I wasn't born and brought up to be a Kyoto geisha. I wasn't even born in Kyoto. I'm a fisherman's daughter from a little town called Yoroido on the Sea of Japan. We lived in a tiny house, high above the sea, and my father smelled like the sea even after he washed.
One day, many years ago, I was entertaining at a party in Kyoto and a man said he was in Yoroido only last week. I felt like a bird that has flown across the ocean and finds another bird that knows its nest. I couldn't stop myself-I said:
«Yoroido! That's where I grew up.»
The man didn't believe me.
«You can't mean it,» he said, and laughed. «You, growing up in Yoroido! That's like making tea in a bucket.»
Well, I'd never thought of Yoroido as a bucket, though it's not pretty. In those days, the early 1930s, it had only one road leading to the Japan Coastal Seafood Company, which sold all the fish that my father and the other fishermen caught.
My father was a very old man. I was twelve then, but from the day I was born I never looked like him at all. I always looked like my mother. We had the same strange eyes; you hardly ever saw eyes like ours in Japan. Instead of being dark brown like everyone rise's, my mother's eyes were a shining gray and mine are just the same. It's the water in both our personalities. My father had wood in his personality; mother and I were full of water.
But all the water was running out of mother because of her illness. You could see every bone in her face getting harder and harder as the water dried out. Dr. Miura visited her every time he came to our village.
«Chiyo-chan,» my father would say to me, «get the doctor a cup of tea.»
My name back then was Chiyo. It was many years before I was known by my geisha name, Sayuri.
«Sakamoto-san,» said the doctor to my father, one time, «you need to have a talk with one of the women in the village. Ask them to make a new dress for your wife. She shouldn't die in that old dress she's wearing.»
«So she's going to die soon?» asked my father.
«A few more weeks, maybe,» said Dr. Miura.
After that I couldn't hear their voices for a time. And then… «I thought I'd die first,» my father was saying.
«You're an old man, Sakamoto-san. But you might have another year or two.»
One afternoon I came home from school and found Mr. Tanaka Ichiro walking up the path to my house. Mr. Tanaka's family owned the Japan Coastal Seafood Company. He didn't wear peasant clothes like the fishermen. He wore a man's kimono with kimono pants.
«Ah, Chiyo,» said Mr. Tanaka. «Dr. Miura told me that your mother's sick. Give her this.» He handed me a packet wrapped in rice paper, about the size of a fish head. «It's Chinese medicine,» he told me. «Don't listen to Dr. Miura if he says it's worthless.»
He turned to go but then turned back again. «I know a man,» he said. «He's older now, but when he was a boy about your age, his father died. The following year his mother died. Sounds a bit like you, don't you think?»
Mr. Tanaka gave me a look that meant I had to agree with him. «Well, that man's name is Tanaka Ichiro,» he continued. «I was taken in by the Tanaka family at the age of twelve. They gave me a new start.»
The next day I came home from school and found Mr. Tanaka sitting across from my father at the little table in our house.
«So, Sakamoto, what do you think of my idea?»
«I don't know, sir,» said my father. «I can't imagine Chiyo living anywhere else.»
Part of me hoped desperately that Mr. Tanaka would adopt me, but I was also ashamed that I wanted to live anywhere except my little house above the sea. As Mr. Tanaka left, I heard my father crying.
The next day Mr. Tanaka came to collect me in a little cart pulled by two horses. I thought we were going to his house but we drove to the train station. A tall, thin man met us there.
«This is Mr. Bekku,» said Mr. Tanaka. And then he drove away again. Mr. Bekku gave me a look of disgust.
«Fish! Ugh! You smell of fish,» he said.
When the train came, Mr. Bekku and I got on. As soon as we sat down he took out a comb and started pulling it through my hair. It hurt a lot and although I tried not to cry, in the end I did.
Then he stopped doing it. The train went on and on, away from my home.
«Where are we going?» I asked, after a time.
«Kyoto,» said Mr. Bekku. It was the only word he said to me on the long train journey. Kyoto sounded as foreign to me as Hong Kong or even New York, which I'd once heard Dr. Miura talk about.
I could see little of the city as we neared Kyoto station, but then I was astonished to see rooftop after rooftop, all touching, as far as the distant hills. I could never have imagined a city so huge.
Back in the 1930s there were still rickshaws in Kyoto. Mr. Bekku led me by the elbow and we climbed into a rickshaw. «Cion,» Mr. Bekku said to the rickshaw driver. It was the first time I ever heard the name of the famous geisha area of Kyoto.
I fell back in the seat as the rickshaw driver picked up the poles and ran through the streets.
«Won't you please tell me where I'm going?» I said to Mr. Bekku.
For a moment I thought he wasn't going to reply. Then he said, «To your new home.»
Soon we turned onto a street that seemed as broad as the whole village of Yoroido. I could hardly see the other side because of all the people, bicycles, cars, and trucks. I'd never seen a car or a truck before-except in photographs.
After a long time the rickshaw turned down an alley of wooden houses. We stopped and Mr. Bekku told me to get out. There in the doorway stood the most beautiful woman I'd ever seen, wearing a kimono more perfect than anything I'd ever imagined. It was water blue with white lines that curled like the current in a stream when she moved. It was pure silk. And her clothing wasn't the only extraordinary thing about her; her face was painted a kind of rich white, like a cloud lit by the sun.
This was Hatsumomo. I didn't know it then but she was one of the most famous geisha in Gion. She was a tiny woman; even with her black, shiny hair up high she came only to Mr. Bekku's shoulder.
«Mr. Bekku,» said Hatsumomo. «What is that strong smell of fish? Could you take the garbage out later, please. I want to pass by.»
There was no garbage there; she was talking about me.
Mr. Bekku led me past Hatsumomo into the small, elegant house. It was built up on stones, with enough space under it for a cat to crawl under. Inside, the hall had a wooden floor that shone in the yellow light of electric lamps. A door slid back and a woman came out, smoking a pipe.
«This is the new girl, Mrs. Nitta,» said Mr. Bekku.
«Ah, yes. The little fish girl,» said the woman. «Come closer, I want to have a look at you. Heavens! What amazing eyes! You're a beautiful girl, aren't you?»
She spoke with the same peculiar accent as Mr. Bekku and Hatsumomo. It sounded so different from the Japanese spoken in my village that I had a hard time understanding her. I couldn't look at her, so I kept my eyes down on the wooden floor.
«There's no need to worry, little girl. No one's going to cook you. My name is Mrs. Nitta and this is the Nitta okiya.»
I raised my eyes a little. Her kimono was yellow, with smooth, brown branches carrying lovely green and orange leaves. It was made of the most beautiful, delicate, thin silk. Then I raised my eyes higher and almost cried out in shock. The colors of her face were all wrong. Her eyelids were red like meat and her gums and tongue were gray. I later learned that this was due to a problem with her diet, but at the time I just stared in horror.
