Mem­oirs of a meet­ing with a geisha

The Sunday Telegraph - Travel - - Front Page -

Twenty years af­ter Arthur Golden’s cel­e­brated novel was pub­lished, Stan­ley Ste­wart vis­its Ja­pan to see what re­mains of a van­ish­ing world

In the street out­side the geisha house, I felt I had stepped into a Ja­panese paint­ing, a Hiroshige per­haps – an empty cob­bled lane, a sin­gle lantern cast­ing a tri­an­gle of yel­low light, a few cherry trees in tat­tered blos­som, a soft slant­ing rain. I paused out­side the door. Be­yond, I could hear the rus­tle of silks, the soft pad of san­dals, a woman’s voice. When I knocked, the house fell silent. Then the door slid open and the moon-white face of a geisha ap­peared. As she bowed, I found my­self gaz­ing, trans­fixed by her hair – thick, lus­trous, jet-black, pierced with long hair pins and tied with silk rib­bons. “Come out of the rain,’’ she said. The Ja­panese have 20 dif­fer­ent words for rain. She used the term namida ame which means “tear rain”, the soft rain that falls when some tragedy has be­fallen you, when your heart has been bro­ken. In the lobby, I re­moved my shoes and stepped bare­foot across the thresh­old.

It is 20 years since the pub­li­ca­tion of Mem­oirs of a Geisha, Arthur’s Golden’s his­tor­i­cal novel which took read­ers in­side Ja­pan’s plea­sure quar­ters, and well over a cen­tury since the birth of the fic­tional char­ac­ters it por­trays. I had come to Kanazawa, one of a hand­ful of Ja­panese cities, out­side of Ky­oto, where geisha cul­ture sur­vives, to see how much the “float­ing world” de­picted in the novel has changed.

Once one of the grand­est cities in Ja­pan, Kanazawa has set­tled now into pro­vin­cial gen­til­ity. It has a rep­u­ta­tion for tra­di­tional arts – for hand-painted silks and lac­quer­ware, for ce­ram­ics and del­i­cate gold leaf. Hav­ing es­caped bomb­ing in the Sec­ond World War, much of its tra­di­tional ar­chi­tec­ture is in­tact, in­clud­ing the tea houses and inns of

the float­ing world, the tra­di­tional plea­sure quar­ters. In back lanes of Kanazawa, geishas still wait for their clients.

I was stay­ing in a small tra­di­tional house on the edge of the quar­ter, near the river where re­flec­tions of wil­lows and bridges hov­ered in the dark wa­ter like an ori­en­tal cliché. A study in min­i­mal­ism, the house was de­void of any­thing a naive west­erner might recog­nise as fur­ni­ture. There was a court­yard garden fea­tur­ing two rocks in raked gravel, a doll-sized kitchen, sev­eral rooms fur­nished with only tatami mats, and a loo that played a fan­fare when­ever I en­tered the cu­bi­cle – the only place to sit down.

Across town, in the neigh­bour­hood of Naga­machi, I went to visit the No­mura sa­mu­rai house, open to the pub­lic like a Na­tional Trust prop­erty. Pass­ing through empty rooms I came to one of the only pieces of fur­ni­ture: a Bud­dhist shrine. This is where the fam­ily could keep the an­ces­tors ap­praised of the fam­ily news, from en­gage­ments to lot­tery wins. Be­ing dead, the an­ces­tors were no longer in a po­si­tion to ask search­ing ques­tions. This pre­sum­ably al­lowed the fam­ily to skate over more trou­ble­some is­sues: heart­break, di­vorce, bank­ruptcy, men­tal break­down, and the rash pur­chase of a chair.

In a small ad­join­ing mu­seum, next to gleam­ing Sa­mu­rai swords, I found sweet thank you let­ters from Kanazawa’s feu­dal eu­dal lord to favoured war­riors. rriors. “We ap­pre­ci­ate how ow you worked so hard to kill l a high-rank­ing of­fi­cial at the Yokok­itaguchi Bat­tle,” wrote e one lord on Oct 9 1566. “Thank k you for bring­ing us his head.”

Work­ing hard, of course, is a Ja­panese thing. ng. Cen­tral to the cul­ture is thee pur­suit of ex­cel­lence, an n al­most fa­nat­i­cal quest for the ideal, from the world’s sharpest pest blades to the fresh­est sashimi, imi, from the pu­rity of emp­typty rooms to the re­mark­able lava­to­rya­va­tory in my lit­tle house with a dozen built-in wash­ing and dry­ing op­tions. The pur­suit of ex­cel­lence­cel­lence is cen­tral to the cul­ture off the geisha: they are meant to be an ideal, the ul­ti­mate fe­male com­pan­ion. an­ion. Their train­ing seems to be as de­mand­ing as that of a brain sur­geon.rgeon.

The float­ingng world, of which geishas were part, was as densely strat­i­fied as a royal palace. Among the many gra­da­tions ada­tions of es­corts were the sabu­ruko,o, or serv­ing girls, the tayuu, or erotic tic per­form­ers, the yujo or “play women”, men”, and the oiran, the high-end cour­te­sans. ur­te­sans. Orig­i­nally, geishas were en­ter­tain­ers who had the tricky job b of keep­ing restive cus­tomers hap­pyappy while they

A Kanazawa tea house, above; and Ken­rokuen gar­dens, above right

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