Memoirs of a Geisha Part 3

Chapter five
That afternoon Hatsumomo took me to the Gion Registry Office. I was expecting something very grand, but it turned out to be nothing more than several dark tatami rooms on the second floor of the school building, filled with desks and accounting books and smelling terribly of cigarettes. A clerk looked up at us through the haze of smoke and nodded us into the back room. There at a table piled with papers sat the biggest man I'd ever seen in my life. I didn't
know it at the time, but he'd once been a sumo wrestler; and really, if he'd gone outside and slammed his weight into the building itself, all those desks would probably have fallen off the tatami platform onto the floor. He hadn't been a good enough sumo wrestler to take aretirement name, as some of them do; but he still liked to be called by the name he'd used in
his wrestling days, which was Awajiumi. Some of the geisha shortened this playfully to Awaji,
as a nickname.
As soon as we walked in, Hatsumomo turned on her charm. It was the first time I'd ever seen
her do it. She said to him, "Awaji-san!" but the way she spoke, I wouldn't have been surprised if
she had run out of breath in the middle, because it sounded like this: 'Awaaa-jiisaaaannnnnnnn!"
It was as if she were scolding him. He put down his pen when he heard her voice, and his two
big cheeks shifted up toward his ears, which was his way of smiling.
"Mmm . . . Hatsumomo-san," he said, "if you get any prettier, I don't know what I'm going to
It sounded like a loud whisper when he spoke, because sumo wrestlers often ruin their voice
boxes, smashing into one another's throats the way they do.
He may have been the size of a hippopotamus, but Awajiumi was a very elegant dresser. He
wore a pin-striped kimono and kimono trousers. His job was to make certain that all the money
passing through Gion flowed where it was supposed to; and a trickle from that river of cash
flowed directly into his pocket. That isn't to say that he was stealing; it was just the way the
system worked. Considering that Awajiumi had such an important job, it was to every geisha's
advantage to keep him happy, which was why he had a reputation for spending as much time
out of his elegant clothes as in them.
She and Awajiumi talked for a long time, and finally Hatsumomo told him she'd come to
register me for lessons at the school. Awajiumi hadn't really looked at me yet, but here he
turned his giant head. After a moment he got up to slide open one of the paper screens over
the window for more light.
"Why, I thought my eyes had fooled me," he said. "You should have told me sooner what a
pretty girl you brought with you. Her eyes . . . they're the color of a mirror!"
"A mirror?" Hatsumomo said. "A mirror has no color, Awaji-san."
"Of course it does. It's a sparkly gray. When you look at a mirror, all you see is yourself, but I
know a pretty color when I find it."
"Do you? Well, it isn't so pretty to me. I once saw a dead mar fished out of the river, and his
tongue was just the same color as heij eyes."
"Maybe you're just too pretty yourself to be able to see it elsej where," Awajiumi said, opening
an account book and picking up his pen. "Anyway, let's register the girl. Now . . . Chiyo, is it?
Tell me youij full name, Chiyo, and your place of birth."

The moment I heard these words, I had an image in my mind ofj Satsu staring up at Awajiumi,
full of confusion and fear. She must have been in this same room at some time or other; if I
had to register, surel} she'd had to register too.
"Sakamoto is my last name," I said. "I was born in the town of! Yoroido. You may have heard of
it, sir, because of my older sister! Satsu?"
I thought Hatsumomo would be furious with me; but to my surprise she seemed almost pleased
about the question I'd asked.
"If she's older than you, she'd have registered already," Awajiumi said. "But I haven't come
across her. I don't think she's in Gion at all."
Now Hatsumomo's smile made sense to me; she'd known in advance what Awajiumi would say.
If I'd felt any doubts whether she really had spoken to my sister as she claimed, I felt them no
longer. There were other geisha districts in Kyoto, though I didn't know much about them.
Satsu was somewhere in one of them, and I was determined to find her.
When I returned to the okiya, Auntie was waiting to take me to the bathhouse down the street.
I'd been there before, though only with the elderly maids, who usually handed me a small
towel and a scrap of soap and then squatted on the tile floor to wash themselves while I did
the same. Auntie was much kinder, and knelt over me to scrub my back. I was surprised that
she had no modesty whatever, and slung her tube-shaped breasts around as if they were
nothing more than bottles. She even whacked me on the shoulder with one several times by
Afterward she took me back to the okiya and dressed me in the first silk kimono I'd ever worn,
a brilliant blue with green grasses all around the hem and bright yellow flowers across the
sleeves and chest. Then she led me up the stairs to Hatsumomo's room. Before going in, she
gave me a stern warning not to distract Hatsumomo in any way, or do anything that might
make her angry. I didn't understand it at the time, but now I know perfectly well why she was
so concerned. Because, you see, when a geisha wakes up in the morning she is just like any
other woman. Her face may be greasy from sleep, and her breath unpleasant. It may be true
that she wears a startling hairstyle even as she struggles to open her eyes; but in every other
respect she's a woman like any other, and not a geisha at all. Only when she sits before her
mirror to apply her makeup with care does she become a geisha. And I don't mean that this is
when she begins to look like one. This is when she begins to think like one too.
In the room, I was instructed to sit about an arm's length to the side of Hatsumomo and just
behind her, where I could see her face in the tiny dressing mirror on her makeup stand. She
was kneeling on a cushion, wearing a cotton robe that clung to her shoulders, and gathering in
her hands a half dozen makeup brushes in various shapes. Some of them were broad like fans,
while others looked like a chopstick with a dot of soft hair at the end. Finally she turned and
showed them to me.
"These are my brushes," she said. "And do you remember this?" She took from the drawer of her
makeup stand a glass container of stark white makeup and waved it around in the air for me to
see. "This is the makeup I told you never to touch."
"I haven't touched it," I said.
She sniffed the closed jar several times and said, "No, I don't think you have." Then she put the
makeup down and took up three pigment sticks, which she held out for me in the palm of her

"These are for shading. You may look at them."
I took one of the pigment sticks from her. It was about the size of a baby's finger, but hard and
smooth as stone, so that it left no trace of color on my skin. One end was wrapped in delicate
silver foil that was flecking away from the pressure of use.
Hatsumomo took the pigment sticks back and held out what looked to me like a twig of wood
burned at one end.
"This is a nice dry piece of paulownia wood," she said, "for drawing my eyebrows. And this is
wax." She took two half-used bars of wax from their paper wrapping and held them out for me
to see.
"Now why do you suppose I've shown you these things?"
"So I'll understand how you put on your makeup," I said.
"Heavens, no! I've shown them to you so you'll see there isn't any magic involved. What a pity
for you! Because it means that makeup alone won't be enough to change poor Chiyo into
something beautiful."
Hatsumomo turned back to face the mirror and sang quietly to herself as she opened a jar of
pale yellow cream. You may not believe me when I tell you that this cream was made from
nightingale droppings, but it's true. Many geisha used it as a face cream in those days, because
it was believed to be very good for the skin; but it was so expensive that Hatsumomo put only a
few dots around her eyes and mouth. Then she tore a small piece of wax from one of the bars
and, after softening it in her fingertips, rubbed it into the skin of her face, and afterward of
her neck and chest. She took some time to wipe her hands clean on a rag, and then moistened
one of her flat makeup brushes in a dish of water and rubbed it in the makeup until she had a
chalky white paste. She used this to paint her face and neck, but left her eyes bare, as well as
the area around her lips and nose. If you've ever seen a child cut holes in paper to make a
mask, this was how Hatsumomo looked, until she dampened some smaller brushes and used
them to fill in the cutouts. After this she looked as if she'd fallen face-first into a bin of rice
flour, for her whole face was ghastly white. She
looked like the demon she was, but even so, I was sick with jealousy and shame. Because I
knew that in an hour or so, men would be gazing with astonishment at that face; and I would
still be there in the okiya, looking sweaty and plain.
Now she moistened her pigment sticks and used them to rub a reddish blush onto her cheeks.
Already during my first month in the okiya, I'd seen Hatsumomo in her finished makeup many
times; I stole looks at her whenever I could without seeming rude. I'd noticed she used a
variety of tints for her cheeks, depending on the colors of her kimono. There was nothing
unusual in this; but what I didn't know until years later was that Hatsumomo always chose a
shade much redder than others might have used. I can't say why she did it, unless it was to
make people think of blood. But Hatsumomo was no fool; she knew how to bring out the beauty
in her features.
When she'd finished applying blush, she still had no eyebrows or lips. But for the moment she
left her face like a bizarre white mask and asked Auntie to paint the back of her neck. I must
tell you something about necks in Japan, if you don't know it; namely, that Japanese men, as a
rule, feel about a woman's neck and throat the same way that men in the West might feel
about a woman's legs. This is why geisha wear the collars of their kimono so low in the back
that the first few bumps of the spine are visible; I suppose it's like a woman in Paris wearing a
short skirt. Auntie painted onto the back of Hatsumomo's neck a design called sanbon-ashi-

"three legs." It makes a very dramatic picture, for you feel as if you're looking at the bare skin
of the neck through little tapering points of a white fence. It was years before I understood the
erotic effect it has on men; but in a way, it's like a woman peering out from between her
fingers. In fact, a geisha leaves a tiny margin of skin bare all around the hairline, causing her
makeup to look even more artificial, something like a mask worn in Noh drama. When a man
sits beside her and sees her makeup like a mask, he becomes that much more aware of the
bare skin beneath.
While Hatsumomo was rinsing out her brushes, she glanced several times at my reflection in
the mirror. Finally she said to me:
"I know what you're thinking. You're thinking you'll never be so beautiful. Well, it's perfectly
"I'll have you know," said Auntie, "that some people find Chiyo-chan quite a lovely girl."
"Some people like the smell of rotting fish," said Hatsumomo. And with that, she ordered us to
leave the room so she could change into her underrobe.
Auntie and I stepped out onto the landing, where Mr. Bekku stood waiting near the full-length
mirror, looking just as he had on the day he'd taken Satsu and me from our home. As I'd learned
during my first week in the okiya, his real occupation wasn't dragging girls from their homes at
all; he was a dresser, which is to say that he came to the okiya every day to help Hatsumomo
put on her elaborate kimono.
The robe Hatsumomo would wear that evening was hanging on a stand near the mirror. Auntie
stood smoothing it until Hatsumomo came out wearing an underrobe in a lovely rust color, with
a pattern of deep yellow leaves. What happened next made very little sense to me at the time,
because the complicated costume of kimono is confusing to people who aren't accustomed to
it. But the way it's worn makes perfect sense if it's explained properly.
To begin with, you must understand that a housewife and a geisha wear kimono very
differently. When a housewife dresses in kimono, she uses all sorts of padding to keep the robe
from bunching unattractively at the waist, with the result that she ends up looking perfectly
cylindrical, like a wood column in a temple hall. But a geisha wears kimono so frequently she
hardly needs any padding, and bunching never seems to be a problem. Both a housewife and a
geisha will begin by taking off their makeup robes and tucking a silk slip around the bare hips;
we call this a koshimaki-"hip wrap." It's followed by a short-sleeved kimono undershirt, tied
shut at the waist, and then the pads, which look like small contoured pillows with strings
affixed for tying them into place. In Hatsumomo's case, with her traditional small-hipped,
willowy figure, and her experience of wearing kimono for so many years, she didn't use padding
at all.
So far, everything the woman has put on will be hidden from the eye when she is fully dressed.
But the next item, the underrobe, isn't really an undergarment at all. When a geisha performs a
dance, or sometimes even when she walks along the street, she might raise the hem of her
kimono in her left hand to keep it out of the way. This has the effect of exposing the
underrobe below the knees; so, you see, the pattern and fabric of the underrobe must be
coordinated with the kimono. And, in fact, the underrobe's collar shows as well, just like the
collar of a man's shirt when he wears a business suit. Part of Auntie's job in the okiya was to
sew a silk collar each day onto the underrobe Hatsumomo planned to wear, and then remove it
the next morning for cleaning. An apprentice geisha wears a red collar, but of course
Hatsumomo wasn't an apprentice; her collar was white.