«What are you looking at?» said Mrs. Nitta, as smoke from her pipe rose from her face.
«I'm very sorry, ma'am. I was looking at your kimono,» I told her. «I don't think I've ever seen anything like it.»
This must have been the right answer-if there was a right answer — because she laughed, though the laugh sounded like a cough.
«So you like it, do you,» she said, continuing to cough or laugh, I didn't know which. «Do you have any idea what it cost?»
«More than you did, that's certain.»
A young girl came out into the hall, carrying a wooden bucket full of water. She was a little older than me, thirteen or fourteen. Her body was thin, but her face was round. Even when she was a geisha in Gion many years later, everybody called her Pumpkin.
«Ah, Pumpkin,» said Mrs. Nitta. «Get the little fish girl clean and get her out of those peasant clothes.»
«Yes, ma'am,» said Pumpkin.
She led me through the hall to a courtyard in the back. The bucket was heavy for her and when she put it down half the water spilled out over the dirt floor.
«Where on earth did you come from?» she said.
I didn't want to say I'd come from Yoroido. Pumpkin's accent was as strange to me as everybody else's. I was sure she wouldn't know where Yoroido was. I said instead that I'd just arrived.
«I thought I'd never see another girl my age,» she said to me. «Why are your eyes that color?»
I didn't answer that, but took my clothes off so Pumpkin could wash me with a cloth she took out of the bucket. After that, she went to a room in the courtyard and got me a kimono. It was made of rough cotton in a simple dark blue pattern, but it was certainly more elegant than anything I'd worn before.
«I don't even want to know your name yet,» said Pumpkin. «I have to learn new names all the time. Mrs. Nitta didn't like the last girl who came and she was only here a month.»
«What will happen if they don't want to keep me?»
«It's better for you if they keep you.»
«Why? What… what is this place?»
«It's an okiya. It's where geisha live. Our geisha is called Hatsumomo and we look after her and do everything for her. She earns all the money for the okiya. If you work very hard, you'll grow up to be a geisha yourself. But it takes years of training.»
I had a sudden image in my mind of my poor, sick mother in bed, pushing herself up on one elbow and looking around to see where I'd gone. Tears came into my eyes before I could think how to stop them.
During those first few weeks in that strange place, I couldn't have felt worse if I'd lost my arms and legs, rather than my family and my home. I was confused and miserable, and I had no doubt that life would never again be the same.
But, strangely, during all that time, I felt an unreasonable warmth for Mrs. Nitta-something like the feeling that a fish might have for the fisherman who pulls the hook from its lip. Probably this was because I saw her no more than a few minutes each day while cleaning her room. She was always there, sitting at the table with an account book open in front her. The accounts were always organized, but nothing else was. She was messier even than Hatsumomo.
Hatsumomo lived like a queen in the okiya because she earned the income from which we all lived. And honestly, I've never seen a more astonishing-looking woman. Men in the street sometimes stopped and took their cigarettes from their mouths to stare at her.
Her room was the largest in the okiya, larger than my entire house in Yoroido. At first, I didn't understand why it was so much bigger even than Mrs. Nitta's. Then Pumpkin told me that in the past there'd been three or four geisha in the okiya and they'd all slept together in that one room, but Hatsumomo was the only geisha in the okiya now.
I always tried to clean the room as soon as Hatsumomo left for her dance lessons. I was worried about what might happen if she came back and found me alone in there. I hardly saw her because of the busy life she led, but I was still terrified of her.
One day, when I'd been in the okiya about a month, Mrs. Nitta led me upstairs to Hatsumomo's room, to watch her put on her make-up.
Before we went in, Mrs. Nitta warned me not to get in Hatsumomo's way. This is because, without her make-up, a geisha is like any other woman. She only becomes a geisha when she sits in front of her mirror to put her make-up on. And I don't just mean that this is when she begins to look like a geisha; this is when she begins to think like one too.
Hatsumomo told me to sit to the side of her and just behind. From there, I could see her face in the tiny mirror on her makeup table. She had half a dozen make-up brushes of different sizes and shapes. She told me what they were all called and how to use them.
«Now, why do you suppose I've shown you these things?» she said.
«So I'll understand how you put on your make-up,» I said.
«Heavens, no! I've shown them to you so you'll see there isn't any magic to it. How sad for you! Because it means that make-up alone won't be enough to change the little fish girl into something beautiful.»
Hatsumomo turned back to the mirror and sang quietly to herself. She painted her face and neck with a pale yellow cream, but left her eyes bare as well as the area around her lips and nose. Then she used the smaller brushes on these areas. I knew that in an hour or two, men would be looking with astonishment at that face; and I would still be here, cleaning the courtyard and the toilets in the okiya, washing the rice bowls, and sweating.
«I know what you're thinking,» said Hatsumomo. «You're thinking you'll never be so beautiful. Well, it's perfectly true.»
Then she sent me down to the room in the courtyard to get her a kimono. Outside the room I saw Mr. Bekku. I knew now that collecting young girls from fishing villages was not Mr. Bekku's only job. He was Hatsumomo's dresser and he helped her with the complicated job of dressing in the many elegant kimonos that the okiya owned.
«Oh, it's you,» said Hatsumomo, when I returned with a kimono. «I thought I heard a little mouse or something. Tell me, are you the one who re-arranges all my make-up jars?»
«I'm very sorry, ma'am,» I said. «I only move them to dust underneath.»
«But if you touch them,» she said, «they'll start to smell like you. And then the men will say to me, 'Hatsumomo-san, you smell just like a stupid girl from a fishing village.' I'm sure you understand that, don't you? But repeat it, just to be sure. Why don't I want you to touch my make-up?»
It was difficult to make myself say it, but in the end I did.
«Because it will start to smell like me,» I said.
«That's very good. And what will the men say?»
«They'll say, 'Hatsumomo-san, you smell just like a stupid girl from a fishing village.'»
«Hmmm… there's something about the way you said it that I don't like.»
Hatsumomo smiled and stood very close to me. I thought she was going to whisper in my ear, but she hit me across the face with her open hand.
I must have run out of the room because the next thing I can remember is Mrs. Nitta opening her door while she was still talking on the phone. I went into her room. Mrs. Nitta said, «Sorry,» into the mouthpiece of the phone and added, «Hatsumomo is hitting the maids again.»
When she was finished on the telephone, she called for Hatsumomo. «Hatsumomo! What have you done to Chiyo?»
Hatsumomo looked innocent. «She moved all my make-up jars, Mother, and she put her fingers in them.»
I said nothing. Mrs. Nitta made me say «sorry» to Hatsumomo, and then she made me say it again in a correct Kyoto accent.
When Hatsumomo left, smiling, Mrs. Nitta said, «I don't think you understand your job here in the okiya.» She nodded at the accounts. «We all think of only one thing-how we can help Hatsumomo be successful as a geisha. I don't want to hear that you've upset Hatsumomo again. If Pumpkin can stay out of her way, so can you.»
