E73C The Road to being Geisha
Show Notes for episode 73C of our Podcast – The Road to being Geisha.
When life began as a maiko all of Mineko’s time disappeared. Her schedule seemed a little grueling. And don’t forget she is only 15 still at this time. Her days would begin at 6 in the morning and not finish until 2 or 3 am. There were times she would even fall asleep with her eyes open whilst standing, taking naps whenever she could, wherever she could.
Confined to the local area for her job, she learned of the outside world from those she went to entertain. She would get to know entire families as people would use the ochiya as a place for family reunions or places to celebrate the birth of a new grandchild. Mineko said many Geisha and maiko would often fight playfully over who would get to hold the babies.
During her time she came into contact with Dr. Tetsuzo Tanigawa, a man known for his distinguished philosophy at the time. She found him fascinating, and found she could ask him many questions that he would attentively listen to an answer with happiness. That night she even cancelled all her other appointments (feigning illness) to stay longer with him so they could talk. From then on, whenever he came to Gion she gave all her time to being with him so they could talk.
One conversation involved art, Mineko asking how one should look at a piece of art, as she herself wanted to recognize beauty in all artforms.
His answers was simple, but meaningful, with him saying ‘you have only to see what you see and feel what you feel.’
Of course, not all encounters went well. One time, she entered into an appointment to find a very drunk geiko already there. She dug into Mineko in front of the patrons, asking her with her Older Sister Yaeko was so bad. And that Mineko better not turn out like her. Patrons even came to Mineko’s defense, until eventually the drunken geiko was taken out. But before she did, she stated she was smoking. Mineko deferring to her said she would get her an ashtray but she was stopped. The geiko grabbed her hand and put the cigarette out in her hand. She had to ice it and bandage it later.
Her busy schedule continued and eventually her body came down with appendicitis and she had to have an operation to have it removed. Time was then spent being sent bouquet upon bouquet of flowers until she couldn’t bear the smell anymore. And so mange was sent instead as a get well wish.
Jealousy is a disease. And it was one that filled many others in Gion, as they saw Mineko rising to be the most popular of all the girls at the time. One group convinced a patron to push Mineko over and drag her around a room whilst they group of girls laughed at her. So enraged Mineko went to the kitchen, came back with a knife and held it to the patrons throat, chastising her, telling him how he has ruined her honor and pride. Other times people would call the okiya where she lived and redirect her appointments, other would put pins in the hems of her kimono. People would steal her fans, her accessories.
But there was a light, the other geiko, those already successful in their career gave her the kindness she deserved. They loved how popular she was, and for the whole 5 years as a maiko she ranked first almost every week in popularity. So popular she could only stay for five minutes sometimes at some appointments before having to go to the next. The patron, however, was billed for the full hour. So popular she was, her schedule was full for a year and a half. She worked solid for five years, with never a day off.
Mineko was very clever in forming a plan to change the jealously and hate others had for her. She would start asking around for certain other maiko to help her with her appointments. Giving these girl extra time to be seen by patrons, and also allowing them to earn more money. Slowly their hatred changed, but of course such a tactic could only last as long as she remained number one. This worked for the girls.
But men were a differing matter. Let’s look at one incident.
It was the 5th of January, Mineko had bought an arrow from a Shrine, a talisman to ward of evil spirits. A man came and just started to fondle her, and so she grabbed him tightly, slamming the arrow into his hand. He tried to get away but she held on tight, giving him an ultimatum.
Either swear to never do this again to anyone, looking at the scar which would now form as a reminder of his promise. Or the two of them could go to the police station. He agreed to never touch anyone like this again and ran off.
Her dance teacher tested her one day, in a way to make her realize she should never stop dancing. She loved it too much after all and now found herself even more motivated. This made her sleep even less at night, sometimes for only one hour. She positioned all the mirrors she could find in her room, so she could see every move she made, to be able to make them as good as she possibly could.
Time passed and we find ourselves in October 1967, it was the time for Mineko’s mizuage the time to denote her transitions from childhood to womanhood. This involved a change in hair style, and would happen five times in total. By now Mineko was 17.
In 1969 Mineko was to undergo the erikae ceremony. This is a change of collar colour from red to white, to show they are transitioning to being a geiko. But the powers at be asked everyone to wait an extra year as the World Expo was coming to Osaka. And it was during this time in 1970 she met Prince Charles. He asked Mineko for her fan, and signed it with his name. An act Mineko says in her autobiography which was quite rude. She told him to keep the fan, as a gift from her. But he seemed confused, in the end she took it back saying she would dispose of it as she could not take something with another patrons name of to another appointment. It had been a fan she had loved, and she felt that he had defaced it by signing it without even asking her.
Mineko was overworking herself too much, her tonsils became infected which was leading to her left kidney failing. Her tonsils were taken out and she used pads of paper to communicate. During this time she received out of season flowers when she was healing at home.
But she feared her feelings, as if the attempted rape made all those years ago was keeping her from feeling how she truly felt about the one who sent the flowers.
The man’s stage name was Shintaro Katsu and they had met when she was 15. His real name was Toshio, and he was the biggest movie star in Japan at the time. She didn’t like him at first, she thought him unsavory.
But she found out he could play the shamisen and things changed, Mineko saying she would only come to his appointments if he played. And he did.
When he was 18 he kissed her, but he was repentant after Mineko chastised him.
They repaired the relationship,
Eventually Toshio said to play the shamisen as she asked, could she put on finger on his knee. Eventually, it became, three, then, five, then the whole hand.
Eventually he confessed his love for her, even though he was married.