When Hatsumomo came out of her room, she was wearing all the items I've described-though
we could see nothing but her underrobe, held shut with a cord around her waist. Also, she wore
white socks we call tabi, which button along the side with a snug fit. At this point she was
ready for Mr. Bekku to dress her. To see him at work, you'd have understood at once just why
his help was necessary. Kimono are the same length no matter who wears them, so except for
the very tallest women, the extra fabric must be folded beneath the sash. When Mr. Bekku
doubled the kimono fabric at the waist and tied a cord to hold it in place, there was never the
slightest buckle. Or if one did appear, he gave a tug here or there, and the whole thing
straightened out. When he finished his work, the robe always fit the contours of the body
Mr. Bekku's principal job as dresser was to tie the obi, which isn't as simple a job as it might
sound. An obi like the one Hatsumomo wore is twice as long as a man is tall, and nearly as wide
as a woman's shoulders. Wrapped around the waist, it covers the area from the breastbone all
the way to below the navel. Most people who know nothing of kimono seem to think the obi is
simply tied in the back as if it were a string; but nothing could be further from the truth. A half
dozen cords and clasps are needed to keep it in place, and a certain amount of padding must
be used as well to shape the knot. Mr. Bekku took several minutes to tie Hatsumomo's obi.
When he was done, hardly a wrinkle could be seen anywhere in the fabric, thick and heavy as it
I understood very little of what I saw on the landing that day; but it seemed to me that Mr.
Bekku tied strings and tucked fabric at a frantic rate, while Hatsumomo did nothing more than
hold her arms out and gaze at her image in the mirror. I felt miserable with envy, watching
her. Her kimono was a brocade in shades of brown and gold. Below the waist, deer in their rich
brown coloring of autumn nuzzled one another, with golds and rusts behind them in a pattern
like fallen leaves on a forest floor. Her obi was plum-colored, interwoven with silver threads. I
didn't know it at the time, but the outfit she wore probably cost as much as a policeman or a
shopkeeper might make in an entire year. And yet to look at Hatsumomo standing there, when
she turned around to glance back at herself in the free-standing mirror, you would nave
thought that no amount of money on earth could have made a woman look as glamorous as she
All that remained were the final touches on her makeup and the ornaments in her hair. Auntie
and I followed Hatsumomo back into her room, where she knelt at her dressing table and took
out a tiny lacquer box containing rouge for her lips. She used a small brush to paint it on.
Thefashion at that time was to leave the upper lip unpainted, which made the lower lip look
fuller. White makeup causes all sorts of curious illusions; if a geisha were to paint the entire
surface of her lips, her mouth would end up looking like two big slices of tuna. So most geisha
prefer a poutier shape, more like the bloom of a violet. Unless a geisha has lips of this shape to
begin with-and very few do-she nearly always paints on a more circle-shaped mouth than she
actually has. But as I've said, the fashion in those days was to paint only the lower lip, and this
is what Hatsumomo did.
Now Hatsumomo took the twig of paulownia wood she'd shown me earlier and lit it with a
match. After it had burned for a few seconds she blew it out, cooled it with her fingertips, and
then went back to the mirror to draw in her eyebrows with the charcoal. It made a lovely
shade of soft gray. Next she went to a closet and selected a few ornaments for her hair,
including one of tortoiseshell, and an unusual cluster of pearls at the end of a long pin. When
she'd slipped them into her hair, she applied a bit of perfume to the bare flesh on the back of
her neck, and tucked the flat wooden vial into her obi afterward in case she should need it
again. She also put a folding fan into her obi and placed a kerchief in her right sleeve. And with
this she turned to look down at me. She wore the same faint smile she had worn earlier, and
even Auntie had to sigh, from how extraordinary Hatsumomo looked.

Chapter Six
I hatever any of us may have thought about Hatsumomo, she was like an empress in our okiya
since she earned the income by which we all lived. And being an empress she would have been
very displeased, upon returning late at night, to find her palace dark and all the servants
asleep. That is to say, when she came home too drunk to unbutton her socks, someone had to
unbutton them for her; and if she felt hungry, she certainly wasn't going to stroll into the
kitchen to prepare something by herself-such as an umeboshi ochazuke, which was a favorite
snack of hers, made with leftover rice and pickled sour plums, soaked in hot tea. Actually, our
okiya wasn't at all unusual in this respect. The job of waiting up to bow and welcome the
geisha home almost always fell to the most junior of the "cocoons"-as the young geisha-intraining
were often called. And from the moment I began taking lessons at the school, the most
junior cocoon in our okiya was me. Long before midnight, Pumpkin and the two elderly maids
were sound asleep on their futons only a meter or so away on the wood floor of the entrance
hall; but I had to go on kneeling there, struggling to stay awake until sometimes as late as two
o'clock in the morning. Granny's room was nearby, and she slept with her light on and her door
opened a crack. The bar of light that fell across my empty futon made me think of a day, not
long before Satsu and I were taken away from our village, when I'd peered into the back room
of our house to see my mother asleep there. My father had draped fishing nets across the paper
screens to darken the room, but it looked so gloomy I decided to open one of the windows; and
when I did, a strip of bright sunlight fell across my mother's futon and showed her hand so pale
and bony. To see the yellow light streaming from Granny's room onto my futon ... I had to
wonder if my mother was still alive. We were so much alike, I felt sure I would have known if
she'd died; but of course, I'd had no sign one way or the other.
One night as the fall was growing cooler, I had just dozed off leaning against a post when I
heard the outside door roll open. Hatsumomo would be very angry if she found me sleeping, so
I tried my best to look alert. But when the interior door opened, I was surprised to see a man,
wearing a traditional, loose-fitting workman's jacket tied shut at the hip and a pair of peasant
trousers-though he didn't look at all like a workman or a peasant. His hair was oiled back in a
very modern manner, and he wore a closely trimmed beard that gave him the air of an
intellectual. He leaned down and took my head in his hands to look me square in the face.
"Why, you're a pretty one," he said to me in a low voice. "What's your name?"
I felt certain he must be a workman, though I couldn't think why he'd come so late at night. I
was frightened of answering him, but I managed to say my name, and then he moistened a
fingertip with his tongue and touched me on the cheek-to take off an eyelash, as it turned out.
"Yoko is still here?" he asked. Yoko was a young woman who spent every day from midafternoon
until late evening sitting in our maids' room. Back in those days the okiya and teahouses in Gion
were all linked by a private telephone system, and Yoko was kept busier than almost anyone in
our okiya, answering that telephone to book Hatsu-momo's engagements, sometimes for
banquets or parties six months to a year in advance. Usually Hatsumomo's schedule didn't fill up
completely until the morning before, and calls continued through the evening from teahouses
whose customers wanted her to drop in if she had time. But the telephone hadn't been ringing
much tonight, and I thought probably Yoko had fallen asleep just as I had. The man didn't wait
for me to answer, but gestured for me to keep quiet, and showed himself down the dirt
corridor to the maids' room.
The next thing I heard was Yoko apologizing-for she had indeed fallen asleep-and then she
carried on a long conversation with the switchboard operator. She had to be connected with
several teahouses before she at last located Hatsumomo and left a message that the Kabuki
actor Onoe Shikan had come to town. I didn't know it at the time, but there was no Onoe
Shikan; this was just a code.

After this, Yoko left for the night. She didn't seem worried that a man was waiting in the maids'
room, so I made up my mind to say nothing to anyone. This turned out to be a good thing,
because when Hatsumomo appeared twenty minutes later, she stopped in the entrance hall to
say to me:
"I haven't tried to make your life really miserable yet. But if you ever mention that a man came
here, or even that I stopped in before the end of the evening, that will change."
She was standing over me as she said this, and when she reached into her sleeve for something,
I could see even in the dim light that her forearms were flushed. She went into the maids' room
and rolled the door shut behind her. I heard a short muffled conversation, and then the okiya
was silent. Occasionally I thought I heard a soft whimper or a groan, but the sounds were so
quiet, I couldn't be sure. I won't say I knew just what they were doing in there, but I did think
of my sister holding up her bathing dress for the Sugi boy. And I felt such a combination of
disgust and curiosity that even if I'd been free to leave my spot, I don't think I could have.
Once a week or so, Hatsumomo and her boyfriend-who turned out to be a chef in a nearby
noodle restaurant-came to the okiya and shut themselves in the maids'room. They met other
times in other places as well. I know because Yoko was often asked to deliver messages, and I
sometimes overheard. All the maids knew what Hatsumomo was doing; and it's a measure of
how much power she had over us that no one spoke a word to Mother or Auntie or Granny.
Hatsumomo would certainly have been in trouble for having a boyfriend, much less for bringing
him back to the okiya. The time she spent with him earned no revenue, and even took her
away from parties at teahouses where she would otherwise have been making money. And
besides, any wealthy man who might have been interested in an expensive, long-term
relationship would certainly think less of her and even change his mind if he knew she was
carrying on with the chef of a noodle restaurant.
One night just as I was coming back from taking a drink of water at the well in the courtyard, I
heard the outside door roll open and slam against the door frame with a bang.
"Really, Hatsumomo-san," said a deep voice, "you'll wake everyone
I'd never really understood why Hatsumomo took the risk of bringing her boyfriend back to the
okiya-though probably it was the risk itself that excited her. But she'd never before been so
careless as to make a lot of noise. I hurried into my position on my knees, and in a moment
Hatsumomo was in the formal entrance hall, holding two packages wrapped in linen paper.
Soon another geisha stepped in behind her, so tall that she had to stoop to pass through the
low doorway. When she stood erect and looked down on me, her lips looked unnaturally big
and heavy at the bottom of her long face. No one would have called her pretty.
"This is our foolish lower maid," said Hatsumomo. "She has a name, I think, but why don't you
just call her 'Little Miss Stupid.'"
"Well, Little Miss Stupid," said the other geisha. "Go and get your big sister and me something
to drink, why don't you?" The deep voice I'd heard was hers, and not the voice of Hatsumomo's
boyfriend after all.
Usually Hatsumomo liked to drink a special kind of sake called amakuchi-which was very light
and sweet. But amakuchi was brewed only in the winter, and we seemed to have run out. I
poured two glasses of beer instead and brought them out. Hatsumomo and her friend had
already made their way down to the courtyard, and were standing in wooden shoes in the dirt
corridor. I could see they were very drunk, and Hatsumomo's friend had feet much too big for
our little wooden shoes, so that she could hardly walk a step without the two of them breaking