«Yes, Mrs. Nitta.»
But I couldn't keep out of Hatsumomo's way. She often hit me across the face when we were alone together. And she always criticized the way I looked, especially my eyes.
«I once saw a dead man fished out of the river,» she said to me one time, «and his tongue was just the same color as your eyes.»
Another time a man came to the okiya at night. He was wearing a traditional workman's jacket.
«You're a pretty one,» he said to me in a low voice. «What's your name?»
I thought he must be a workman, though I didn't know what he was doing in the okiya so late. I was frightened of answering him, but I said my name.
Then Hatsumomo appeared. As the man went off toward her room, she stopped and spoke to me. She sounded like an angry cat.
«I haven't tried to make your life really miserable yet,» she said. «But if you ever mention that a man came here to see me, that will change.»
I wanted to say that she had succeeded in making my life really miserable, even if she hadn't tried. But I didn't say anything; I didn't want her to hit me across the face again.
About a week later, very late at night, I was coming back from taking a drink of water at the well in the courtyard. I heard the outside door open and Hatsumomo came in with another, tall, geisha. Hatsumomo was carrying a package and I could see that she and the tall geisha had been drinking. Hatsumomo drank a lot of beer and amakuchi, a kind of light, sweet wine.
Hatsumomo caught me in the hall. «This is our stupid maid,» she said to the tall geisha. «She has a name, I think, but why don't you just call her 'The Little Fish Girl.'»
«Get us some more to drink, Little Fish Girl,» said the tall geisha.
«Oh, be quiet, Korin,» said Hatsumomo. «You don't need more to drink. Just look at this.»
Hatsumomo opened the package. It was a beautiful kimono in different shades of green, with a pattern of red leaves.
Hatsumomo said, «Korin-san, guess whose kimono this is!»
«I wish it belonged to me,» said Korin.
«Well, it doesn't,» said Hatsumomo. «It belongs to the geisha we hate more than anyone else in the world.»
Korin's eyes widened. «Mameha! You have one of Mameha's kimonos! How did you get it?»
«Her maid put the package down for a minute at the Kaburenjo Theater. Mameha is dancing there,» said Hatsumomo. «Now, Little Fish Girl, go up to my room and get some ink and one of those brushes I use for writing.»
I didn't understand why Hatsumomo wanted these things in the hall in the middle of the night, but of course I did what she said and brought them. Hatsumomo put the end of the brush in the ink. Then she put it into my hand and held my hand over the lovely kimono.
«Practice your writing, little Chiyo,» she said.
«I can't do it, Hatsumomo-san,» I cried. I heard the noise of a door opening upstairs, but I couldn't see anyone.
«What a shame, Little Fish Girl,» said Hatsumomo, «because I definitely remember Mother saying that if you annoy me again you can't start your training as a geisha.»
When the brush first touched the kimono, Korin wasn't happy with my first few uncertain brushstrokes. So Hatsumomo instructed me exactly how to ruin the beautiful kimono with ink. When I'd done it, she wrapped the kimono again.
Hatsumomo and Korin opened the door to the street and Hatsumomo told me to follow them. We walked up the alley to a street running along the Shirakawa Stream. Back in those days, the streets and alleys of Gion still had beautiful stone sidewalks. We walked along in the moonlight, past cherry trees whose branches dropped down into the black water. We went over a wooden bridge into a part of Gion I'd never seen before.
Hatsumomo and Korin stopped in front of a wooden door.
«You're going to give this kimono to the maid,» Hatsumomo said to me. «Or if Miss Perfect herself answers the door, you may give it to her.»
Even with so much fear in my heart, I couldn't help noticing how beautiful Hatsumomo was, next to the tall, long-faced Korin. I took the package with the ruined kimono and knocked at the door.
The maid who opened it wasn't a lot older than me. Behind her I saw a geisha and understood at once why they called her «Miss Perfect.» Her face was a perfect oval.
«Asami-san!» said the perfect geisha. «Who's there?»
I put the package into the maid's hands and ran back to the okiya without waiting for Hatsumomo and Korin.
The next morning I saw the maid, Asami, again. She was coming out of Mrs. Nitta's room. Mrs. Nitta immediately sent me to bring Hatsumomo. Hatsumomo had seen Mameha's maid too, and she started speaking before Mrs. Nitta even opened her mouth.
«Oh, Mother, I know just what you're going to say. I felt terrible about the kimono. I tried to stop Chiyo before she put ink on it but it was too late. She must have thought it was mine. I don't know why she's hated me so much from the moment she came here...»
«Everybody knows that you hate Mameha,» Mrs. Nitta replied. «You hate anyone more successful than you. Now you listen to me, Hatsumomo. I won't have this sort of behavior in the okiya, even from you. I have great respect for Mameha. And someone has to pay for the kimono. I don't know what happened last night but it's clear whose hand was holding the brush. Pumpkin saw the whole thing from her doorway. Chiyo will pay.»
Later that day, in our tiny room upstairs, Pumpkin and I lay on our futons and she explained it all to me.
«I'm sorry,» she said. «I tried to help you with Mrs. Nitta. But Hatsumomo's little trick with the kimono is going to cost you more money than you've ever imagined in your life.»
«But… how will I pay?»
«When you begin working as a geisha, you'll pay the okiya back for it. You'll also pay back everything else you'll owe-your meals and lessons; your doctor's fees, if you get sick. Why do you think Mrs. Nitta spends all that time in her room with her account books? You owe the okiya even for the money it cost to bring you here.»
I thought of my father and Mr. Tanaka. In the weeks I'd spent in Gion, I'd certainly imagined that money had changed hands to bring me here. I saw my little house by the sea in my mind.
«I'm going home,» I said to Pumpkin.
«Oh no!» said Pumpkin. «They'll bring you back. And then Mrs. Nitta will see you as a bad investment. She won't put money into someone who might run away again. She won't pay for your geisha lessons.»
But I didn't care. At least, I didn't care then; I cared a lot later.
Late that night I lay on my futon, waiting impatiently for darkness. If I could get home again, my mother wouldn't send me back. Maybe she didn't even know what father and Mr. Tanaka had done. I would look after her, she would get better...
I got up quietly and glanced at Pumpkin, sleeping next to me. I dressed in my peasant clothes and shoes and went out to the courtyard.
There was no moon. I went past the room where they keep the kimonos and pulled myself up to the low roof. Slowly, carefully, I felt my way along the roof on my hands and knees in the dark.
The roof of the building next door was a step lower than ours. I knew it was an okiya; all the houses in this block were. Someone would be waiting at the front door for the geisha to return and they would grab me by the arm as I dropped down. So I crossed to the next roof and then the next. And then one of my shoes came off.
