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Women of the Pleasure Quarters: The Secret History of the Geisha

Women of the Pleasure Quarters: The Secret History of the Geisha

by Lesley Downer

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Ever since Westerners arrived in Japan, they have been intrigued by Japanese womanhood and, above all, by geisha. This fascination has spawned a wealth of extraordinary fictional creations, from Puccini’s Madame Butterfly to Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha. But as denizens of a world defined by silence and mystery, real geisha are


Ever since Westerners arrived in Japan, they have been intrigued by Japanese womanhood and, above all, by geisha. This fascination has spawned a wealth of extraordinary fictional creations, from Puccini’s Madame Butterfly to Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha. But as denizens of a world defined by silence and mystery, real geisha are notoriously difficult to meet and even to find. As a result, their history has long been cloaked in secrecy.

Lesley Downer, an award-winning writer, Japanese scholar, and consummate storyteller, gained more access to this world than almost any other Westerner, and spent several months living in it. In Women of the Pleasure Quarters, she weaves together intimate portraits of modern geisha with the romantic legends and colorful historical tales that shape their fascinating past. Contrary to popular opinion, geisha are not prostitutes but, literally, "arts people." Accomplished singers, dancers, and musicians, they are, above all, masters of the art of conversation, soothing the worries and stroking the egos of wealthy businessmen who can afford their attentions. Looking into such traditions as mizuage, the ritual deflowering that was once a rite of passage for all geisha, and providing colorful descriptions of their dress, training, and homes, Downer transforms their reality into a captivating narrative, and reveals an enthralling world unlike any other.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Lesley Downer has crafted, with wonderful precision, the best-ever portrait of those mysterious creatures who still ply their venerable craft in the silent backwaters of Japan. Women of the Pleasure Quarters deserves to endure, and to become a classic."
–Simon Winchester, author of The Professor and the Madman

"Downer describes her increasing intimacy with the Kyoto geisha with candor and grace. She is not a safari guide, leading us on a wild geisha hunt. She is intelligent and curious and modest, and the results of her very personal research are deeply satisfying."
New York Times Book Review

"Excellent . . . Downer skillfully builds up a picture of the loves of geisha, set against the Japanese attitude toward sex and marriage . . . A well-rounded and enthralling account of the power of that fantasy and the women behind it."
Literary Review (London)

"Lesley Downer has created a masterpiece."
The Spectator (London)

Janice P. Nimura
[Downer] is not a safari guide, leading us on a wild geisha hunt. She is intelligent and curious and modest, and the results of her very personal research are deeply satisfying.
New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Inspired by Arthur Golden's massively popular Memoirs of a Geisha to "meet the real geisha" in the last stronghold of geisha training in Japan, Downer skillfully intertwines her profiles of Kyoto personalities and tea-house customs with a fluidly written geisha history that's unabashedly aimed at a Western audience. Author of On the Narrow Road and The Brothers: The Hidden World of Japan's Richest Family, Downer was no stranger to the country. However, she found the entrance to the "geisha world" heavily guarded. She writes: "I was always an outsider, I could never step through the looking glass." But small successes (finding the right cakes to present to "the mama," a very powerful geisha) and patience eventually won Downer a place at events that are "utterly closed to outsiders." These included an invitation to a young girl's misedashi ("store opening"), the "rite of passage" from trainee to geisha. We also learn, for example, of the distinction that has developed between a prostitute and a geisha (which translates as "arts person"), who undergoes intense and lengthy apprenticeships in dance and music. Written in dynamic, highly readable prose, the book is supported by exhaustive research and a lengthy bibliography. Readers who were as smitten with Golden's geisha as Downer was will find this good companion reading. Photos. (Mar. 6) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
A British journalist with a passion for Japan, Downer documented the travels of 17th-century Japanese poet Basho in On the Narrow Road to the Deep North (1989), delved into Japan's rich and famous with The Brothers: The Hidden World of Japan's Richest Family (LJ 6/1/95), and now uncovers the history, society, and subversive culture of the geisha through her diligent research and translations. She leads the reader through 400 years of history, much of which was previously unknown to the outside world, revealing that the first geishas were male and describing the rituals and delicate arts practiced by the select few. In addition, she explores why women may find themselves drawn to this way of life today. Downer sees this culture as declining but not dying. The embodiment of love and passion has, for hundreds of years, been the domain of the geisha, and to a people for whom these emotions have rarely been a part of everyday life, the geisha will remain a living symbol of romance. Yet while Downer has done a more-than-adequate job of researching and relating this information, plowing through her book can be a chore. Surprisingly, she has made somewhat sordid situations rather pedantic, and it is disappointing that she is not more perceptive on the absence of much change in the role of women over the geisha's history. Suitable for academic and public librar- ies. Kay Meredith Dusheck, Univ. of Iowa, Iowa City Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

Product Details

Crown Publishing Group
Publication date:
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
6.13(w) x 9.11(h) x 0.77(d)

Read an Excerpt

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 dollhouse-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, hint- ing at the mysteries beneath rather than revealing them. That sum- mer 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 hanamachi (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 hanamachi, 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.

Meet the Author

An authority on Japanese history and culture, LESLEY DOWNER is the author of several acclaimed works on Japan, including a travel book, On the Narrow Road, and The Brothers: The Hidden World of Japan’s Richest Family, selected as a New York Times Notable Book. Having lived in Japan for a decade, she now divides her time between London and New York.

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