Memoirs of a meeting with a geisha
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