I grabbed at it as it slipped down the roof and fell into the courtyard below. As I did this, I lost my balance and slid down the roof. I tried to stop myself sliding by holding onto the roof, but it was smooth and I fell, just as a woman came out into the courtyard. I hit the ground at her feet.
«What's this? It's raining little girls!»
I wanted to jump up and run away, but one whole side of my body hurt. I can't remember getting back to the Nitta okiya but I remember Mrs. Nitta calling the doctor. And I remember the terrible pain.
The next day Mrs. Nitta called me into her room. «I paid seventy-five yen for you,» she said. «Then you ruined a kimono and now you've broken your arm so I have medical expenses too. Why should I pay for geisha training? You already owe more than you'll ever repay. Who would invest another yen in a girl who runs away?»
At that moment Hatsumomo came in.
«You're the most expensive maid in all of Gion,» she said. «And you'll be a maid for the rest of your life.» She smiled. «You'll never be a geisha now.»
All that was in the fall. When spring came, the cherry trees were at their most beautiful in Marayama Park and along the Shirakawa Stream. A letter came addressed to me. It was from Mr. Tanaka and it informed me that my mother and my father were no longer on this earth.
Hatsumomo and Mameha
For two years now, I'd lived the hard and boring life of a maid. My life stretched out before me like a long path going nowhere. Sometimes, out in the street, I watched girls of my age coming back from geisha school, talking to each other. Maybe they were just talking about what they were going to have for lunch, but to me their lives had a purpose. I, on the other hand, was going back to the okiya to wash the stones in the courtyard.
I walked down to Shijo Avenue and turned toward the Kamo River. The Minamiza Theater was showing a kabuki play that afternoon. It was Shibaraku, which is one of our most famous plays, though I knew nothing about kabuki theater at the time.
People streamed up the steps to the theater in the spring sunshine. Among the men in their dark western-style suits or kimonos, there were several geisha. They were so brightly colored that they were like bright fall leaves in the brown waters of a river.
The men and the geisha had a purpose-unlike me. I turned toward the Shirakawa, but even the water in that stream seemed to move with a purpose, running down toward the Kamo River and from there to Osaka Bay and the Inland Sea. Everything had a purpose except me. I threw myself onto the little stone wall at the edge of the stream and cried.
«Oh, the day's too pretty for such unhappiness,» said a voice.
The man who had spoken had a broad, calm face. He was probably about forty-five years old, with gray hair combed straight back from his forehead. He was so elegant I couldn't look at him for long. I looked down.
There was a geisha with him. «Oh, she's only a maid!» said the geisha. «Really, Chairman, the kabuki play will be starting soon.»
In those days I spent a lot of time in the streets of Gion, taking things to Hatsumomo at teahouses and bringing them back. On my journeys I'd often heard men called by titles like «Department Head» and «Chairman.»
«Please, sir,» I said to the Chairman. «Don't make yourself late because of me. I'm only a silly girl.»
«Look at me a moment,» he said.
I didn't dare disobey him. I looked up. He took a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped my tears. As he bent over me, I could smell the talcum powder on his smooth skin.
«Here you are, a beautiful girl with nothing to fear from life, and you're afraid to look at me. Someone's been cruel to you. Or maybe life has been cruel.»
«I don't know, sir,» I said, though of course I knew very well why I was crying.
«None of us find as much kindness in the world as we should,» he told me. «Keep the handkerchief.»
I knew then that I would always keep the handkerchief and I would never forget him. I closed my eyes for a moment and when I opened them he was gone.
I ran to Shijo Avenue and all the way to the eastern end of Gion, where the Gion Shrine stood. I climbed the steps to the shrine and began to pray. With my eyes shut tight and the Chairman's handkerchief pressed to my face, I prayed that somehow I could become a geisha.
Pumpkin was still at geisha school. She was a slow learner. Every day she spent hours kneeling in the hall trying to learn to play her shamisen, one of the instruments that geisha play at parties. I walked past her because there was somebody at the door. We had a lot of visitors at the time. Mrs. Nitta's mother had just died, and people from all over Gion were coming to pay their respects. The visitor was the perfect geisha, Mameha.
I wasn't happy to see her because I wanted to forget the kimono incident, but then I remembered that Mameha hadn't actually seen me that night.
«What a beautiful girl,» Mameha said to me. «What unusual gray eyes. What's your name?»
The next day there was a maid among the visitors. After a second or two I recognized Asami, Mameha's maid. To my surprise, Asami didn't go into the okiya to see Mrs. Nitta; she spoke to me at the door.
«Do you ever go out of the okiya, Chiyo?» she asked.
«Yes, often,» I said. «Hatsumomo is always forgetting combs, or she wants a shamisen, and I bring these things to her at the teahouse. Or I go out and buy her food and beer.»
«Good,» said Asami. «Then meet me at the bridge over the Shirakawa Stream at three o'clock tomorrow.»
I couldn't understand why she wanted me to do this, but it wasn't difficult to leave the okiya; Mrs. Nitta hardly noticed me. So of course I went to the bridge the next day. Asami led me to Mameha's apartment, the one I'd visited at night with Hatsumomo and Korin two years before.
«Chiyo is here, ma'am,» the maid called out.
«All right, thank you, Asami,» called Mameha from a back room.
Mameha's apartment wasn't large, but it was extremely elegant, with beautiful tatami mats on the floor that were obviously new and had silk around the edges, not the usual cotton.
At last Mameha came out from the back room, dressed in a lovely white kimono with a water design. I turned and bowed very low on the mats while she walked gracefully to the table. She arranged herself on her knees opposite me, drank delicately from the tea the maid served, and then said:
«Hatsumomo has driven other attractive girls out of Gion.»
I felt strangely happy to hear that. I said, «I don't know what I did to make her hate me so much.»
«Hatsumomo and I have known each other since I was a girl of six and she was nine,» said Mameha. «She's no harder to understand than a cat. A cat that thinks another cat is eating from its dish...»
«But surely Hatsumomo doesn't see me as a rival, ma'am?»
«Not in the teahouses of Gion, maybe. But inside the okiya. You see, Mrs. Nitta never adopted Hatsumomo. If she had, Hatsumomo would be her daughter and Mrs. Nitta would keep all Hatsumomo's earnings. And Hatsumomo is a very successful geisha! Now, why would someone who's as interested in money as Mrs. Nitta not adopt Hatsumomo? There must be a very good reason, don't you think?»
This was all very new to me. I nodded and Mameha went on.
«Mrs. Nitta knows very well what sort of adopted daughter Hatsumomo would be. She would probably drive Mother out, or at least sell the okiya's collection of kimonos and retire. So Mrs. Nitta will never adopt her. But she might adopt you, Chiyo. She might adopt Pumpkin too, but I don't think Hatsumomo is worried about her.»
«No. Pumpkin… She finds the geisha training difficult.»
«I know. But you're not training at all, Chiyo. You can't become a geisha if you don't train.»
