato hairdressing salon, Takae Kaida, Koito, Komae-san of Komaya, and many more members of the geisha world whom I do not name in order to protect their privacy. I am very grateful to all of them for their friendship and open-heartedness. Thanks also to my old buddy Hal Gold, Malte Jaspersen, Reiko Kato of Shoho-in temple, Alex Kerr, Ritsuko Kishi, Satoshi Kita, Kanji Mori, Yasuyoshi Morimoto, Kojiro Sakai, Satoyu, Seto-san, Mr. and Mrs. Shimofuri of Kazurasei, Kyoko Sugiura, Toshiki Takahashi of the Wachigaiya, Zenzaburo Yamamori of Kyoto City Tourist Association, and Mr. Kimura, my wonderful tea ceremony teacher.

In Osaka, my old friend Narito Sasaki of the New Otani was, as always, bubbling with ideas. In Kanazawa, Mr. Keiichiro Yagi and Mr. Yoshihisa Kita of Yagi Corporation were my kind hosts.

Many thanks to my two helpers, Sarah Roche in Kyoto and Chieko Tsuneoka in Tokyo, who read books fast and furiously and put up patiently with all my demands.

Kyle Crichton applied a critical and expert eye to the first draft, for which I am enduringly grateful. Thanks also to Carolyn Watts, who provided many invaluable suggestions as well as being responsible for the author photograph.

I owe a bottomless debt of thanks to my wonderful agent, Bill Hamilton of A. M. Heath in London, who insisted that I embark on this project and has been there all the way through, offering wise advice and support. My agent in New York, Ellen Levine, has also provided wonderful support and been a staunch ally. Many thanks also to Lauren Marino, Cate Tynan, and everyone at Broadway Books, who have been full of enthusiasm and offered many wise suggestions. This book would not be what it is without their contribution. And thank you to my extremely supportive network of friends, in London, New York, and Tokyo, who have continued to be my friends despite my refusal to take phone calls while working.

Lastly I would like to remember my mother, who was Chinese-Canadian, and my father, also Canadian and Professor of Chinese, first at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, then at the University of Leeds. Both passed away within a year of each other while I was working on this book. They are sorely missed. This book is dedicated to them.


Note on Geisha Names

Like sumo wrestlers, geisha have only one name, a professional name like a pen name or an actor’s name. These names are quite different from Japanese women’s names and immediately recognizable as professional names. The name also indicates a geisha’s relationship with her “older sister”; the names of the two have at least one element in common.

Usually only one person at a time bears a particular name in a particular district. In order to preserve the privacy and discretion of women who very kindly spoke with extraordinary openness to me, I have used pseudonyms—ordinary Japanese women’s names—for some of them and blurred their identities by, for example, not specifying the geisha district where they live. One Shimbashi geisha told me that if it was known that she had spoken with such openness to me, she would never work as a geisha again. I have taken precautions not to betray these women’s trust.

Note on Pronunciation

Japanese words are pronounced as they are spelled, with each syllable distinct and with clean vowels and nonaspirated consonants, rather like Italian. All syllables are equally stressed. Thus
is pronounced
mizuage mi-zu-a-gé
. The word
incidentally, is pronounced not

introduction: through
the looking glass

When I see the first new moon

Faintly in the dusk

I think of the moth eyebrows

Of a girl I saw only once.

Anonymous poem

On a Kyoto backstreet one sultry May evening, I caught my first glimpse of a geisha. She came flitting toward me with a faint tinkling of bells, an extraordinary vision like an apparition from another age. Her face, smooth and impassive as a mask, was an immaculate white oval with the sides of the nose and the eye sockets shaded in pink. Her eyes were outlined in black, her eyebrows two moth wings of feathery brown, and her lower lip a startling crimson crescent; her upper lip, disconcertingly, was white. Her hair, piled into gleaming black coils, was teased and lacquered into an undulating landscape of hills and valleys adorned with flowers, dangling silver pins, ribbons, and combs. Swathed in an ornate kimono in shades of blue and gold, she clattered by on preposterously high wooden clogs, her long sleeves swaying as she walked.