out in laughter. You may recall that a wooden walkway ran along the outside of the house.
Hatsumomo had just set her packages down onto that walkway and was about to open one of
them when I delivered the beer.
"I'm not in the mood for beer," she said, and bent down to empty both glasses underneath the
foundation of the house.
"I'm in the mood for it," said her friend, but it was already too late. "Why did you pour mine
"Oh, be quiet, Korin!" Hatsumomo said. "You don't need more to drink anyway. Just look at this,
because you're going to die from happiness when you see it!" And here, Hatsumomo untied the
strings holding shut the linen paper of one package, and spread out upon the walkway an
exquisite kimono in different powdery shades of green, with a vine motif bearing red leaves.
Really, it was a glorious silk gauze-though of summer weight, and certainly not appropriate for
the fall weather. Hatsumomo's friend, Korin, admired it so much that she drew in a sharp
breath and choked on her own saliva-which caused them both to burst out laughing again. I
decided the time had come to excuse myself. But Hatsumomo said:
"Don't go away, Little Miss Stupid." And then she turned to her friend again and told her, "It's
time for some fun, Korin-san. Guess whose kimono this is!"
Korin was still coughing a good deal, but when she wras able to speak, she said, "I wish it
belonged to me!"
"Well, it doesn't. It belongs to none other than the geisha we both hate worse than anyone else
on earth."
"Oh, Hatsumomo . . . you're a genius. But how did you get Satoka's kimono?"
"I'm not talking about Satoka! I'm talking about. . . Miss Perfect!"
"Miss Tm-So-Much-Better-Than-You-Are' . . . that's who!"
There was a long pause, and then Korin said, "Mameha! Oh, my goodness, it is Mameha's
kimono. I can't believe I didn't recognize it! How did you manage to get your hands on it?"
"A few days ago I left something at the Kaburenjo Theater during a rehearsal," Hatsumomo
said. "And when I went back to look for it, I heard what I thought was moaning coming up from
the basement stairs. So I thought, 'It can't be! This is too much fun!' And when I crept down and
turned on the light, guess who I found lying there like two pieces of rice stuck together on the
"I can't believe it! Mameha?"
"Don't be a fool. She's much too prissy to do such a thing. It was her maid, with the custodian of
the theater. I knew she'd do anything to keep me from telling, so I went to her later and told
her I wanted this kimono of Mameha's. She started crying when she figured out which one I was
"And what's this other one?" Korin asked, pointing to the second package that lay on the
walkway, its strings still tied.

"This one I made the girl buy with her own money, and now it belongs to me."
"Her own money?" said Korin. "What maid has enough money to buy a kimono?"
"Well, if she didn't buy it as she said, I don't want to know where it came from. Anyway, Little
Miss Stupid is going to put it away in the storehouse for me."
"Hatsumomo-san, I'm not allowed in the storehouse," I said at once.
"If you want to know where your older sister is, don't make me say anything twice tonight. I
have plans for you. Afterward you may ask me a single question, and I'll answer it."
I won't say that I believed her; but of course, Hatsumomo had the power to make my life
miserable in any way she wanted. I had no choice but to obey.
She put the kimono-wrapped in its linen paper-into my arms and walked me down to the
storehouse in the courtyard. There she opened the door and flipped a light switch with a loud
snap. I could see shelves stacked with sheets and pillows, as well as several locked chests and a
few folded futons. Hatsumomo grabbed me by the arm and pointed up a ladder along the
outside wall.
"The kimono are up there," she said.
I made my way up and opened a sliding wooden door at the top. The storage loft didn't have
shelves like the ground-floor level. Instead the walls were lined with red lacquered cases
stacked one on top of the next, nearly as high as the ceiling. A narrow corridor passed between
these two walls of cases, with slatted windows at the ends, covered over with screens for
ventilation. The space was lit harshly just as below, but much more brightly; so that when I
had stepped inside, I could read the black characters carved into the fronts of the cases. They
said things like Kata-Komon, ~Ro-"Stenciled Designs, Open-Weave Silk Gauze"; and
Kuromontsuki, Awase-"Black-Crested Formal Robes with Inner Lining." To tell the truth, I
couldn't understand all the characters at the time, but I did manage to find the case with Hatsumomo's
name on it, on a top shelf. I had trouble taking it down, but finally I added the new
kimono to the few others, also wrapped in linen paper, and replaced the case where I'd found
it. Out of curiosity, I opened another of the cases very quickly and found it stacked to the top
with perhaps fifteen kimono, and the others whose lids I lifted were all the same. To see that
storehouse crowded with cases, I understood at once why Granny was so terrified of fire. The
collection of kimono was probably twice as valuable as the entire villages of Yoroido and
Senzuru put together. And as I learned much later, the most expensive ones were in storage
somewhere else. They were worn only by apprentice geisha; and since Hatsumomo could no
longer wear them, they were kept in a rented vault for safekeeping until they were needed
By the time I returned to the courtyard, Hatsumomo had been up to her room to fetch an
inkstone and a stick of ink, as well as a brush for calligraphy. I thought perhaps she wanted to
write a note and slip it inside the kimono when she refolded it. She had dribbled some water
from the well onto her inkstone and was now sitting on the walkway grinding ink. When it was
good and black, she dipped a brush in it and smoothed its tip against the stone-so that all the
ink was absorbed in the brush and none of it would drip. Then she put it into my hand, and held
my hand over the lovely kimono, and said to me: "Practice your calligraphy, little Chiyo."
This kimono belonging to the geisha named Mameha-whom I'd never heard of at the time-was a
work of art. Weaving its way from the hem up to the waist was a beautiful vine made of heavily
lacquered threads bunched together like a tiny cable and sewn into place. It was a part of the
fabric, yet it seemed so much like an actual vine growing there, I had the feeling I could take it

in my fingers, if I wished, and tear it away like a weed from the soil. The leaves curling from it
seemed to be fading and drying in the autumn weather, and even taking on tints of yellow.
"I can't do it, Hatsumomo-san!" I cried.
"What a shame, little sweetheart," her friend said to me. "Because if you make Hatsumomo tell
you again, you'll lose the chance to find your sister."
"Oh, shut up, Korin. Chiyo knows she has to do what I tell her. Write something on the fabric,
Miss Stupid. I don't care what it is."
When the brush first touched the kimono, Korin was so excited she let out a squeal that woke
one of the elderly maids, who leaned out into the corridor with a cloth around her head and
her sleeping robe sagging all around her. Hatsumomo stamped her foot and made a sort of
lunging motion, like a cat, which was enough to make the maid go back to her futon. Korin
wasn't happy with the few uncertain strokes I'd made on the powdery green silk, so Hatsumomo
instructed me where to mark the fabric and what sorts of marks to make. There wasn't any
meaning to them; Hatsumomo was just trying in her own way to be artistic. Afterward she
refolded the kimono in its wrapping of linen and tied the strings shut again. She and Korin went
back to the front entryway to put their lacquered zori back on their feet. When they rolled
open the door to the street, Hatsumomo told me to follow. "Hatsumomo-san, if I leave the
okiya without permission, Mother will be very angry, and-"
"I'm giving you permission," Hatsumomo interrupted. "We have to return the kimono, don't we? I
hope you're not planning to keep me waiting."
So I could do nothing but step into my shoes and follow her up the alleyway to a street running
beside the narrow Shiralcawa Stream. Back in those days, the streets and alleys in Gion were
still paved beautifully with stone. We walked along in the moonlight for a block or so, beside
the weeping cherry trees that drooped down over the black water, and finally across a wooden
bridge arching over into a section of Gion I'd never seen before. The embankment of the
stream was stone, most of it covered with patches of moss. Along its top, the backs of the
teahouses and okiya connected to form a wall. Reed screens over the windows sliced the
yellow light into tiny strips that made me think of what the cook had done to a pickled radish
earlier that day. I could hear the laughter of a group of men and geisha. Something very funny
must have been happening in one of the teahouses, because each wave of laughter was louder
than the one before, until they finally died away and left only the twanging of a shamisen from
another party. For the moment, I could imagine that Gion was probably a cheerful place for
some people. I couldn't help wondering if Satsu might be at one of those parties, even though
Awajiumi, at the Gion Registry Office, had told me she wasn't in Gion at all.
Shortly, Hatsumomo and Korin came to a stop before a wooden door.
"You're going to take this kimono up the stairs and give it to the maid there," Hatsumomo said
to me. "Or if Miss Perfect herself answers the door, you may give it to her. Don't say anything;
just hand it over. We'll be down here watching you."
With this, she put the wrapped kimono into my arms, and Korin rolled open the door. Polished
wooden steps led up into the darkness. I was trembling with fear so much, I could go no farther
than halfway up them before I came to a stop. Then I heard Korin say into the stairwell in a
loud whisper:
"Go on, little girl! No one's going to eat you unless you come back down with the kimono still in
your hands-and then we just might. Right, Hatsumomo-san?"

Hatsumomo let -out a sigh at this, but said nothing. Korin was squinting up into the darkness,
trying to see me; but Hatsumomo, who stood not much higher than Korin's shoulder, was
chewing on one of her fingernails and paying no attention at all. Even then, amid all my fears, I
couldn't help noticing how extraordinary Hatsumomo's beauty was. She may have been as cruel
as a spider, but she was more lovely chewing on her fingernail than most geisha looked posing
for a photograph. And the contrast with her friend Korin was like comparing a rock along the
roadside with a jewel. Korin looked uncomfortable in her formal hairstyle with all its lovely
ornaments, and her kimono seemed to be always in her way. Whereas Hatsumomo wore her
kimono as if it were her skin.
On the landing at the top of the stairs, I knelt in the black darkness and called out:
"Excuse me, please!"
I waited, but nothing happened. "Louder," said Korin. "They aren't expecting you."
So I called again, "Excuse me!"
"Just a moment!" I heard a muffled voice say; and soon the door rolled open. The girl kneeling
on the other side was no older than Satsu, but thin and nervous as a bird. I handed her the
kimono in its wrapping of linen paper. She was very surprised, and took it from me almost
"Who's there, Asami-san?" called a voice from inside the apartment. I could see a single paper
lantern on an antique stand burning beside a freshly made futon. The futon was for the geisha
Mameha; I could tell because of the crisp sheets and the elegant silk cover, as well as the
takamakura-"tall pillow"-just like the kind Hatsumomo used. It wasn't really a pillow at all, but
a wooden stand with a padded cradle for the neck; this was the only way a geisha could sleep
without ruining her elaborate hairstyle.
The maid didn't answer, but opened the wrapping around the kimono as quietly as she could,
and tipped it this way and that to catch the reflection of the light. When she caught sight of
the ink marring it, she gasped and covered her mouth. Tears spilled out almost instantly onto
her cheeks, and then a voice called:
"Asami-san! Who's there?"
"Oh, no one, miss!" cried the maid. I felt terribly sorry for her as she dried her eyes quickly
against one sleeve. While she was reaching up to slide the door closed, I caught a glimpse of
her mistress. I could see at once why Hatsumomo called Mameha "Miss Perfect." Her face was a
perfect oval, just like a doll's, and as smooth and delicate-looking as a piece of china, even
without her makeup. She walked toward the doorway, trying to peer into the stairwell, but I
saw no more of her before the maid quickly rolled the door shut.
The next morning after lessons, I came back to the okiya to find that Mother, Granny, and
Auntie were closed up together in the formal reception room on the first floor. I felt certain
they were talking about the kimono; and sure enough, the moment Hatsumomo came in from
the street, one of the maids went to tell Mother, who stepped out into the entrance hall and
stopped Hatsumomo on her way up the stairs.
"We had a little visit from Mameha and her maid this morning," she said.
"Oh, Mother, I know just what you're going to say. I feel 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 from the moment she came here ... To think she would ruin
such a lovely kimono just in the hopes of hurting me!"
By now, Auntie had limped out into the hall. She cried, "Matte mashita!" I understood her words
perfectly well; they meant "We've waited for you!" But I had no idea what she meant by them.
Actually, it was quite a clever thing to say, because this is what the audience sometimes shouts
when a great star makes his entrance in a Kabuki play.
"Auntie, are you suggesting that I had something to do with ruining that kimono?" Hatsumomo
said. "Why would I do such a thing?"
"Everyone knows how you hate Mameha," Auntie told her. "You hate anyone more successful
than you."
"Does that suggest I ought to be extremely fond of you, Auntie, since you're such a failure?"
"There'll be none of that," said Mother. "Now you listen to me, Hatsumomo. You don't really
think anyone is empty-headed enough to believe your little story. I won't have this sort of
behavior in the okiya, even from you. I have great respect for Mameha. I don't want to hear of
anything like this happening again. As for the kimono, someone has to pay for it. I don't know
what happened last night, but there's no dispute about who was holding the brush. The maid
saw the girl doing it. The girl will pay," said Mother, and put her pipe back into her mouth.
Now Granny came out from the reception room and called a maid to fetch the bamboo pole.
"Chiyo has enough debts," said Auntie. "I don't see why she should pay Hatsumomo's as well."
"We've talked about this enough," Granny said. "The girl should be beaten and made to repay
the cost of the kimono, and that's that. Where's the bamboo pole?"
"I'll beat her myself," Auntie said. "I won't have your joints flaring up again, Granny. Come
along, Chiyo."
Auntie waited until the maid brought the pole and then led me down to the courtyard. She was
so angry her nostrils were bigger than usual, and her eyes were bunched up like fists. I'd been
careful since coming to the okiya not to do anything that would lead to a beating. I felt hot
suddenly, and the stepping-stones at my feet grew blurry. But instead of beating me, Auntie
leaned the pole against the storehouse and then limped over to say quietly to me:
"What have you done to Hatsumomo? She's bent on destroying you. There must be a reason, and
I want to know what it is."
"I promise you, Auntie, she's treated me this way since I arrived. I don't know what I ever did to
"Granny may call Hatsumomo a fool, but believe me, Hatsumomo is no fool. If she wants to ruin
your career badly enough, she'll do it. Whatever you've done to make her angry, you must stop
doing it."
"I haven't done anything, Auntie, I promise you."
"You must never trust her, not even if she tries to help you. Already she's burdened you with so
much debt you may never work it off."
"I don't understand ..." I said, "about debt'?"