I looked down and didn't say anything.
«You're a beautiful girl, Chiyo. And you don t look to me like someone who wants to live her life as a maid,» said Mameha.
I said nothing. There was silence in the room for a moment. And then:
«You tried to run away, didn't you?»
With tears in my eyes, I told Mameha how I'd tried to escape along the rooftops.
«I'm sure you're an intelligent girl, Chiyo,» said Mameha. «But I don't think that was a very intelligent thing to do. People like you and me, who have water in our personalities, don't choose where we'll flow to.»
«Yes,» I said. «I'm like a river that's stopped flowing because Hatsumomo is in the way.»
«Yes, that's probably true,» said Mameha, looking at me calmly.
«But rivers can wash away anything in their path-in time.»
From the moment I arrived in Mameha's apartment, I wondered why she'd asked me to come. But now my eyes opened. Mameha and Hatsumomo obviously hated each other- that was clear from the kimono incident. But now Mameha knew there was a young girl at the okiya and saw a way of using me to get revenge on Hatsumomo. Maybe not just revenge; maybe she felt the time was right to be rid of Hatsumomo completely.
«Anyhow,» Mameha went on, «nothing will change until Mrs. Nitta lets you start training.»
«I don't have much hope of ever persuading her.»
«Then I will,» said Mameha.
Before I even had time to start feeling happy, Mameha was explaining her plan, beginning with the system of «Older Sister» and «Younger Sister,» as it was in those days in Gion.
As I now know, there's a ceremony like a wedding when a geisha takes a young girl as her Younger Sister. Then the geisha introduces the Younger Sister to the owners of all the important teahouses, the ones that have the best parties.
The Older Sister takes her Younger Sister with her to entertain. Of course few men pay high ohana fees to sit and talk to a fifteen-year-old, so the Older Sister and the owner of the teahouse talk to a man until he does.
Eventually, the man who once needed so much persuading may become the Younger Sister's danna, when she's old enough to become a geisha herself.
Hatsumomo had in fact been an Older Sister, and a good one, to one or two younger geisha. But she wouldn't be a good Older Sister to me, I was sure of that. Instead of taking me to the Mizuki Teahouse and introducing me there, she would, I was sure, introduce me to the Kamo River. And then push me in.
A few days after my visit to her apartment, Mameha went to see Mrs. Nitta. To my surprise, Mrs. Nitta sent for me.
«Now, Chiyo, you've been here in the okiya for a year...»
«Two years, ma'am.»
«In that time I've taken hardly any notice of you. And then today, along comes a geisha like Mameha to say she wants to be your Older Sister! How on earth am I to understand this?»
Much later, when I knew more about Mameha, I could understand just how surprised Mrs. Nitta was. Mameha, as I later learned, was one of the two or three best-known geisha in Japan. Her Older Sister, Mametsuki, had the Prime Minister of Japan as her danna, before World War I.
But as I saw it then, Mameha was more interested in harming Hatsumomo than helping me. That's how Hatsumomo saw it too, when Mrs. Nitta sent for her. Mameha, of course, had asked for a fee to be my Older Sister but that didn't fool Hatsumomo.
«Really, Mother...» Hatsumomo said to Mrs. Nitta. «Mameha doesn't need Chiyo to make money. Do you think it's an accident that she's chosen a girl who lives in the same okiya as I do? Mameha would probably be Older Sister to your little dog if she thought it would drive me out of Gion.»
«Really, Hatsumomo,» said Mrs. Nitta. «Why would she want to drive you out of Gion?»
«Because I'm more beautiful. Does she need a better reason? She wants to humble me by telling everyone, 'Oh please meet my new Younger Sister. She lives in the same okiya as Hatsumomo, but they've given her to me for training instead.'»
«I can't imagine Mameha behaving that way,» said Mrs. Nitta, quietly. «Hatsumomo, you, of course, will be Pumpkin's Older Sister,» she added.
«Of course,» said Hatsumomo. She spoke to Mameha for the first time, as Mameha looked calmly back at her. «If you think you can make Chiyo into a more successful geisha than Pumpkin, you can expect a big surprise.»
Mameha ignored her. «Will you arrange for Chiyo to start geisha training at school?» she said to Mrs. Nitta.
«Of course,» said Mrs. Nitta, bringing her account books. «I had no idea what a fine day this would be.»
And it was a fine day for Mrs. Nitta. Two famous geisha were fighting each other to increase the income of her two young girls. She needed to adopt one of the girls, so that the okiya continued when she died. She would choose the one who earned the most; all that girl's earnings would go to the okiya.
From Chiyo to Sayuri
Pumpkin had come to the Nitta okiya six months before I arrived. She was born in Sapporo. Her mother died when she was five and her father sent her to Kyoto to live with an uncle. Then the uncle lost his business and he sent Pumpkin to Mrs. Nitta.
Pumpkin was the kind of girl who could get fat quickly, if she had the chance. But they didn't give us much to eat at the okiya, just rice at most meals, with soup once a day and a little dried fish twice a month. Sometimes in the night I'd hear Pumpkin's stomach making noises from hunger.
On our first walk to geisha school together, she suddenly said, «Oh Chiyo-chan! Doesn't it make you hungry?»
We were passing a small Shinto shrine. Inside there were sweet-rice cakes on shelves, but Pumpkin didn't mean them. Outside the doorway, just on the edge of the street, there was a small piece of fish on the sidewalk. You could buy fish like that in the street; somebody had dropped the last piece. Two flies were walking around in circles on it.
«Pumpkin,» I said, «if you're hungry, take a sweet-rice cake from that shelf. Don't eat the fish, the flies have got it.»
«I'm bigger than they are,» said Pumpkin, and she bent down and picked up the fish.
«Pumpkin!» I cried out. «Why don't you eat the sidewalk?»
«OK,» she said, and she bent down and licked the sidewalk with her tongue.
When Pumpkin got to her feet again, she clearly couldn't believe what she'd done. But she put the dirty piece of fish in her mouth and chewed it all the way to the block where the school was.
I now know that only some of that block was the school itself. Part of it was actually the Kaburenjo Theater-where the geisha of Gion perform Dances of the Old Capital every spring.
I followed Pumpkin into a long wooden building next to the theater; this was the school. There was a smell of roasted tea leaves which even now makes my stomach turn over. Halfway down a hall was a big, traditional-style Japanese classroom. We put our names down for four classes that morning-shamisen, dance, tea ceremony, and a kind of singing we call nagauta.
Some people call a shamisen a Japanese guitar, but actually it's a lot smaller than a guitar. It has a thin wooden neck, and the entire instrument can be taken apart and put into a box or bag so you can carry it about.
Pumpkin tried to play shamisen before the class started, but even after more than two years, as I knew from listening to her practice, she wasn't very good at it. The room tilled with girls who began practicing shamisen.
