Geisha in Gion is an autobiography written by Mineko Iwasaki (Iwasaki Mineko in traditional Japanese format). Iwasaki was one of the geiko interviewed by Arthur Golden for his novel Memoirs of a Geisha (Which I will be reading and reviewing in due course). She, however, felt that he misrepresented both her and the geisha community in his novel and thus penned this book.
I’m not sure if it’s the style of writing in this book or something about myself that makes it seem slightly less than factual at times. That’s not to say I don’t believe it but there were a few occasions while I was reading that I forgot it was the story of someone’s life and thought of it in purely fictional terms. Iwasaki goes to great pains to explain things that have no traditional English meaning though and that is something that reminded me often that this was a biography and not a story.
She tells us first of her early life in such detail and clarity I wonder how she could have remembered it so well (I have trouble remembering things that happened five years ago, let alone 50) and she tells us of her adoption into the Iwasaki family that started when she was five but wasn’t official until she was ten. She describes in fantastic detail the kimonos that she wore throughout her career and the hair ornaments that complimented her dress and hairstyles. She very clearly loved every kimono that she describes to be able to remember them so well.
Iwasaki’s life as a geisha started at fifteen and ended when she was 29. For the first five years or so she literally worked herself into the ground. At one point her kidney was failing and she told the doctor that she couldn’t possibly take ten days off work and could he do the operation and recovery in three. She explains how she had no idea about money until she was in her 20’s and I don’t just mean she had trouble managing her money but she didn’t know what 100,000 ¥ looked like (that’s around $1000) when her (adopted) mother showed her ten 10,000¥ notes, she claimed it wasn’t a lot and resolved to work harder to earn more.
While she was still starting out, she tells us about her days, which typically started at 6am and didn’t finish until 2 or 3 am the next day. She acknowledges that this was definitely in violation of child labour laws but she did it anyway. She had classes every morning and spent hours getting dressed for the evenings, she weighed less than 90lbs and had to wear a kimono that was half her weight while walking in 6inch shoes. I have legitimately got some mad respect for this woman and others like her. Her entire story seemed so fantastical at times I wondered how on Earth she could keep it up for so long.
Near the end of the book, she tells us how she believes that the geisha community in Kyoto is doomed because it was stagnant for too long and resisted change. She tells us how there are no longer such wealthy patrons to occupy the tea houses (and when you consider they were spending 2 or 3 thousand for a night there, it’s not hard to imagine how wealthy you must be to be a patron of these places) but the descriptions she gives of what she calls “The Flower and Willow world” sound incredible and a part of me wishes that I could have experienced it properly at the height of its majesty.
The book was good, but there was far too much description. I understand it’s necessary but I didn’t like it. If imagining the details on a kimono is up up your street though you’d probably really like this book.