As darkness fell, white lanterns began to glow, lighting up the shadows. She was a vision made for darkness, for an era when geisha used to flit through the gloom of unlit teahouses, glimpsed only by flickering candlelight. Their painted faces transmuted them into shamanesses who could transport men into another world, a world of dreams.

She passed with a rustle of silk, revealing a breathtaking expanse of exquisitely white-painted back. I had not realized that geisha wore their kimono quite so shockingly low. It was like a décolletage in reverse, enormously erotic. At the nape of the neck, which Japanese men find especially sexy, was a titillating fork of naked, unpainted skin, shaped like a serpent’s tongue. It was the most mesmerizing of all, a reminder that behind the alabaster mask, beneath the layers of silk and brocade, was a real flesh and blood woman.

Breaching a Secret World

It was nearly sunset when I got to Kyoto that mild May evening. I had to ask the taxi driver to drop me off at the end of the lane where I was to stay; it was too narrow for cars to squeeze through. I lugged my suitcase the last hundred yards to the inn, over the doorstep, through the door, then up a couple of dark, very steep wooden staircases to my room.

It was bright, airy, and wide open to the elements. One wall was barely a wall at all but a rickety wooden balcony with flimsy slatted doors which you could slide shut to close off the room when it was hot, cold, or rainy. The tatami matting of the floor was moth-eaten. On it sat a dumpy bandy-legged wooden table, a worn flat cushion, and a doll’s house–size dressing table perilously supporting a tall thin mirror with a piece of ancient brocade draped over it. In one corner was a wobbly wooden frame with a few hooks for hanging clothes.

Bamboo blinds attached under the eaves created the illusion of a fourth wall, flapping and banging in the slightest breeze. Standing on the balcony I peeped through at the vista of gray tiled rooftops interspersed with telegraph poles and a mad cat’s cradle of wires. The road below was lined with little wooden houses very similar to the one I was in. In the house opposite a couple of women were silhouetted behind the blinds. Voices, laughter, and the jangling plink plonk of the shamisen, a banjo-like instrument, hung in the air. Women pattered up and down the street, pausing to bow and greet each other in high-pitched coos.

Having spent many years in Tokyo, I had come to the ancient city of Kyoto in search of geisha. Once the capital of Japan, it was still the country’s cultural heart, home of temples, palaces, gardens, and theaters and the place where the classical heritage was most fiercely preserved. The picturesque streets of the geisha districts, the old pleasure quarters, looked more like the Japan portrayed in nineteenth-century woodblock prints than anywhere else. Kyoto was also the only place where the strict geisha training continued and the geisha traditions were handed down.

I wanted to meet the real women behind the painted faces, the charming chit chat, and the eternal mysterious smile. The geisha, it seemed to me, were purveyors of dreams. Theirs was a misty world of romance created for the enjoyment and entertainment of men, in which the most browbeaten office worker could be king. It was not my intention to spoil the illusion or dispel the mystery. But as a woman, I wondered out of what past the geisha had come. Who were the women who, in modern Japan, had chosen to live this life? For men it was a dream world; but who were the women whose job it was to create this dream?

I had lived, talked, traveled, and daydreamed my way through a couple of decades in Japan, filtering my experience of a country which was often shockingly ugly through the prisms of its past. I absorbed myself in the passionate stories of heroes, villains, and beautiful temptresses recorded in its spare but evocative poetry, drama, and literature—like the tale of the all-time femme fatale, Ono no Komachi, the most beautiful woman in the world; or Narihira, the great lover, who cut a swathe through women’s hearts; or the Heian courtiers of the tenth century who made love into the essence of life, to be studied, cultivated, and perfected as an art form. The geisha were the heirs to this romantic heritage. I hoped I would find that they prospered still, that the past had not faded completely into the realm of imagination and dusty scholarly tomes.