Then the teacher came in. She was a tiny old woman with a high voice. Her name was Teacher Mizumi and this is what we called her to her face. But her name, Mizumi, sounds like nezumi — mouse; so behind her back we called her Teacher Mouse.
Pumpkin led me to the front of the room, where we bowed to Teacher Mouse.
«May I introduce Chiyo to you, Teacher,» Pumpkin said, «and ask you to teach her because she is a girl of very little talent.»
Pumpkin wasn't being rude; this was just the way people spoke back then, when they wanted to be polite. My own mother would have said it the same way. Teacher Mouse looked at me and then said, «You're a smart girl. I can see it just from looking at you. Maybe you can help your sister with her lessons.»
Of course she was talking about Pumpkin.
Then we went back to our places, and Teacher Mouse called a girl to the front of the room. After bowing to the teacher, the girl began to play. In a minute or two Teacher Mouse told her to stop and said all sorts of unpleasant things about her playing; then she shut her fan and waved it at the girl to send her to the back of the room.
This continued for more than an hour, then it was Pumpkin's turn. I could see she was nervous and she played badly, even for her. Nobody could tell what tune she was trying to play.
Teacher Mouse banged the table and told her to stop. She hit her fan on the table to give Pumpkin the tune. She put Pumpkin's fingers in the right place on the shamisen-but nothing helped. She sent Pumpkin away to the back of the class and Pumpkin walked slowly, with tears in her eyes.
I was pleased that Pumpkin's other classes weren't as painful to watch as the first one had been. In the dance class, for example, the students practiced the moves together, with the result that no one looked too bad. And Pumpkin wasn't the worst dancer in the group. The singing class, later in the morning, was more difficult for her because she couldn't hear a tune. But there again, the students practiced together, so Pumpkin was able to hide her mistakes by moving her mouth a lot and singing quietly.
After I'd been going to these lessons for some time, I started learning to play a small drum we call a tsutsumi. At parties at teahouses, geisha sing with a shamisen only. But when they perform at the theater, for example in Dances of the Old Capital every spring, six or more shamisen players play together with drums and other instruments. Geisha learn to play all these instruments.
Most of the time, except for Teacher Mouse, the teachers played the tune first and then we all tried to play it back. And then the teacher would call out from the front things like, «The girl at the back, you must keep your finger down, not up in the air.»
In all the lessons you were corrected if you spoke in anything except a Kyoto accent, or if you walked badly or sat or knelt badly.
The last lesson every morning was tea ceremony. Geisha are trained to prepare tea for guests in the traditional way and to pour the tea into beautiful cups. Even the guests must hold the cups in a special way, so it's a little like a dance, danced while kneeling.
All these skills needed practice, but of course in the afternoon I still had to clean the okiya, which Pumpkin didn't.
In the beginning Pumpkin and I practiced shamisen together every afternoon. We had great fun together; it was the time of day I looked forward to most.
Then one afternoon, while Pumpkin was teaching me a tune, Hatsumomo came into our room. We didn't even know she was in the okiya.
«Oh, look, it's Mameha's future Little Sister!» she said to me. «I thought you were stupid, Little Fish Girl, but Pumpkin here is even more stupid.»
Poor Pumpkin put her shamisen down like a dog putting its tail between its legs. «Have I done something wrong?» she asked.
Hatsumomo pulled Pumpkin's lip so hard she screamed.
«Now I know,» said Hatsumomo, still pulling the lip, «that they call you Pumpkin because your head really is full of pumpkin. Now put your shamisen away and go to my room.»
Pumpkin started to take her shamisen apart; her lip was bleeding. Hatsumomo turned to me. «You'll have to find yourself another little friend,» she said. «After Pumpkin and I have had our talk, she won't speak to you again. Will you, Pumpkin?» Pumpkin nodded; she had no choice, but I could see how sorry she felt. We never practiced shamisen together again.
I told Mameha what had happened the next time I went to see her at her apartment.
«If Pumpkin isn't allowed to speak to you, then you mustn't speak to her either,» said Mameha. «You'll only get her into trouble, and she'll have to tell Hatsumomo what you say. You may have trusted the poor girl in the past, but you mustn't any longer.»
I felt so sad at this. I blew on my tea and started to drink. «Really, Chiyo, you must stop blowing on your tea in that way,» said Mameha. «You look like a peasant! Leave it on the table until it's cool enough to drink.»
«I'm sorry,» I said. «I didn't know I was doing it.»
Mameha asked me to pour her a cup of tea. The pot was empty, but she asked me to do it anyway.
«No!» said Mameha, when I'd poured as elegantly as I could. «You have a lovely arm, and beautiful skin. You should make sure every man who sits near you sees it at least once. Why do you think the sleeves on kimonos are so big? It's so that men can see our arms when we pour tea. Now do it again.»
I imagined myself inside a teahouse, sliding open the door of a tatami room. The men turned their heads to look at me, and I saw the Chairman there among them. I smelled his talcum powder. In his smooth fingers he held a teacup. I poured the tea for him, showing him my arm, and felt his eyes on me as I did it.
«That's better,» said Mameha.
Some people say that when a young girl has finished her training and she's ready to become a novice geisha, she's like a bird that's ready to leave the nest. I don't agree at all! A bird only has to grow big enough and then fly. I worked for two hard years at shamisen, singing, tea ceremony, and many other skills. I learned to speak in a Kyoto accent and not to behave like a peasant. But finally, one day, the time of the ceremony to make me a novice geisha was at last near.
The first step was to have my hair done the way all novice geisha wore it. Gion had quite a lot of hairdressers in those days; Mameha's worked in a room above a fish restaurant. I had to spend nearly two hours waiting for my turn and I'm sorry to say that the smell of dirty hair in there was terrible. The hairstyles that geisha wore in those days were so complicated and expensive that nobody went to the hairdresser more than once a week.
When my turn came at last, the hairdresser put me over a large sink in a position that made me think he wanted to cut my head off. Then he poured a bucket of warm water over my hair and began to wash it by rubbing soap hard into my head. I was almost in tears from the pain.
«Cry if you have to,» said the hairdresser. «Why do you think I put you over a sink?»
He thought that was a joke, but I didn't think it was funny. I was in there for two hours, but my problems with my hair were just beginning. If a novice geisha goes to sleep on a pillow after she has had her hair done, it will spoil it and she will have to go back to the hairdresser again the next day.
So novices sleep on a special pillow called a takamakura. You don't put your hair or your head on this takamakura. You put your neck on it and then go to sleep without moving.
And then there's the kimono. In the beginning I could hardly walk at all in the special kimono that novices wore. I was worried that I might fall over. Young girls wear a very long obi — the wide belt around the kimono. It's longer than the obi that older women wear. The obi is very heavy and so long that it will go from one end of a room to the other. The kimono itself is also very heavy, with long sleeves.