"Hatsumomo's little trick with that kimono is going to cost you more money than you've ever
imagined in your life. That's what I mean about debt."
"But. . . how will I pay?"
"When you begin working as a geisha, you'll pay the okiya back for it, along with everything else
you'll owe-your meals and lessons; if you get sick, your doctor's fees. You pay all of that
yourself. Why do you think Mother spends all her time in her room, writing numbers in those
little books? You owe the okiya even for the money it cost to acquire you."
Throughout my months in Gion, I'd certainly imagined that money must have changed hands
before Satsu and I were taken from our home. I often thought of the conversation I'd overheard
between Mr. Tanaka and my father, and of what Mrs. Fidget had said about Satsu and me being
"suitable." I'd wondered with horror whether Mr. Tanaka had made money by helping to sell us,
and how much we had cost. But I'd never imagined that I myself would have to repay it.
"You won't pay it back until you've been a geisha a good long time," she went on. "And you'll
never pay it back if you end up a failed geisha like me. Is that the way you want to spend your
At the moment I didn't much care how I spent my future.
"If you want to ruin your life in Gion, there are a dozen ways to do it," Auntie said. "You can try
to run away. Once you've done that, Mother will see you as a bad investment; she's not going to
put more money into someone who might disappear at any time. That would mean the end of
your lessons, and you can't be a geisha without training. Or you can make yourself unpopular
with your teachers, so they won't give you the help you need. Or you can grow up to be an ugly
woman like me. I wasn't such an unattractive girl when Granny bought me from my parents,
but I didn't turn out well, and Granny's always
hated me for it. One time she beat me so badly for something I did that she broke one of my
hips. That's when I stopped being a geisha. And that's the reason I'm going to do the job of
beating you myself, rather than letting Granny get her hands on you."
She led me to the walkway and made me lie down on my stomach there. I didn't much care
whether she beat me or not; it seemed to me that nothing could make my situation worse.
Every time my body jolted under the pole, I wailed as loudly as I dared, and pictured Hatsumomo's
lovely face smiling down at me. When the beating was over, Auntie left me crying
there. Soon I felt the walkway tremble under someone's footsteps and sat up to find
Hatsumomo standing above me.
"Chiyo, I would be ever so grateful if you'd get out of my way."
"You promised to tell me where I could find my sister, Hatsumomo," I said to her.
"So I did!" She leaned down so that her face was near mine. I thought she was going to tell me I
hadn't done enough yet, that when she thought of more for me to do, she would tell me. But
this wasn't at all what happened.
"Your sister is in ajorou-ya called Tatsuyo," she told me, "in the district of Miyagawa-cho, just
south of Gion."
When she was done speaking, she gave me a little shove with her foot, and I stepped down out of her way.

...Part 2
Part 4...

Memoirs of a Geisha Part 2

Chapter Three

Back at home my mother seemed to have grown sicker in the day I'd been away. Or perhaps itwas just that I'd managed to forget how ill she really was. Mr. Tanaka's house had smelled ofsmoke and pine, but ours smelled of her illness in a way I can't even bear to describe. Satsuwas working in the village during the afternoon, so Mrs. Sugi came to help me bathe mymother. When we carried her out of the house, her rib cage was broader than her shoulders,and even the whites of her eyes were -cloudy. I could only endure seeing her this way by remembering how I'd once felt stepping out of the bath with her while she was strong and healthy, when the steam had risen from our pale skin as if we were two pieces of boiled radish.
I found it hard to imagine that this woman, whose back I'd so often scraped with a stone, andwhose flesh had always seemed firmer and smoother to me than Satsu's, might be dead beforeeven the end of summer.
That night while lying on my futon, I tried to picture the whole confusing situation from every angle to persuade myself that things would somehow be all right. To begin with, I wondered, how could we go on living without my mother? Even if we did survive and Mr. Tanaka adoptedus, would my own family cease to exist? Finally I decided Mr. Tanaka wouldn't adopt just mysister and me, but my father as well. He couldn't expect my father to live alone, after all.
Usually I couldn't fall asleep until I'd managed to convince myself this was true, with the resultthat I didn't sleep much during those weeks, and mornings were a blur.
On one of these mornings during the heat of the summer, I was on my way back from fetching a
packet of tea in the village when I heard a crunching noise behind me. It turned out to be Mr.
Sugi-Mr. Tanaka's assistant-running up the path. When he reached me, he took a long while to
catch his breath, huffing and holding his side as if he'd just run all the way from Senzuru. He
was red and shiny like a snapper, though the day hadn't grown hot yet. Finally he said:
"Mr. Tanaka wants you and your sister ... to come down to the village ... as soon as you can."
I'd thought it odd that my father hadn't gone out fishing that morning. Now I knew why: Today
was the day.
"And my father?" I asked. "Did Mr. Tanaka say anything about him?"
"Just get along, Chiyo-chan," he told me. "Go and fetch your sister."
I didn't like this, but I ran up to the house and found my father sitting at the table, digging
grime out of a rut in the wood with one of his fingernails. Satsu was putting slivers of charcoal
into the stove. It seemed as though the two of them were waiting for something horrible to
I said, "Father, Mr. Tanaka wants Satsu-san and me to go down to the village."
Satsu took off her apron, hung it on a peg, and walked out the door. My father didn't answer,
but blinked a few times, staring at the point where Satsu had been. Then he turned his eyes
heavily toward the floor and gave a nod. I heard my mother cry out in her sleep from the back
Satsu was almost to the village before I caught up with her. I'd imagined this day for weeks
already, but I'd never expected to feel as frightened as I did. Satsu didn't seem to realize this
trip to the village was any different from one she might have made the day before. She hadn't
even bothered to clean the charcoal off her hands; while wiping her hair away she ended up
with a smudge on her face. I didn't want her to meet Mr. Tanaka in this condition, so I reached
up to rub off the mark as our mother might have done. Satsu knocked my hand away.
Outside the Japan Coastal Seafood Company, I bowed and said good morning to Mr. Tanaka,
expecting he would be happy to see us. Instead he was strangely cold. I suppose this should
have been my first clue that things weren't going to happen just the way I'd imagined. When he
led us to his horse-drawn wagon, I decided he probably wanted to drive us to his house so that
his wife and daughter would be in the room when he told us about our adoption.
"Mr. Sugi will be riding in the front with me," he said, "so you and Shizu-san had better get into
the back." That's just what he said: "Shizu-san." I thought it very rude of him to get my sister's
name wrong that way, but she didn't seem to notice. She climbed into the back of the wagon
and sat down among the empty fish baskets, putting one of her hands flat onto the slimy
planks. And then with that same hand, she wiped a fly from her face, leaving a shiny patch on
her cheek. I didn't feel as indifferently about the slime as Satsu did. I couldn't think about
anything but the smell, and about how satisfied I would feel to wash my hands and perhaps
even my clothes when we reached Mr. Tanaka's house.
During the trip, Satsu and I didn't speak a word, until we topped the hill overlooking Senzuru,
when all of a sudden she said:
"A train."
I looked out to see a train in the distance, making its way toward the town. The smoke rolled
downwind in a way that made me think of the skin being shed from a snake. I thought this was
clever and tried explaining it to Satsu, but she didn't seem to care. Mr. Tanaka would have
appreciated it, I thought, and so would Kuniko. I decided to explain it to both of them when we
reached the Tanakas' home.
Then suddenly I realized we weren't headed in the direction of Mr. Tanaka's home at all.
The wagon came to a stop a few minutes later on a patch of dirt beside the train tracks, just
outside the town. A crowd of people stood with sacks and crates piled around them. And there,
to one side of them, was Mrs. Fidget, standing beside a peculiarly narrow man wearing a stiff
kimono. He had soft black hair, like a cat's, and held in one of his hands a cloth bag suspended
from a string. He struck rne as out of place in Senzuru, particularly there beside the farmers
and the fishermen with their crates, and an old hunched woman wearing a rucksack of yams.
Mrs. Fidget said something to him, and when he turned and peered at us, I decided at once
that I was frightened of him.
Mr. Tanaka introduced us to this man, whose name was Bekku. Mr. Bekku said nothing at all,
but only looked closely at me and seemed puzzled by Satsu.
Mr. Tanaka said to him, "I've brought Sugi with me from Yoroido. Would you like him to
accompany you? He knows the girls, and I can spare him for a day or so."
"No, no," said Mr. Bekku, waving his hand.
I certainly hadn't expected any of this. I asked where we were going, but no one seemed to
hear me, so I came up with an answer for myself. I decided Mr. Tanaka had been displeased by
what Mrs. Fidget had told him about us, and that this curiously narrow man, Mr. Bekku,
planned to take us somewhere to have our fortunes told more completely. Afterward we would
be returned to Mr. Tanaka.
While I tried my best to soothe myself with these thoughts, Mrs. Fidget, wearing a pleasant
smile, led Satsu and me some distance down the dirt platform. When we were too far away for
the others to hear us, her smile vanished and she said:
"Now listen to me. You're both naughty girls!" She looked around to be sure no one was
watching and then hit us on the tops of our heads. She didn't hurt me, but I cried out in
surprise. "If you do something to embarrass me," she went on, "I'll make you pay for it! Mr.
Bekku is a stern man; you must pay attention to what he says! If he tells you to crawl under the
seat of the train, you'll do it. Understand?" From the expression on Mrs. Fidget's face, I knew I
should answer her or she might hurt me. But I was in such shock I couldn't speak. And then just
as I'd feared, she reached out and began pinching me so hard on the side of my neck that I
couldn't even tell which part of me hurt. I felt as if I'd fallen into a tub of creatures that were
biting me everywhere, and I heard myself whimper. The next thing I knew, Mr. Tanaka was
standing beside us.
"What's going on here?" he said. "If you have something more to say to these girls, say it while
I'm standing here. There's no cause for you to treat them this way."
"I'm sure we have a great many more things to talk about. But the train is coming," Mrs. Fidget
said. And it was true: I could see it curling around a turn not far in the distance.
Mr. Tanaka led us back up the platform to where the farmers and old women were gathering up
their things. Soon the train came to a stop before us. Mr. Bekku, in his stiff kimono, wedged
himself between Satsu and me and led us by our elbows into the train car. I heard Mr. Tanaka
say something, but I was too confused and upset to understand it. I couldn't trust what I heard.
It might have been:
Mata yol "Well meet again!"
Or this:
Matte yol "Wait!"
Or even this:
Ma . . . deyol "Well, let's go!"
When I peered out the window, I saw Mr. Tanaka walking back toward his cart and Mrs. Fidget
wiping her hands all over her kimono.
After a moment, my sister said, "Chiyo-chan!"
I buried my face in my hands; and honestly I would have plunged in anguish through the floor of
the train if I could have. Because the way my sister said my name, she hardly needed to say
anything more.
"Do you know where we're going?" she said to me.
I think all she wanted was a yes or no answer. Probably it didn't matter to her what our
destination was-so long as someone knew what was happening. But, of course, I didn't. I asked
the narrow man, Mr. Bekku, but he paid me no attention. He was still staring at Satsu as if he
had never seen anything like her before. Finally he squeezed his face into a look of disgust and
"Fish! What a stench, the both of you!"
He took a comb from his drawstring bag and began tearing it through her hair. I'm certain he
must have hurt her, but I could see that watching the countryside pass by outside the window
hurt her even more. In a moment Satsu's lips turned down like a baby's, and she began to cry.
Even if she'd hit me and yelled at me, I wouldn't have ached as much as I did watching her
whole face tremble. Everything was my fault. An old peasant woman with her teeth bared like
a dog's came over with a carrot for Satsu, and after giving it to her asked where she was going.
"Kyoto," Mr. Bekku answered.
I felt so sick with worry at hearing this, I couldn't bring myself to look Satsu in the eye any
longer. Even the town of Senzuru seemed a remote, faraway place. As for Kyoto, it sounded as
foreign to me as Hong Kong, or even New York, which I'd once heard Dr. Miura talk about. For
all I knew, they ground up children in Kyoto and fed them to dogs.
We were on that train for many hours, without food to eat. The sight of Mr. Bekku taking a
wrapped-up lotus leaf from his bag, and unwrapping it to reveal a rice ball sprinkled with
sesame seeds, certainly got my attention. But when he took it in his bony fingers and pressed it
into his mean little mouth without so much as looking at me, I felt as if I couldn't take another
moment of torment. We got off the train at last in a large town, which I took to be Kyoto; but
after a time another train pulled into the station, and we boarded it. This one did take us to
Kyoto. It was much more crowded than the first train had been, so that we had to stand. By
the time we arrived, as evening was approaching, I felt as sore as a rock must feel when the
waterfall has pounded on it all day long.
I could see little of the city as we neared Kyoto Station. But then to my astonishment, I caught
a glimpse of rooftops reaching as far as the base of hills in the distance. I could never have
imagined a city so huge. Even to this day, the sight of streets and buildings from a train often
makes me remember the terrible emptiness and fear I felt on that curious day when I first left
my home.
Back then, around 1930, a fair number of rickshaws still operated in Kyoto. In fact, so many
were lined up before the station that I imagined no one went anywhere in this big city unless it
was in a rickshaw-which couldn't have been further from the truth. Perhaps fifteen or twenty
of them sat pitched forward onto their poles, with their drivers squatting nearby, smoking or
eating; some of the drivers even lay curled up asleep right there in the filth of the street.
Mr. Bekku led us by our elbows again, as if we were a couple of buckets he was bringing back
from the well. He probably thought I'd have run away if he'd let go of me a moment; but I
wouldn't have. Wherever he was taking us, I preferred it to being cast out alone into that great
expanse of streets and buildings, as foreign to me as the bottom of the sea.
We climbed into a rickshaw, with Mr. Bekku squeezed tightly on the bench between us. He was
a good deal bonier under that kimono even than I suspected. We pitched back as the driver
raised the poles, and then Mr. Bekku said, "Tominaga-cho, in Gion."
The driver said nothing in reply, but gave the rickshaw a tug to get it moving and then set off
at a trot. After a block or two I worked up my courage and said to Mr. Bekku, "Won't you please
tell us where we're going?"
He didn't look as if he would reply, but after a moment he said, "To your new home."
At this, my eyes filled with tears. I heard Satsu weeping on the other side of Mr. Bekku and was
just about to let out a sob of my own when Mr. Bekku suddenly struck her, and she let out a
loud gasp. I bit my lip and stopped myself so quickly from crying any further that I think the
tears themselves may have come to a halt as they slid down my cheeks.

