Before this exquisite book arrived in the mail, I was expecting something along the lines of Liza Dalby’s wonderful Geisha, which is both an anthropological inquiry and memoir. Instead, I found myself staring at a book of glossy photos, and my limbic brain immediately took over. I began paging through the book eagerly, staring at those colorful photographs, barely stopping to skim the captions or bits of text. I forced myself to sit down and read the book through. I was richly rewarded.
Geisha—or, Geiko, as Kyoto’s Geisha call themselves—evoke many of the same fascinations inspired by religious orders. Scratch the surface of any Jewish female and you find a girl once enamored of nuns. Not the Catholicism (though its incense and Latin weren’t without their draws), but the ancient order of a life lived by rules codified and handed down over centuries. Everything—manner, dress, food, speech—is dictated by these difficult, increasingly archaic lifestyles.
Neither Geisha nor nuns marry. But Geisha, unlike nuns, do not withdraw from society; rather, it is their living to cultivate it, specifically in the teahouse parties known as ozashiki. There, exquisitely dressed women sing, dance, joke, and drink with men who can afford this most expensive form of stylized entertainment. And no, sex is not involved.
Becoming a full-fledged Geisha, like taking religious orders, is an arduous quest requiring years of commitment. Narrator Komomo, Japanese for “Little Peach”, takes seven years to transform herself from a 15-year-old schoolgirl to a Geisha living in her own home.
Before becoming a Geisha, Komomo was a pampered only child raised in Mexico and China. Always enamored of Geisha, she made contact with Koito, a Kyoto Geiko, through an obscure blog. A three-year correspondence culminated in Koito inviting Ruriko (Komomo’s birth name) and her parents to visit her okiya, or Geiko house, where girls live and train.
Ruriko, a very innocent schoolgirl, decides to try life in the okiya. There she is a lowly shikomi, helping more senior girls dress, fetching, cleaning, and acting as general gofer. She is then accepted as a maiko, an apprentice, and the grueling work of transformation begins. Her mentor, Koito, writes:
Her demeanor (the maiko)—or as we say here in Kyoto, her motenashi—must be perfect at all times. From the moment she wakes up to the moment she lays her head on the pillow at the end of the day, there is no time for a maiko to slouch. From the depths of her heart to the tips of her hair, she must always act as someone who lives in the hanamachi (the Geiko district).
For a couple days after reading this book,I tried to be more mindful of my demeanor—not chewing my cuticles, not frowning, thinking carefully before speaking. Of course I forgot myself and failed miserably. Nor could I manage anything remotely close to the gorgeous kimono Komomo and her fellow maiko wear. Keyed to the seasons, preciously expensive, these garments can weigh up to 22-pounds. Dressing in kimono is sufficiently complex to require an otokoshi, or professional dresser, invariably a man able to manage the heavy fabric. And though she says little of her footwear, the shoes are shocking to an American eye: imagine a flip-flop atop a six inch platform, the front portion angled to allow for some sort of gait.
Komomo’s training is brutal—her days are filled with music, singing, and dance lessons, her nights with ozashiki. The pace is exhausting.Her mistakes are frequent and earn the wrath of other Geiko. One evening during a dance performance, she forgot the handkerchief tucked in her kimono sleeve. It flutters to the floor. Disaster. Asked by a senior Geiko what song she’d like to play Komomo answers happily, only to realize her gaffe too late—she should have demurred, asking the older woman what song to play.
Despite exhaustion and frustration, Komomo never seriously considers leaving the highly constrained world of the hanamachi. Indeed, she is deeply in love with the ancient ways, and worried they are gradually being forgotten by a dismissive culture. She laments the loss of older habitués of ozashiki, who are familiar with the ancient songs and games, and the complex wordplay they involve. She fears for the older kimono makers, who are not being replaced, and for the wigmakers, whose handmade creations cost a fortune.
This fascinating text is set beside Naoyuki Ogino’s gorgeous photographs. His Japan is a wondrous place of women bustling through modern city streets in kimono, the magical transformations effected by Geiko make-up artists, and the homier aspects of the okiya, including a shot of three Geiko adoringly holding up the house cat, a scene bringing these exotic, increasingly rare women to earth.
Don’t let the pretty pictures dissuade you from reading A Geisha’s Journey. It should not be dismissed as another picture book; rather, it is a rare visit to a fast-disappearing culture, and a respite of comfort and beauty. Hanamachi, Koito writes, were created as places of healing. So take out your earbuds, turn off your cellphone, and travel backward in time for a while, to another place. It’s worth the trip.