And the colors on a novice's kimono… Years later I met a famous scientist from Kyoto University. He'd been to Africa and seen all the brightly colored monkeys; the most colorful animals in the world. But he said that a novice geisha from Gion in kimono was brighter than any of them.
One sunny October afternoon I was wearing my novice's kimono and had my hair in novice style, when Mameha and I left Mameha's apartment and walked along the Shirakawa. We were watching the leaves of the cherry trees float down to the water. Many people were out walking there and all of them bowed to Mameha. In many cases they also bowed to me. I wondered if the Chairman would think I looked beautiful. I found myself looking out for him in the street, as I often did.
«After two years of training you're getting rather well-known, don't you think?» said Mameha. «People are always asking me about the girl with the lovely gray eyes. You won't be called Chiyo much longer.»
«Does Mameha-san mean to say...»
«You're going to make a fine geisha,» said Mameha, «but you 11 make an even better one if you think about what you are saying with your eyes.»
«I didn't know I was saying anything with them,» I said.
«A woman can say more with her eyes than with any other part of her body,» said Mameha, «especially in your case. So I think we can say that you are ready to start as a geisha as soon as you can make a man faint with your eyes.»
«Mameha-san!» I said. «If I could do that, I'm sure I would know about it by now.»
But I wanted to be a geisha so much that I would have tried to make a tree faint if Mameha had told me to. The first man we saw was so old, though, that he looked like a kimono full of bones. He didn't notice me at all, so we turned into Shijo Avenue.
There was a delivery boy carrying some lunch boxes.
«Make him drop his boxes,» said Mameha, and she crossed the street and disappeared.
I didn't think it was possible for a girl of sixteen to make a young man drop something just by looking at him; maybe these things happened in movies and books. But I noticed that the young man was already looking at me the way a hungry cat looks at a mouse. And I also noticed that although most of the streets in Gion didn't have a curb, this one did.
I looked up at him, smiled, then looked down again. After a few more steps I did the same thing again. When we were close, I moved into his path and looked him right in the eye. He tried to move out of my way, but his feet hit the curb and he went down. Well, I couldn't help laughing! And I'm happy to say the young man began to laugh too. I helped him pick up his boxes, gave him a little smile before he bowed to me more deeply than any man had ever bowed before, and then he went on his way.
The ceremony took place at the Ichiriki Teahouse, which is certainly the best-known teahouse in all of Japan. You can't see most teahouses from the street, but the Ichiriki, on Shijo Avenue, is as obvious as a palace-which is what it looked like to me.
Two of Mameha s Younger Sisters and Mrs. Nitta came to the ceremony, which lasted about ten minutes. Mameha and I drank sake together. I drank three times and then passed her the cup and she drank three times. We did this with three different cups and then it finished.
From that moment, I was no longer known as Chiyo. I was the novice geisha Sayuri.
The Novice Geisha
The 1930s was the time of the Depression, so there were fewer formal parties for me to go to than Mameha would have liked. But we went to small parties and not only at the teahouses. We went to swimming parties on the river, we went to sightseeing parties and kabuki plays.
At some of the parties there were writers and kabuki actors. But I'm sorry to say that the usual geisha party was more boring. The party was often given by a small company for another small company they did business with. The conversation usually wasn't very intelligent. A man might turn to the geisha beside him and say, «The weather certainly is unusually warm, don't you think?» And the geisha would reply with something like, «Oh, yes, very warm.»
After the conversation there would usually be a drinking game, or the geisha would try to get all the men singing. Sometimes the geisha played children's games with the businessmen, to keep them happy.
The formal parties were the worst. There was one at Kansai International Hotel. Guests sat shoulder to shoulder in a U-shape around the outside of a big room with tatami mats on the floor. The geisha had to move inside the U-shape, kneeling in front of each guest long enough to pour sake and chat. It wasn't exactly exciting, and it was even less exciting for a novice like me than for Mameha. Whenever Mameha introduced herself to a guest I did the same, bowing very low and saying, «My name is Sayuri; I'm a novice.» After that I said nothing and no one said anything to me.
Because I was a novice, I was not supposed to drink sake- novices should seem childlike. But sometimes the men poured a drink and made me drink it. On those occasions Mameha always rescued me, saying, «It's your first day in Gion, Sayuri. You can't get drunk. Just wet your lips.» And I would «drink» the sake with my lips closed.
It was just after one of these occasions-I remember the man who wanted me to drink sake had very bad skin-that Hatsumomo and Pumpkin first started following us. We were at the Komoriya Teahouse. I'd just dried my lips from the sake when I saw Hatsumomo smiling at me from the other side of the table. Mameha saw the fear in my face and we left.
That victory for Hatsumomo was quickly followed by many others. We went to a party at Kyoto University. Hatsumomo and Pumpkin appeared ten minutes after we'd arrived.
«Really, I don't think there's anything more difficult than being a novice,» Hatsumomo said to the man who was talking to me. «Don't you think so, Sayuri?»
Hatsumomo had two reasons for making this «innocent» remark. First, the man I was talking to forgot all about me and had eyes only for Hatsumomo. Secondly, it was meant to remind us that Pumpkin was no longer a novice. She'd moved to the next stage in becoming a geisha apprentice; she was going to a lot of parties, and she was earning a lot more in ohana fees than me.
I couldn't think of a smart reply to Hatsumomo, but luckily Mameha spoke for me:
«You're certainly right about the novice time being a difficult time of life for you, Hatsumomo-san. Though, of course, you were more awkward than most.»
Hatsumomo just smiled. Men don't come to parties to listen to geisha arguing, so, again, we left the party.
Mameha began to take me to parties that she thought Hatsumomo wouldn't know about, but Hatsumomo and Pumpkin always appeared just a few minutes after we arrived.
I knew that Mameha was also worried that Hatsumomo was telling stories, lies, about me. It seems that she'd driven rivals out of Gion before by doing this.
Things were bad but they soon got worse. Mameha and I had just made ourselves look rude by leaving a party shortly after we arrived, to get away from Hatsumomo and Pumpkin, when Mameha pulled me into an empty room and held me by the wrist.
«Did you tell that terrible woman where we would be tonight?» she asked.
«No, Mameha-san. I didn't know myself where we were going until I got to your apartment.»
«Yes… Yes, of course. Then how does she...? Is it my maid? But no Asami wouldn't… Come on!»
«Where are we going?»
«Naga Teruomi just arrived in town from Tokyo. Do you know him? He's one of Tokyo's best young musicians. Anyway, he's giving a very small party this evening. We'll be safe there; hardly anybody knows he's even in Kyoto.»
The party was at a very small teahouse near the Gion shrine, in east Gion. Ten minutes after we arrived, Hatsumomo and Pumpkin came in. Hatsumomo quickly got everybody's attention and continued her conversation from the last party.
«I was just saying how difficult it is to be a novice,» Hatsumomo told the entire party; everybody was listening to her. «I'll tell you a story about a novice… Oh no, I can't-there's one here, at this party.»