Soon we turned onto an avenue that seemed as broad as the whole village of Yoroido. I could
hardly see the other side for all the people, bicycles, cars, and trucks. I'd never seen a car
before. I'd seen photographs, but I remember being surprised at how . . . well, cruel, is the
way they looked to me in my frightened state, as though they were designed more to hurt
people than to help them. All my senses were assaulted. Trucks rumbled past so close I could
smell the scorched rubber odor of their tires. I heard a horrible screech, which turned out to
be a streetcar on tracks in the center of the avenue.
I felt terrified as evening settled in around us; but I was never so astonished by anything in my
life as by my first glimpse of city lights. I'd never even seen electricity except during part of
our dinner at Mr. Tanaka's house. Here, windows were lit along the buildings upstairs and
down, and the people on the sidewalks stood under puddles of yellow glow. I could see
pinpoints even at the far reaches of the avenue. We turned onto another street, and I saw for
the first time the Mi-namiza Theater standing on the opposite side of a bridge ahead of us. Its
tiled roof was so grand, I thought it was a palace.
At length the rickshaw turned down an alleyway of wooden houses. The way they were all
packed together, they seemed to share one continuous facade-which once again gave me the
terrible feeling of being lost. I watched women in kimono rushing around in a great hurry on
the little street. They looked very elegant to me; though, as I later learned, they were mostly
When we came to a halt before a doorway, Mr. Bekku instructed me to get out. He climbed out
behind me, and then as if the day hadn't been difficult enough, the worst thing of all
happened. For when Satsu tried to get out as well, Mr. Bekku turned and pushed her back with
his long arm.
"Stay there," he said to her. "You're going elsewhere."
I looked at Satsu, and Satsu looked at me. It may have been the first time we'd ever completely
understood each other's feelings. But it lasted only a moment, for the next thing I knew my
eyes had welled up with tears so much I could scarcely see. I felt myself being dragged
backward by Mr. Bekku; I heard women's voices and quite a bit of commotion. I was on the
point of throwing myself onto the street when suddenly Satsu's mouth fell open at something
she saw in the doorway behind me.
I was in a narrow entryway with an ancient-looking well on one side and a few plants on the
other. Mr. Bekku had dragged me inside, and now he pulled me up onto my feet. There on the
step of the entryway, just slipping her feet into her lacquered zori, stood an exquisitely
beautiful woman wearing a kimono lovelier than anything I'd ever imagined. I'd been impressed
with the kimono worn by the young bucktoothed geisha in Mr. Tanaka's village of Senzuru; but
this one was a water blue, with swirling lines in ivory to mimic the current in a stream.
Glistening silver trout tumbled in the current, and the surface of the water was ringed with
gold wherever the soft green leaves of a tree touched it. I had no doubt the gown was woven of
pure silk, and so was the obi, embroidered in pale greens and yellows. And her clothing wasn't
the only extraordinary thing about her; her face was painted a kind of rich white, like the wall
of a cloud when lit by the sun. Her hair, fashioned into lobes, gleamed as darkly as lacquer,
and was decorated with ornaments carved out of amber, and with a bar from which tiny silver
strips dangled, shimmering as she moved.
This was my first glimpse of Hatsumomo. At the time, she was one of the most renowned
geisha in the district of Gion; though of course I didn't know any of this then. She was a petite
woman; the top of her hairstyle reached no higher than Mr. Bekku's shoulder. I was so startled
by her appearance that I forgot my manners-not that I had developed very good manners yet-
and stared directly at her face. She was smiling at me, though not in a kindly way. And then
she said:
"Mr. Bekku, could you take out the garbage later? I'd like to be on my way."
There was no garbage in the entryway; she was talking about me. Mr. Bekku said he thought
Hatsumomo had enough room to pass.
"You may not mind being so close to her," said Hatsumomo. "But when I see filth on one side of
the street, I cross to the other."
Suddenly an older woman, tall and knobby, like a bamboo pole, appeared in the doorway
behind her.
"I don't know how anyone puts up with you, Hatsumomo-san," said the woman. But she gestured
for Mr. Bekku to pull me onto the street again, which he did. After this she stepped down into
the entry-way very awkwardly-for one of her hips jutted out and made it difficult for her to
walk-and crossed to a tiny cabinet on the wall. She took from it something that looked to me
like a piece of flint, along with a rectangular stone like the kind fishermen use to sharpen their
knives, and then stood behind Hatsumomo and struck the flint against the stone, causing a
little cluster of sparks to jump onto Hatsumomo's back. I didn't understand this at all; but you
see, geisha are more superstitious even than fishermen. A geisha will never go out for the
evening until someone has sparked a flint on her back for good luck.
After this, Hatsumomo walked away, using such tiny steps that she seemed to glide along with
the bottom of her kimono fluttering just a bit. I didn't know that she was a geisha at the time,
for she was worlds above the creature I'd seen in Senzuru a few weeks earlier. I decided she
must be some sort of stage performer. We all watched her float away, and then Mr. Bekku
handed me over to the older woman in the entryway. He climbed back into the rickshaw with
my sister, and the driver raised the poles. But I never saw them leave, because I was slumped
down in the entryway in tears.
The older woman must have taken pity on me; for a long while I lay there sobbing in my misery
without anyone touching me. I even heard her shush up a maid who came from inside the house
to speak with her. At length she helped me to my feet and dried my face with a handkerchief
she took from one sleeve of her simple gray kimono.
"Now, now, little girl. There's no need to worry so. No one's going to cook 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. But in any case, hers
were the kindest words anyone had said to me all day, so I made up my mind to do what she
advised. She told me to call her Auntie. And then she looked down at me, square in the face,
and said in a throaty voice:
"Heavens! What startling eyes! You're a lovely girl, aren't you? Mother will be thrilled."
I thought at once that the mother of this woman, whoever she was, must be very old, because
Auntie's hair, knotted tightly at the back of her head, was mostly gray, with only streaks of
black remaining.
Auntie led me through the doorway, where I found myself standing on a dirt corridor passing
between two closely spaced structures to a courtyard in the back. One of the structures was a
little dwelling like my house in Yoroido-two rooms with floors of dirt; it turned out to be the
maids' quarters. The other was a small, elegant house sitting up on foundation stones in such a
way that a cat might have crawled underneath it. The corridor between them opened onto the
dark sky above, which gave me the feeling I was standing in something more like a miniature
village than a house-especially since I could see several other small wooden buildings down in
the courtyard at the end. I didn't know it at the time, but this was a very typical dwelling for
the section of Kyoto in which it stood. The buildings in the courtyard, though they gave the
impression of another group of tiny houses, were just a small shed for the toilets and a
storehouse of two levels with a ladder on the outside. The entire dwelling fitted into an area
smaller than Mr. Tanaka's home in the countryside and housed only eight people. Or rather
nine, now that I had arrived.
After I took in the peculiar arrangement of all the little buildings, I noticed the elegance of the
main house. In Yoroido> the wood structures were more gray than brown, and rutted by the
salty air. But here the wood floors and beams gleamed with the yellow light of electric lamps.
Opening off the front hallway were sliding doors with paper screens, as well as a staircase that
seemed to climb straight up. One of these doors stood open, so that I was able to see a wood
cabinet with a Buddhist altar. These elegant rooms turned out to be for the use of the familyand
also Hatsumomo, even though, as I would come to understand, she wasn't a family member
at all. When family members wanted to go to the courtyard, they didn't walk down the dirt
corridor as the servants did, but had their own ramp of polished wood running along the side of
the house. There were even separate toilets-an upper one for family and a lower one for
I had yet to discover most of these things, though I would learn them within a day or two. But I
stood there in the corridor a long while, wondering what sort of place this was and feeling very
afraid. Auntie had disappeared into the kitchen and was talking in a hoarse voice to somebody.
At length the somebody came out. She turned out to be a girl about my age, carrying a wooden
bucket so heavy with water that she sloshed half of it onto the dirt floor. Her body was narrow;
but her face was plump and almost perfectly round, so that she looked to me like a melon on a
stick. She was straining to carry the bucket, and her tongue stuck out of her mouth just the
way the stem comes out of the top of a pumpkin. As I soon learned, this was a habit of hers.
She stuck her tongue out when she stirred her miso soup, or scooped rice into a bowl, or even
tied the knot of her robe. And her face was truly so plump and so soft, with that tongue curling
out like a pumpkin stem, that within a few days I'd given her the nickname of "Pumpkin," which
everyone came to call her-even her customers many years later when she was a geisha in Gion.
When she had put down the bucket near me, Pumpkin retracted her tongue, and then brushed
a strand of hair behind her ear while she looked me up and down. I thought she might say
something, but she just went on looking, as though she were trying to make up her mind
whether or not to take a bite of me. Really, she did seem hungry; and then at last she leaned
in and whispered:
"Where on earth did you come from?"
I didn't think it would help to say that I had come from Yoroido; since her accent was as
strange to me as everyone else's, I felt sure she wouldn't recognize the name of my village. I
said instead that I'd just arrived.
"I thought I would never see another girl my age," she said to me. But what's the matter with
your eyes?"
Just then Auntie came out from the kitchen, and after shooing Pumpkin away, picked up the