She said she did not feel the same way.
He said he would divorce as they did not love one another.
She said she didn’t not want that to happen.
Either way Toshio said he would keep trying to gained her love.
She set him a task, to show he was serious about it.
As Ono no Komachi once tasked Officer Fukasuka to visit her for one hundred night. She said he had to visit her okiya every night for 3 years to show his seriousness.
And he did. Over these three years, she did grow feeling for him, which leads us full circle to the flowers sent whilst she was ill . He couldn’t visit her in person as part of these three years. The flowers were his way to still visit her. Mineko had agreed to introduce Mama Masako to him. That night, Mineko was a nervous wreck, blushing and shaking the whole time. Seeing someone as her boyfriend had her shaken.
A year after the expo October 1st came around and it was time for the erikae and she finally became a geiko. Now an adult she decided she wanted to live alone and so paying people to decorate a place for her she moved in. Of course, she had never lived alone before, and after inviting a friend round for tea was confused when the stove wouldn’t light. She had never done it before and her friend showed her how to do it. Mineko notes in her autobiography it felt like magic. She ordered rice and was shocked it wasn’t put in her rice container, not realising after it was delivered she had to do it. When she went grocery shopping she paid and left, the owner running after her to give her change. She was learning a lot about the real world now. When she was in the okiya she never handled money, and she didn’t have any concept of how much things cost.
But after all of this, the three years Toshio had had to visit her was up, and he asked to meet her. Together they decided they should arrange to be together and so getting permission to Mama Masako, and with Toshio agreeing to divorce his wife they receive her blessing. That night they stayed together.
Now as a geiko she has a little more time, and so when Toshiop was in brazil on business she met him in America. Once alone Toshio broke down, saying his wife refused to divorce him, and so they continued their relationship in secret to all but their closest friends. Eventually in June 1972 she moved back into the okiya to give herself more time to dance. And she was there for the last few months of Big John’s life. The dog passing away 6th October 1972.
In May 6th 1973 she went home, the third time she had done so since her career began. Her father was dying and he was so proud of everything she had done. He gifted to her a shibori obi, one that he had made himself. She was to give it to her husband one day and she promised to do so. Her father died 3 days later aged 76.
Later that year she was announced as a master dancer at the school she had dance for all those years.
In May 1975 Queen Elizabeth II visited with the Duke of Edinburgh. Mineko was sat next to the Queen and though she tried to engage conversation the Queen never spoke back. The Queen didn’t even touched the food she was given, with Mineko thought was absolutely rude and she could not understand why she would do that. The Duke however gave her permission to talk to him directly, though people called Mineko the next day to see what she had said to the Duke that day. Apparently he and the Queen had slept in separate beds that night much to the confusion and stress to the security detail.
For years she thought Toshio would divorce he did not. March 1976 was the final straw. She was to meet him in Tokyo, but after he called that a meeting was running over she met with a friend to go out to Roppongi. Returning to the hotel, she was take to a different floor to where she had first gone, the first time being the room she was to stay with Toshio. Strangly everything of hers was in the exact same spot they had been in in the other room. It didn’t make sense. And so she asked a bellboy later she had forgotten her room key, and so tricked him into letting her into the room she had originally been in. As it tutnredd out Toshios wife was also there, and he had had Mineko moved out so his wife didn’t get wind of her being there. He has lied to Mineko about the situation, and so it was over for her.
But now Mineko was growing tired, she could see this Geisha world was not something which wanted to change with the times. Girls still did not get a full education, they never earnt enough to independent on their own. And so as more girls came to her, asking to be her Younger Sisters she turned them away causing the okiya to start to loose money. She had ideas to improve this, to reovate the building. But as it turned out they didn’t own it, and when she tried to get a loan to buy it should found out because the building was so old it couldn’t be reovated. And so she opened a nightclub called Hollyhock.
It was a means to an end, she wanted to try and get a four story building, a club on the first floor, a beauty treatment and hair dressers on the second, the thrid for living, the fourth for tenants. It should have been enough to live off. All that left was to find new home for the geiko in their house. To find them a way to carry on.
But her retirement was decided when Mama Sakaguchi passed away. Mineko says it was like a light went out in Gion, and she couldn’t continue now. She passed away March 18th 1980. And so Mineko announced her retirement for July 25th a few months after her passing. 70 other geiko left after her retirement. And sadly, as with most things in Japan, the system didn’t improve or change for those that remained.
Mama Masako agreed for the okiya to be demolished and in its stead they built a three story building. On the ground floor was the New Hollyhock club, on the third floor they lived, with plans to make the second into the beauty centre Mineko envisioned.
To end out story here, Mineko needed a hairdresser for her shop, and was introduced to one in Tokyo. But here she met Junichiro, an artist, and he instantly fell for her. They married 23 days later. And she could finally give the shibori obi, her father had made and gifted to her to her husband.
Mineko sold her building, Junichiro was a budding artist and so her left took a new direction. Her mother died in 1987. Mineko had a beautiful daughter called Kosuke. Sour Puss passed away in 1996 and Mama Masako followed her in 1998.
Yaeko retired, giving her money to her son Mamoru to build her a home. But he spent it all. When she moved in with him, she lived in a room the size of a cupboard and her daughter-in-law finally kicked her out. And Yaeko also sadly developed Alzeihmers Syndrome. Mineko isn’t even sure where she is living now.
Header Image: Geisha from pixabay.
- Iwasaki, M. (2002) “Geisha of Gion: The True Story of Japan’s Foremost Geisha.” London: Simon & Schuster Ltd.
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