This, of course, was me.
«I want to hear this story,» said one of the men, just as Hatsumomo knew he would.
«Oh very well. But I'll tell it to you only if you all promise that you won't think of this poor girl here as you listen. Picture some other girl in your mind.»
Hatsumomo really was a devil. The men might not have pictured the story happening to me earlier, but they certainly would now.
«Let me see, where was I?» Hatsumomo began. «Oh yes. Well, this novice I mentioned… I can't remember her name, but I ought to give her one or you will confuse her with this girl here. Tell me, little novice… what's your name?»
Sayuri, ma'am," I said, my face hot with nervousness. Everybody at the party looked at me and then looked back to Hatsumomo.
«Sayuri! How lovely! Somehow it doesn't suit you. Well, let's call this novice in the story 'Mayuri.' Oh yes, I remember now, Mayuri had funny-colored eyes. Some people thought they were the color of dead worms.»
I glanced at Mameha, but I could see there was nothing she could do. Hatsumomo, smiling, continued:
Anyway, this novice became an apprentice and then a geisha very quickly, and one day it was time for her mizuage."
Some of the men at the party, drunk on sake, laughed at this. A geisha's mizuage was taken the first time she spent a night with a man. Some men paid a high fee to be the first with a geisha.
Hatsumomo looked lovelier than ever as she continued her devilish story: «Well, after the mizuage, and this is the first time this has ever happened in Gion, the man who had thought himself so lucky at first, asked for his money back. Do you know why?»
There was a roar of laughter. Of course the drunken men had several suggestions, some ruder than others. Some of them glanced at me as they spoke.
Hatsumomo was laughing too. «No, really, this is serious. It seems that her whole body...» And here Hatsumomo waved her delicate hands to show the line of my body. «Her whole body… was the body of an old woman. Her face was still sixteen or seventeen but underneath, below the neck, well her...»
Hatsumomo was now looking at me directly as she began to describe my body as that of an old woman. Mameha led me from the room, without stopping to say good-bye to Naga Teruomi.
Mameha and I went down the steps of the teahouse. On the bottom step she stopped and waited. At last a young maid came to see us out-the same maid who had shown us up the stairs earlier.
«What a difficult life you must have as a maid!» Mameha said to her. «Probably you want so many things and have so little money to spend. Tell me, what will you do with the money you have just earned?»
«I haven't earned any money, ma'am,» she said, but I could see she was lying.
«How much money did Hatsumomo promise you?»
The maid looked at the floor. It wasn't until this moment that I understood what Mameha was thinking. As we learned some time afterward, Hatsumomo had paid at least one maid in every first-class teahouse in Gion to telephone the Nitta okiya as soon as they saw Mameha and me.
Out in the street Mameha said, «I'm trying to think where we can go, but… I can't think of a single place. If that woman has found us here, she can find us anywhere in Gion. I think you should go back to your okiya, Sayuri, and stay there until I can think of a plan.»
I ought to have been attending formal parties every night, and ten or fifteen informal parties too, but instead I stayed in the okiya practicing shamisen and dance. My income from party fees was now zero.
In the next few days I went to Mameha's apartment several times, each time hoping that she had thought of a plan, but she hadn't.
«I'm sorry, but you must stay in the okiya for a little longer,» she said. «I'm more determined than ever to destroy that evil woman, but until I've thought of a plan it will do you no good at all to follow me around Gion.»
Of course I was disappointed to hear it, but Mameha was quite right. Another evening like Naga Teruomi's party would do me more harm than good as a geisha.
Happily, Mameha could still take me with her to entertain outside Gion, where Hatsumomo couldn't pay maids to tell her where we were. I went to Kobe when Mameha opened a new factory. Another time I went with Mameha and the president of the Nippon Telephone Company on a tour of Kyoto in a luxury car. This was the first time I saw how poor some people were in the Depression. We drove along the river, south of the city, and I saw dirty women feeding their babies under the trees and men with no shoes and no hope drinking next to them. I realized that even with Hatsumomo and her cruelty to me, I had a relatively fortunate life during the Depression.
One day Mameha and I were walking across Shijo Avenue Bridge when it was clear to me from her face that something was wrong.
«What is it Mameha-san?» I asked.
«Well, I'll tell you because you'll only hear it from someone else,» she said. «Your little friend Pumpkin has won the apprentice's prize this year. She earned more money from ohana than any other apprentice geisha in Gion.»
«But… but how?» I said.
Mameha sighed. «In Gion,» she began, «a very popular geisha can always make sure her Younger Sister earns more than anyone else if she doesn't mind damaging her own reputation.»
Mameha explained that apprentices like Pumpkin were expected to attend about five parties an evening and build relationships. Instead of this, Hatsumomo was taking Pumpkin with her everywhere, to as many as twenty parties a night. The men were paying two lots of ohana charges for a geisha and an apprentice who were spending very little time at the party. In the end both Hatsumomo's and Pumpkin's reputations would suffer. But before that Hatsumomo would have got what she wanted.
«Hatsumomo wants Pumpkin to look good so Mrs. Nitta will adopt her,» Mameha finished up. «If Pumpkin is made daughter of the okiya, Hatsumomo is safe. As Pumpkin's Older Sister, Mrs. Nitta won't throw her out. Do you understand what I'm saying, Sayuri? If Pumpkin is adopted, you'll never be free of Hatsumomo, and it's possible that you'll be the one they throw out.»
A few days after our conversation, Pumpkin told me that Mrs. Nitta was going to adopt her. It was definite.
«We still have a few weeks before Mrs. Nitta adopts Pumpkin,» said Mameha. «We are going to have to take action, and quickly.»
I nodded unhappily, not knowing what action we could take; but it seemed that at last Mameha had a plan.
«Do you know about mizuage?» Mameha asked me.
The question reminded me of Hatsumomo's terrible story, so I looked down and said nothing.
Mameha looked at me kindly. «The word mizu means 'water' and age means 'raise up.'»
Mameha then told me what happens when a man spends the night with a woman. She said that some men would pay a lot to be the first one to spend the night with a geisha-the mizuage night. Mameha planned to introduce me to two men who she hoped would bid against each other for my mizuage.
«And then one of them would become my danna?» I asked. I can't say I felt very enthusiastic about that. When I thought about things like that, I always thought about the Chairman. I thought about him all the time anyway.
«Not necessarily,» said Mameha. «For some men the mizuage is enough. Other men will be a geisha's danna only after her mizuage.»
«So the Baron...» I said, but then I stopped because of the look on Mameha's face.
Baron Matsunaga Tsuneyoshi was Mameha's danna. He paid for Mameha's lovely apartment, where we were having this conversation. Before World War II there were quite a few barons in Japan but Matsunaga Tsuneyoshi was one of the richest of them. He lived in Tokyo, where his family contr