bucket and a scrap of cloth, and led me down to the courtyard. It had a beautiful mossy look,
with stepping-stones leading to a storehouse in the back; but it smelled horrible because of the
toilets in the little shed along one side. Auntie told me to undress. I was afraid she might do to
me something like what Mrs. Fidget had done, but instead she only poured water over my
shoulders and
rubbed me down with the rag. Afterward she gave me a robe, which was nothing more than
coarsely woven cotton in the simplest pattern of dark blue, but it was certainly more elegant
than anything I'd ever worn before. An old woman who turned out to be the cook came down
into the corridor with several elderly maids to peer at me. Auntie told them they would have
plenty of time for staring another day and sent them back where they'd come from.
"Now listen, little girl," Auntie said to me, when we were alone. "I don't even want to know
your name yet. The last girl who came, Mother and Granny didn't like her, and she was here
only a month. I'm too old to keep learning new names, until they've decided they're going to
keep you."
"What will happen if they don't want to keep me?" I asked.
"It's better for you if they keep you."
"May I ask, ma'am . . . what is this place?"
"It's an okiya," she said. "It's where geisha live. If you work very hard, you'll grow up to be a
geisha yourself. But you won't make it as far as next week unless you listen to me very closely,
because Mother and Granny are coming down the stairs in just a moment to look at you. And
they'd better like what they see. Your job is to bow as low as you can, and don't look them in
the eye. The older one, the one we call Granny, has never liked anyone in her life, so don't
worry about what she says. If she asks you a question, don't even answer it, for heaven's sake!
I'll answer for you. The one you want to impress is Mother. She's not a bad sort, but she cares
about only one thing."
I didn't have a chance to find out what that one thing was, for I heard a creaking noise from the
direction of the front entrance hall, and soon the two women came drifting out onto the
walkway. I didn't dare look at them. But what I could see out of the corner of my eye made me
think of two lovely bundles of silk floating along a stream. In a moment they were hovering on
the walkway in front of me, where they sank down and smoothed their kimono across their
"Umeko-san!" Auntie shouted-for this was the name of the cook. "Bring tea for Granny."
"I don't want tea," I heard an angry voice say.
"Now, Granny," said a raspier voice, which I took to be Mother's. "You don't have to drink it.
Auntie only wants to be sure you're comfortable."
"There's no being comfortable with these bones of mine," the old woman grumbled. I heard her
take in a breath to say something more, but Auntie interrupted.
"This is the new girl, Mother," she said, and gave me a little shove, which I took as a signal to
bow. I got onto my knees and bowed so low, I could smell the musty air wafting from beneath
the foundation. Then I heard Mother's voice again.
"Get up and come closer. I want to have a look at you."
I felt certain she was going to say something more to me after I'd approached her, but instead
she took from her obi, where she kept it tucked, a pipe with a metal bowl and a long stem
made of bamboo. She set it down beside her on the walkway and then brought from the pocket
of her sleeve a drawstring bag of silk, from which she removed a big pinch of tobacco. She
packed the tobacco with her little finger, stained the burnt orange color of a roasted yam, and
then put the pipe into her mouth and lit it with a match from a tiny metal box.
Now she took a close look at me for the first time, puffing on her pipe while the old woman
beside her sighed. I didn't feel I could look at Mother directly, but I had the impression of
smoke seeping out of her face like steam from a crack in the earth. I was so curious about her
that my eyes took on a life of their own and began to dart about. The more I saw of her, the
more fascinated I became. Her kimono was yellow, with willowy branches bearing lovely green
and orange leaves; it was made of silk gauze as delicate as a spider's web. Her obi was every
bit as astonishing to me. It was a lovely gauzy texture too, but heavier-looking, in russet and
brown with gold threads woven through. The more I looked at her clothing, the less I was
aware of standing there on that dirt corridor, or of wondering what had become of my sisterand
my mother and father-and what would become of me. Every detail of this woman's kimono
was enough to make me forget myself. And then I came upon a rude shock: for there above the
collar of her elegant kimono was a face so mismatched to the clothing that it was as though I'd
been patting a cat's body only to discover that it had a bulldog's head. She was a hideouslooking
woman, though much younger than Auntie, which I hadn't expected. It turned out that
Mother was actually Auntie's younger sister-though they called each other "Mother" and
"Auntie," just as everyone else in the okiya did. Actually they weren't really sisters in the way
Satsu and I were. They hadn't been born into the same family; but Granny had adopted them
I was so dazed as I stood there, with so many thoughts running through my mind, that I ended
up doing the very thing Auntie had told me not to do. I looked straight into Mother's eyes.
When I did she took the pipe from her mouth, which caused her jaw to fall open like a
trapdoor. And even though I knew I should at all costs look down again, her peculiar eyes were
so shocking to me in their ugliness that I could do nothing but stand there staring at them.
Instead of being white and clear, the whites of her eyes had a hideous yellow cast, and made
me think at once of a toilet into which someone had just urinated. They were rimmed with the
raw lip of her lids, in which a cloudy moisture was pooled; and all around them the skin was
I drew my eyes downward as far as her mouth, which still hung open. The colors of her face
were all mixed up: the rims of her eyelids were red like meat, and her gums and tongue were
gray. And to make things more horrible, each of her lower teeth seemed to be anchored in a
little pool of blood at the gums. This was due to some sort of deficiency in Mother's diet over
the past years, as I later learned; but I couldn't help feeling, the more I looked at her, that she
was like a tree that has begun to lose its leaves. I was so shocked by the whole effect that I
think I must have taken a step back, or let out a gasp, or in some way given her some hint of
my feelings, for all at once she said to me, in that raspy voice of hers:
"What are you looking at!"
"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 let out
something of a laugh, though it sounded like a cough.
"So you like it, do you?" she said, continuing to cough, or laugh, I couldn't tell which. "Do you
have any idea what it cost?"
"No, ma'am."
"More than you did, that's for certain."
Here the maid appeared with tea. While it was served I took the opportunity to steal a glance
at Granny. Whereas Mother was a bit on the plump side, with stubby fingers and a fat neck,
Granny was old and shriveled. She was at least as old as my father, but she looked as if she'd
spent her years stewing herself into a state of concentrated meanness. Her gray hair made me
think of a tangle of silk threads, for I could see right through them to her scalp. And even her
scalp looked mean, because of patches where the skin was colored red or brown from old age.
She wasn't frowning exactly, but her mouth made the shape of a frown in its natural state
She took in a great big breath in preparation to speak; and then as she let it out again she
mumbled, "Didn't I say I don't want any tea?" After this, she sighed and shook her head, and
then said to me, "How old are you, little girl?"
"She's the year of the monkey," Auntie answered for me.
"That fool cook is a monkey," Granny said.
"Nine years old," said Mother. "What do you think of her, Auntie?"
Auntie stepped around in front of me and tipped my head back to look at my face. "She has a
good deal of water."
"Lovely eyes," said Mother. "Did you see them, Granny?"
"She looks like a fool to me," Granny said. "We don't need another monkey anyway."
"Oh, I'm sure you're right," Auntie said. "Probably she's just as you say. But she looks to me like
a very clever girl, and adaptable; you can see that from the shape of her ears."
"With so much water in her personality," Mother said, "probably she'll be able to smell a fire
before it has even begun. Won't that be nice, Granny? You won't have to worry any longer
about our storehouse burning with all our kimono in it."
Granny, as I went on to learn, was more terrified of fire than beer is of a thirsty old man.
"Anyway, she's rather pretty, don't you think?" Mother added.
"There are too many pretty girls in Gion," said Granny. "What we need is a smart girl, not a
pretty girl. That Hatsumomo is as pretty as they come, and look at what a fool she is!"
After this Granny stood, with Auntie's help, and made her way back up the walkway. Though I
must say that to watch Auntie's clumsy gait-because of her one hip jutting out farther than the
other-it wasn't at all obvious which of the two women had the easier time walking. Soon I
heard the sound of a door in the front entrance hall sliding open and then shut again, and
Auntie came back.
"Do you have lice, little girl?" Mother asked me.
"No," I said.
"You're going to have to learn to speak more politely than that. Auntie, be kind enough to trim
her hair, just to be sure."
Auntie called a servant over and asked for shears.
"Well, little girl," Mother told me, "you're in Kyoto now. You'll learn to behave or get a beating.
And it's Granny gives the beatings around here, so you'll be sorry. My advice to you is: work
very hard, and never leave the okiya without permission. Do as you're told; don't be too much
trouble; and you might begin learning the arts of a geisha two or three months from now. I
didn't bring you here to be a maid. I'll throw you out, if it comes to that."
Mother puffed on her pipe and kept her eyes fixed on me. I didn't dare move until she told me
to. I found myself wondering if my sister was standing before some other cruel woman, in
another house somewhere in this horrible city. And I had a sudden image in my mind of my
poor, sick mother propping herself on one elbow upon her futon and looking around to see
where we had gone. I didn't want Mother to see me crying, but the tears pooled in my eyes
before I could think of how to stop them. With my vision glazed, Mother's yellow kimono turned
softer and softer, until it seemed to sparkle. Then she blew out a puff of her smoke, and it
disappeared completely.

