Memories of a Geiko

21 Jul

It’s an inside look at the world of geiko and maiko, the geisha of Kyoto and their apprentices, and also quite an engaging character study. Geisha of Gion is the memoir of Mineko Iwasaki, possibly one of the most famous and successful Japanese geishas of all time.

The story is an interesting look at this mysterious part of Japanese history. Who are these women and what did they really do?

Iwasaki had been extensively interviewed by Arthur Golden for his enormously popular book “Memoirs of a Geisha”, yet she had asked that she keep her anonymity. When the book was published her name was listed in the acknowledgments. She felt betrayed and sued Golden. This book is her turn to tell her story.

Geisha of Gion, by Mineko Iwasaki.

Geisha of Gion, by Mineko Iwasaki.

She details the life of a geisha, the hours each day and years they must devote to their crafts, and paints the lifestyle as that of professionals. “Geisha” is often translated as artist or woman of the arts and Iwasaki describes how they must perfect their arts — of dancing, playing instruments, singing, tea ceremony and conversation.

It sounds like a pretty cushy gig, but at her heyday, Iwasaki says she was only sleeping a few hours each night before practicing all day and performing all night, and she would be booked a year and a half in advance of a party.

“Basically, I was booked solid for the entire five years that I was a maiko,” writes Iwasaki. “I worked seven days a week, three hundred and sixty-five days a year, from the time I was fifteen until I was twenty-one.”

She tries to dispel the myth that geishas are just high-end prostitutes, saying that very few men are even allowed in geisha houses. Yet she does says it’s natural for geisha to develop relationships with clients and she herself did as well.

She was the best, or so she says, and doesn’t fail to mention the fact every few pages. But her anecdotes do live up to her assertions. She entertained both the Queen of England and Prince Charles, both humourous and very telling stories regarding her character.

Prince Charles signed one of her favourite fans and she later threw it out, upset that he had done so. When the Queen didn’t touch any of the Japanese food made for her, she flirted with Prince Phillip. The Queen and Prince decided to sleep in separate rooms for the night at the last minute.

Geiko waiting on a Kyoto street corner?

Geiko waiting on a Kyoto street corner?

She was living in a very strange world of extreme privilege. Iwasaki details how she would have a new kimono made for her every week and would wear each one only four or five times. Each kimono could cost anywhere from $5000 to 8000.

But she had no concept of money. Everything was paid for. She rarely even touched money, though many envelopes of tips were slipped into her kimono each night. As a full geiko she decides at one point to move out on her own. She shops for groceries for the first time, buying a few vegetables at a shop and gives a 10,000 yen ($100) bill and walks out the door.

But there is a darker side to her story. Iwasaki met the owner of the geisha house she would eventually move into at the age of three. The owner said she was very beautiful and suggested she could become her successor. This was basically decided from that young age. Iwasaki’s father had already sold her two older sisters to the same geisha house, one sister never really gets over this betrayal. In becoming the successor, Iwasaki must be adopted into the geisha “family” and completely leave her biological one.

Mineko Iwasaki during her last day as a maiko.

Mineko Iwasaki during her last day as a maiko.

Iwasaki is a character and some things she writes can cause a few eye rolls, but she seems very honest. For instance, as a young girl she meets another girl that could be her friend. The other girl is older than her but lower in status.

“I took off my tabi. ‘Meku-chan, my little toe itches.’ I stuck out my foot and she respectfully stroked it,” she writes.

Iwasaki often mentions the in-fighting within the geisha world and the jealousy she had to deal with (no wonder given how she treated some people). But it is interesting given what she went through on a daily basis all while maintaining a perfect image of this mythical beauty.

“I was afraid that if I didn’t maintain the professional demeanour of a maiko at all times I would simply fall apart,” she writes.

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