But at the dawn of a new century, was there a place for geisha in the land of Nintendo, Sony, Nissan, and Honda? Persistent reports in papers and magazines had suggested that they were an endangered species, if not already extinct. Although I had come across geisha in the small provincial town where I had lived when I first arrived in Japan, for years I had barely glimpsed them. And if I did succeed in befriending any, would they be “real” geisha or mere shadows, play-acting at being the real thing?

Before I had even reached Kyoto I had discovered that there was something strangely unsettling about the very notion of geisha. On the plane on my way to Japan, I had mentioned to the man next to me that I was planning to do some research on geisha. Suddenly he changed from the mild-mannered mustachioed academic he had seemed—he had told me he was a specialist in car ergonomics—and poured out a torrent of abuse.

“Fujiyama,” he foamed, spitting out the word which foreigners mistakenly use when speaking of Mount Fuji and a symbol to Japanese of our inability to muster even the faintest understanding of their country. “ ‘Fujiyama’, ‘geisha’!” he snarled. “Stereotype, prejudice!”

I had said nothing about my attitude or approach to geisha or why I was interested in them. The very idea that a foreigner would dare to even think of writing about them filled him with rage.

At least one foreigner had already done so—Arthur Golden, whose novel,
Memoirs of a Geisha,
took a generation of Western readers inside the geisha world of 1920s Gion. The book, at that time, had yet to be translated into Japanese. The West, meanwhile, had been swept by geisha fervor. Inspired by Golden’s heroine, Sayuri, the fashion world rediscovered the allure of femininity. The collections of 1999 were full of kimono-like creations which wrapped and concealed the body, hinting at the mysteries beneath rather than revealing them. That summer Madonna appeared at the Grammies in an extraordinary outfit described as a kimono, with long flapping sleeves and a plastic obi. It would be hard to imagine anything further from the traditional garment. Nevertheless it was the talk of Tokyo.

My neighbor on the plane was not just an eccentric. To my amazement, confiding in Japanese men that I was planning to look into geisha and their culture exposed me to my first experiences of rudeness in this country of protocol and courtesy. Enraged, they laid into me for taking an interest in such a trivial, old-fashioned, and banal aspect of their culture. A Japanese woman who, as a teacher of the shamisen, lived her life on the borders of the geisha world, asked me with gentle puzzlement why I wanted to look into the “dark, bad side of Japan.” And when I went to bookshops, I found intriguingly little on the geisha.

When I mentioned geisha to friends and acquaintances in Tokyo, many said (with, it seemed to me, unnecessary forcefulness) that no, they did not know any. But some did. They took me aside, sat me down, and explained that geisha were dancers, musicians, entertainers, and conversationalists who filled a specific niche at the highest levels of Japanese society. They were absolutely not prostitutes, high class or otherwise. That established, they suggested particular geisha that I might care to look up and, most important, indicated that I might mention their name.

First Days in Kyoto

On my first morning in Kyoto I was woken by a strange shouting, like the cry of an animal. Sunlight was streaming into the small room where I slept on the floor, sending motes of dust sparkling and spinning. Purely by chance I had ended up staying in one of the geisha areas, in a house which had until recently done service as a geisha house. When I finally met geisha, I learned that they lived in bare little rooms as poorly furnished as mine.

I went in search of breakfast and found a coffee shop along the street. Inside, mellow jazz emanated from the speakers. The master of the shop, nervy and balding, tapped his fingers on the counter while he brewed up coffee in a glass percolator. The mistress, warm, plump, and smiling in a pink-and-white-checked apron, prepared industrial-size slabs of cotton-woolly toast. The shop was full of women sitting over breakfast, flicking through newspapers or chatting.