Chapter four

During those first few days in that strange place, I don't think I could 11 have felt worse if I'd
lost my arms and legs, rather than my family V and my home. I had no doubt life would never
again be the same. All I could think of was my confusion and misery; and I wondered day after
day when I might see Satsu again. I was without my father, without my mother-without even
the clothing I'd always worn. Yet somehow the thing that startled me most, after a week or two
had passed, was that I had in fact survived. I remember one moment drying rice bowls in the
kitchen, when all at once I felt so disoriented I had to stop what I was doing to stare for a long
while at my hands; for I could scarcely understand that this person drying the bowls was
actually me. Mother had told me I could begin my training within a few months if I worked hard
and behaved myself. As I learned from Pumpkin, beginning my training meant going to a school
in another section of Gion to take lessons in things like music, dance, and tea ceremony. All
the girls studying to be geisha took classes at this same school. I felt sure I'd find Satsu there
when I was finally permitted to go; so by the end of my first week, I'd made up my mind to be
as obedient as a cow following along on a rope, in the hopes that Mother would send me to the
school right away.
Most of my chores were straightforward. I stowed away the futons in the morning, cleaned the
rooms, swept the dirt corridor, and so forth. Sometimes I was sent to the pharmacist to fetch
ointment for the cook's scabies, or to a shop on Shijo Avenue to fetch the rice crackers Auntie
was so fond of. Happily the worst jobs, such as cleaning the toilets, were the responsibility of
one of the elderly maids. But even though I worked as hard as I knew how, I never seemed to
make the good impression I hoped to, because my chores every day were more than I could
possibly finish; and the problem was made a good deal worse by Granny.
Looking after Granny wasn't really one of my duties-not as Auntie described them to me. But
when Granny summoned me I couldn't very well ignore her, for she had more seniority in the
okiya than anyone else. One day, for example, I was about to carry tea upstairs to Mother when
I heard Granny call out:
"Where's that girl! Send her in here!"
I had to put down Mother's tray and hurry into the room where Granny was eating her lunch.
"Can't you see this room is too hot?" she said to me, after I'd bowed to her on my knees. "You
ought to have come in here and opened the window."
"I'm sorry, Granny. I didn't know you were hot."
"Don't I look hot?"
She was eating some rice, and several grains of it were stuck to her lower lip. I thought she
looked more mean than hot, but I went directly to the window and opened it. As soon as I did,
a fly came in and began buzzing around Granny's food.
"What's the matter with you?" she said, waving at the fly with her chopsticks. "The other maids
don't let in flies when they open the window!"
I apologized and told her I would fetch a swatter.
"And knock the fly into my food? Oh, no, you won't! You'll stand right here while I eat and keep
it away from me."
So I had to stand there while Granny ate her food, and listen to her tell me about the great
Kabuki actor Ichimura Uzaemon XIV, who had taken her hand during a moon-viewing party
when she was only fourteen. By the time I was finally free to leave, Mother's tea had grown so
cold I couldn't even deliver it. Both the cook and Mother were angry with me.
The truth was, Granny didn't like to be alone. Even when she needed to use the toilet, she
made Auntie stand just outside the door and hold her hands to help her balance in a squatting
position. The odor was so overpowering, poor Auntie nearly broke her neck trying to get her
head as far away from it as possible. I didn't have any jobs as bad as this one, but Granny did
often call me to massage her while she cleaned her ears with a tiny silver scoop; and the task
of massaging her was a good deal worse than you might think. I almost felt sick the first time
she unfastened her robe and pulled it down from her shoulders, because the skin there and on
her neck was bumpy and yellow like an uncooked chicken's. The problem, as I later learned,
was that in her geisha days she'd used a kind of white makeup we call "China Clay," made with
a base of lead. China Clay turned out to be poisonous, to begin with, which probably accounted
in part for Granny's foul disposition. But also as a younger woman Granny had often gone to the
hot springs north of Kyoto. This would have been fine except that the lead-based makeup was
very hard to remove; traces of it combined with some sort of chemical in the water to make a
dye that ruined her skin. Granny wasn't the only one afflicted by this problem. Even during the
early years of World War II, you could still see old women on the streets in Gion with sagging
yellow necks.
One day after I'd been in the okiya about three weeks, I went upstairs much later than usual to
straighten Hatsumomo's room. I was terrified of Hatsumomo, even though I hardly saw her
because of the busy life she led. I worried about what might happen if she found me alone, so I
always tried to clean her room the moment she left the okiya for her dance lessons.
Unfortunately, that morning Granny had kept me busy until almost noon.
Hatsumomo's room was the largest in the okiya, larger in floor space than my entire house in
Yoroido. I couldn't think why it should be so much bigger than everyone else's until one of the
elderly maids told me that even though Hatsumomo was the only geisha in the okiya now, in
the past there'd been as many as three or four, and they'd all slept together in that one room.
Hatsumomo may have lived alone, but she certainly made enough mess for four people. When I
went up to her room that day, in addition to the usual magazines strewn about, and brushes
left on the mats near her tiny makeup stand, I found an apple core and an empty whiskey
bottle under the table. The window was open, and the wind must have knocked down the wood
frame on which she'd hung her kimono from the night before-or perhaps she'd tipped it over
before going to bed drunk and hadn't yet bothered to pick it up. Usually Auntie would have
fetched the kimono by now, because it was her responsibility to care for the clothing in the
okiya, but for some reason she hadn't. Just as I was standing the frame erect again, the door
slid open all at once, and I turned to see Hatsumomo standing there.
"Oh, it's you," she said. "I thought I heard a little mousie or something. I see you've been
straightening my room! Are you the one who keeps rearranging all my makeup jars? Why do you
insist on doing that?"
"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, why do you stink like an ignorant girl from a fishing village?' I'm sure you
understand that, don't you? But let's have you repeat it back to me just to be sure. Why don't I
want you to touch my makeup?"
I could hardly bring myself to say it. But at last I answered her. "Because it will start to smell
like me."
"That's very good! And what will the men say?" "They'll say, 'Oh, Hatsumomo-san, you smell just
like a girl from a fishing village.'"
"Hmm . . . there's something about the way you said it that I don't like. But I suppose it will do.
I can't see why you girls from fishing villages smell so bad. That ugly sister of yours was here
looking for you the other day, and her stench was nearly as bad as yours."
I'd kept my eyes to the floor until then; but when I heard these words, I looked Hatsumomo
right in the face to see whether or not she was telling me the truth.
"You look so surprised!" she said to me. "Didn't I mention that she came here? She wanted me to
give you a message about where she's living. Probably she wants you to go find her, so the two
of you can run away together."
"You want me to tell you where she is? Well, you're going to have to earn the information.
When I think how, I'll tell you. Now get out." I didn't dare disobey her, but just before leaving
the room I stopped, thinking perhaps I could persuade her.
"Hatsumomo-san, I know you don't like me," I said. "If you would be kind enough to tell me
what I want to know, I'll promise never to bother you again."
Hatsumomo looked very pleased when she heard this and came walking toward me with a
luminous happiness on her face. 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. I thought she was going to come whisper in my ear; but after she'd stood over me smiling
for a moment, she drew back her hand and slapped me.
"I told you to get out of my room, didn't I?" she said.
I was too stunned to know how to react. But I must have stumbled out of the room, because
the next thing I knew, I was slumped on the wood floor of the hallway, holding my hand to my
face. In a moment Mother's door slid open.
"Hatsumomo!" Mother said, and came to help me to my feet. "What have you done to Chiyo?"
"She was talking about running away, Mother. I decided it would be best if I slapped her for
you. I thought you were probably too busy to do it yourself."
Mother summoned a maid and asked for several slices of fresh ginger, then took me into her
room and seated me at the table while she finished a telephone call. The okiya's only
telephone for calling outside Gion was mounted on the wall of her room, and no one else was
permitted to use it. She'd left the earpiece lying on its side on the shelf, and when she took it
up again, she seemed to squeeze it so hard with her stubby fingers that I thought fluid might
drip onto the mats.
"Sorry," she said into the mouthpiece in her raspy voice. "Hatsumomo is slapping the maids
around again."
During my first few weeks in the okiya I felt an unreasonable affection for Mother-something
like what a fish might feel 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 to be found there, sitting at the table, usually with an account book from the bookcase
open before her and the fingers of one hand flicking the ivory beads of her abacus. She may
have been organized about keeping her account books, but in every other respect she was
messier even than Hatsumomo. Whenever she put her pipe down onto the table with a click,
flecks of ash and tobacco flew out of it, and she left them wherever they lay. She didn't like
anyone to touch her futon, even to change the sheets, so the whole room smelled like dirty
linen. And the paper screens over the windows were stained terribly on account of her
smoking, which gave the room a gloomy cast.
While Mother went on talking on the telephone, one of the elderly maids came in with several
strips of freshly cut ginger for me to hold against my face where Hatsumomo had slapped me.
The com-rnotion of the door opening and closing woke Mother's little dog, Taku, who was an illtempered
creature with a smashed face. He seemed to have only three pastimes in life-to
bark, to snore, and to bite people who tried to pet him. After the maid had left again, Taku
came and laid himself behind me. This was one of his little tricks; he liked to put himself
where I would step on him by accident, and then bite me as soon as I did it. I was beginning to
feel like a mouse caught in a sliding door, positioned there between Mother and Taku, when at
last Mother hung up the telephone and came to sit at the table. She stared at me with her
yellow eyes and finally said:
"Now you listen to me, little girl. Perhaps you've heard Hatsu-momo lying. Just because she can
get away with it doesn't mean you can. I want to know . . . why did she slap you?"
"She wanted me to leave her room, Mother," I said. "I'm terribly sorry."
Mother made me say it all again in a proper Kyoto accent, which I found difficult to do. When
I'd finally said it well enough to satisfy her, she went on:
"I don't think you understand your job here in the okiya. We all of us think of only one thinghow
we can help Hatsumomo be successful as a geisha. Even Granny. She may seem like a
difficult old woman to you, but really she spends her whole day thinking of ways to be helpful
to Hatsumomo."
I didn't have the least idea what Mother was talking about. To tell the truth, I don't think she
could have fooled a dirty rag into believing Granny was in any way helpful to anyone.
"If someone as senior as Granny works hard all day to make Ha-tsumomo's job easier, think how
much harder you have to work." "Yes, Mother, I'll continue working very hard." "I don't want to
hear that you've upset Hatsumomo again. The other little girl manages to stay out of her way;
you can do it too."
"Yes, Mother . . . but before I go, may I ask? I've been wondering if anyone might know where
my sister is. You see, I'd hoped to send a note to her."
Mother had a peculiar mouth, which was much too big for her face and hung open much of the
time; but now she did something with it I'd never seen her do before, which was to pinch her
teeth together as though she wanted me to have a good look at them. This was her way of