Later, wandering the neighborhood, I found myself in a warren of alleys lined with wooden houses pressed so close together that only the occasional shaft of sunlight pierced the gloom. Every now and then a motorbike or scooter skidded past but mainly there was silence. I had never been anywhere in Japan so untouched by the passage of time. It was as if I had stepped back into a preindustrial era.

There were five geisha areas or
(flower towns), of which three clustered together on the eastern side of the River Kamo which rolled, wide and brown, a couple of minutes walk away from the inn where I was staying. These three—Gion, the most famous and classy, Gion Higashi (East Gion), and Miyagawa-cho—were bordered to north and south by two thoroughfares, Sanjo and Gojo (Third and Fifth) streets. Cutting through the middle, the nerve center of the area, was Shijo (Fourth) Street, crammed end to end with shops dealing in all the paraphernalia of the geisha world—hairpins, tortoiseshell combs, dangly hair decorations, fans, clogs, kimono fabric, white face paint, sticks of safflower lipstick, hair wax, camellia oil, and small beautifully molded cakes of sugar, rice, and beans.

The river divided this small alternative universe from the modern city with its snarled traffic, air-conditioned department stores, clashing neon, and bustling people. Across the river from Gion was the fourth of the five
Pontocho, a tiny picturesque alley lined with restaurants which in summer were extended at the back to make platforms lined with reed matting where one could dine, sip sake, and enjoy the cool breezes above the rolling waters of the Kamo. It was several days before I visited the fifth, Kamishichiken (literally “Seven Houses to the North”), in the northwest of the city. To my mind it was the most charming of all, a couple of quiet intimate lanes lined with dark prosperous houses, many with a lantern glowing outside, meandering in a gentle curve up to the stone lanterns and plum trees of Kitano Shrine.

That evening I was to have my first appointment with one of the
grandes dames
of the geisha world. I had mentioned on the phone that I was a friend of a friend, an important and powerful businessman whom I will call Mr. Suzuki, and hoped that that would smooth my way. Far from seeking publicity, the geisha shun it. Their whole profession depends on their ability to keep secrets. Many have been the friends of the nation’s most powerful men, often for a lifetime. Such men choose to entertain at geisha houses because they can trust these women to keep their lips sealed, no matter what they see or hear. But I also knew that in Japan as elsewhere the most important thing is who you know. With the help of introductions from friends I had made over years of living and working in Japan, I was confident that little by little I could breach this closed world.

At the end of an alley I pushed open a door and found myself in a small brightly lit room. There was a bar along one side and some leather sofas arranged to make a couple of alcoves. A small, regal woman in a kimono greeted me, offered me a whiskey, then turned back to banter with a group of noisy elderly men. Rather awkwardly I perched on a stool at the bar and began to chat to the barman. Finally the woman came to perch alongside me.

“So you are here through the introduction of Ken-chan,” she said, using the affectionate, diminutive form. “I’ve known him for years, since he was a little boy. I used to bounce him on my knee.”

It was hard to imagine the leathery Tokyo businessman I knew being bounced on anyone’s knee. Added to which, if that was the case, I realized with surprise, she had to be in her seventies. She was as tiny and frail as a butterfly, with the kind of looks that become, if anything, more beautiful with time—a fine-boned, delicate face, perfect skin without a trace of lines. Dressed in a modest indigo-blue kimono with a subtle pattern woven through it, her hair drawn back into a pristine bun, she sat very upright, poised and gracious.

“So . . . what would you like of me?” She spoke in Kyoto dialect, ineffably polished and stylized, where everything is hinted at and nothing is said directly. Fresh from Tokyo, I found it difficult to pick up every nuance.

Clumsily I launched into an explanation. As she knew, I was a writer. I was hoping to write about the geisha world. Hopefully I could meet geisha, some young, some at the height of their career, perhaps even spend time in a geisha house living among geisha like one of them, seeing life from the inside. I gathered she might be able to help me. I’d be very grateful if she could do so.

I stumbled to a close. She sat in silence, looking straight ahead.

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