smiling-though I didn't realize it until she began to make that coughing noise that was her
"Why on earth should I tell you such a thing?" she said. After this, she gave her coughing laugh a
few more times, before waving her hand at me to say that I should leave the room.
When I went out, Auntie was waiting in the upstairs hall with a chore for me. She gave me a
bucket and sent me up a ladder through a trapdoor onto the roof. There on wooden struts
stood a tank for collecting rainwater. The rainwater ran down by gravity to flush the little
second-floor toilet near Mother's room, for we had no plumbing in those days, even in the
kitchen. Lately the weather had been dry, and the toilet had begun to stink. My task was to
dump water into the tank so that Auntie could flush the toilet a few times to clear it out.
Those tiles in the noonday sun felt like hot skillets to me; while I emptied the bucket, I couldn't
help but think of the cold water of the pond where we used to swim back in our village on the
seashore. I'd been in that pond only a few weeks earlier; but it all seemed so far away from me
now, there on the roof of the okiya. Auntie called up to me to pick the weeds from between
the tiles before I came back down. I looked out at the hazy heat lying on the city and the hills
surrounding us like prison walls. Somewhere under one of those rooftops, my sister was
probably doing her chores just as I was. I thought of her when I bumped the tank by accident,
and water splashed out and flowed toward the street.
About a month after I'd arrived in the okiya, Mother told me the time had come to begin my
schooling. I was to accompany Pumpkin the following morning to be introduced to the
teachers. Afterward, Hatsumomo would take me to someplace called the "registry office,"
which I'd never heard of, and then late in the afternoon I would observe her putting on her
makeup and dressing in kimono. It was a tradition in the okiya for a young girl, on the day she
begins her training, to observe the most senior geisha in this way.
When Pumpkin heard she would be taking me to the school the following morning, she grew
very nervous.
"You'll have to be ready to leave the moment you wake up," she told me. "If we're late, we may
as well drown ourselves in the sewer ..."
I'd seen Pumpkin scramble out of the okiya every morning so early her eyes were still crusty;
and she often seemed on the point of tears when she left. In fact, when she clopped past the
kitchen window in her wooden shoes, I sometimes thought I could hear her crying. She hadn't
taken to her lessons well-not well at all, as a matter of fact. She'd arrived in the okiya nearly
six months before me, but she'd only begun attending the school a week or so after my arrival.
Most days when she came back around noon, she hid straightaway in the maids' quarters so no
one would see her upset.
The following morning I awoke even earlier than usual and dressed for the first time in the blue
and white robe students wore. It was nothing more than unlined cotton decorated with a
childlike design of squares; I'm sure I looked no more elegant than a guest at an inn looks
wearing a robe on the way to the bath. But I'd never before worn anything nearly so glamorous
on my body.
Pumpkin was waiting for me in the entryway with a worried look. I was just about to slip my
feet into my shoes when Granny called me to her room.
"No!" Pumpkin said under her breath; and really, her face sagged like wax that had melted. "I'll
be late again. Let's just go and pretend we didn't hear her!"
I'd like to have done what Pumpkin suggested; but already Granny was in her doorway,
glowering at me across the formal entrance hall. As it turned out, she didn't keep me more
than ten or fifteen minutes; but by then tears were welling in Pumpkin's eyes. When we finally
set out, Pumpkin began at once to walk so fast I could hardly keep up with her.
"That old woman is so cruel!" she said. "Make sure you put your hands in a dish of salt after she
makes you rub her neck."
"Why should I do that?"
"My mother used to say to me, 'Evil spreads in the world through touch.'And I know it's true too,
because my mother brushed up against a demon that passed her on the road one morning, and
that's why she died. If you don't purify your hands, you'll turn into a shriveled-up old pickle,
just like Granny."
Considering that Pumpkin and I were the same age and in the same peculiar position in life, I'm
sure we would have talked together often, if we could have. But our chores kept us so busy we
hardly had time even for meals-which Pumpkin ate before me because she was senior in the
okiya. I knew that Pumpkin had come only six months before me, as I've mentioned. But I knew
very little else about her. So I asked:
"Pumpkin, are you from Kyoto? Your accent sounds like you are."
"I was born in Sapporo. But then my mother died when I was five, and my father sent me here
to live with an uncle. Last year my uncle lost his business, and here I am."
"Why don't you run away to Sapporo again?"
"My father had a curse put on him and died last year. I can't run away. I don't have anywhere to
"When I find my sister," I said, "you can come with us. We'll run away together."
Considering what a difficult time Pumpkin was having with her lessons, I expected she would be
happy at my offer. But she didn't say anything at all. We had reached Shijo Avenue by now and
crossed it in silence. This was the same avenue that had been so crowded the day Mr. Bekku
had brought Satsu and me from the station. Now, so early in the morning, I could see only a
single streetcar in the distance and a few bicyclists here and there. When we reached the
other side, we continued up a narrow street, and then Pumpkin stopped for the first time since
we'd left the okiya.
"My uncle was a very nice man," she said. "Here's the last thing I heard him say before he sent
me away. 'Some girls are smart and some girls are stupid,' he told me. 'You're a nice girl, but
you're one of the stupid ones. You won't make it on your own in the world. I'm sending you to a
place where people will tell you what to do. Do what they say, and you'll always be taken care
of.' So if you want to go out on your own, Chiyo-chan, you go. But me, I've found a place to
spend my life. I'll work as hard as I have to so they don't send me away. But I'd sooner throw
myself off a cliff than spoil my chances to be a geisha like Ha-tsumomo."
Here Pumpkin interrupted herself. She was looking at something behind me, on the ground.
"Oh, my goodness, Chiyo-chan," she said, "doesn't it make you hungry?"
I turned to find myself looking into the entryway of another okiya. On a shelf inside the door
sat a miniature Shinto shrine with an offering of a sweet-rice cake. I wondered if this could be
what Pumpkin had seen; but her eyes were pointed toward the ground. A few ferns and some
moss lined the stone path leading to the interior door, but I could see nothing else there. And
then my eye fell upon it. Outside the entryway, just at the edge of the street, lay a wooden
skewer with a single bite of charcoal-roasted squid remaining. The vendors sold them from
carts at night. The smell of the sweet basting sauce was a torment to me, for maids like us
were fed nothing more than rice and pickles at most meals, with soup once a day, and small
portions of dried fish twice a month. Even so, there was nothing about this piece of squid on
the ground that I found appetizing. Two flies were walking around in circles on it just as
casually as if they'd been out for a stroll in the park.
Pumpkin was a girl who looked as if she could grow fat quickly, given the chance. I'd sometimes
heard her stomach making noises from hunger that sounded like an enormous door rolling open.
Still, I didn't think she was really planning to eat the squid, until I saw her look up and down
the street to be sure no one was coming.
"Pumpkin," I said, "if you're hungry, for heaven's sake, take the sweet-rice cake from that shelf.
The flies have already claimed the squid."
"I'm bigger than they are," she said. "Besides, it would be sacrilege to eat the sweet-rice cake.
It's an offering."
And after she said this, she bent down to pick up the skewer.
It's true that I grew up in a place where children experimented with eating anything that
moved. And I'll admit I did eat a cricket once when I was four or five, but only because
someone tricked me. But to see Pumpkin standing there holding that piece of squid on a stick,
with grit from the street stuck to it, and the flies walking around . . . She blew on it to try to
get rid of them, but they just scampered to keep their balance.
"Pumpkin, you can't eat that," I said. "You might as well drag your tongue along on the paving
"What's so bad about the paving stones?" she said. And with this-I wouldn't have believed it if I
hadn't seen it myself-Pumpkin got down on her knees and stuck out her tongue, and gave it a
long, careful scrape along the ground. My mouth fell open from shock. When Pumpkin got to
her feet again, she looked as though she herself couldn't quite believe what she'd done. But she
wiped her tongue with the palm of her hand, spat a few times, and then put that piece of squid
between her teeth and slid it off the skewer.
It must have been a tough piece of squid; Pumpkin chewed it the whole way up the gentle hill
to the wooden gate of the school complex. I felt a knot in my stomach when I entered, because
the garden seemed so grand to me. Evergreen shrubs and twisted pine trees surrounded a
decorative pond full of carp. Across the narrowest part of the pond lay a stone slab. Two old
women in kimono stood on it, holding lacquered umbrellas to block the early-morning sun. As
for the buildings, I didn't understand what I was seeing at the moment, but I now know that
only a tiny part of the compound was devoted to the school. The massive building in the back
was actually the Kaburenjo Theater-where the geisha of Gion perform Dances of the Old
Capital every spring.
Pumpkin hurried to the entrance of a long wood building that I thought was servants' quarters,
but which turned out to be the school. The moment I stepped into the entryway, I noticed the
distinctive smell of roasted tea leaves, which even now can make my stomach tighten as
though I'm on my way to lessons once again. I took off my shoes to put them into the cubby
nearest at hand, but Pumpkin stopped me; there was an unspoken rule about which cubby to
use. Pumpkin was among the most junior of all the girls, and had to climb the other cubbies
like a ladder to put her shoes at the top. Since this was my very first morning I had even less
seniority; I had to use the cubby above hers.
"Be very careful not to step on the other shoes when you climb," Pumpkin said to me, even
though there were only a few pairs. "If you step on them and one of the girls sees you do it,
you'll get a scolding so bad your ears will blister."
The interior of the school building seemed to me as old and dusty as an abandoned house.
Down at the end of the long hallway stood a group of six or eight girls. I felt a jolt when I set
eyes on them, because I thought one might be Satsu; but when they turned to look at us I was
disappointed. They all wore the same hairstyle-the wareshinobu of a young apprentice geishaand
looked to me as if they knew much more about Gion than either Pumpkin or I would ever
Halfway down the hall we went into a spacious classroom in the traditional Japanese style.
Along one wall hung a large board with pegs holding many tiny wooden plaques; on each plaque
was written a name in fat, black strokes. My reading and writing were still poor; I'd attended
school in the mornings in Yoroido, and since coming to Kyoto had spent an hour every
afternoon studying with Auntie, but I could read very few of the names. Pumpkin went to the
board and took, from a shallow box on the mats, a plaque bearing her own name, which she
hung on the first empty hook. The board on the wall, you see, was like a sign-up sheet.
After this, we went to several other classrooms to sign up in just the same way for Pumpkin's
other lessons. She was to have four classes that morning-shamisen, dance, tea ceremony, and a
form of singing we call nagauta. Pumpkin was so troubled about being the last student in all of
her classes that she began to wring the sash of her robe as we left the school for breakfast in
the okiya. But just as we slipped into our shoes, another young girl our age came rushing across
the garden with her hair in disarray. Pumpkin seemed calmer after seeing her.
We ate a bowl of soup and returned to the school as quickly as we could, so that Pumpkin could
kneel in the back of the classroom to assemble her shamisen. If you've never seen a shamisen,
you might find it a peculiar-looking instrument. Some people call it a Japanese guitar, but
actually it's a good deal smaller than a guitar, with a thin wooden neck that has three large
tuning pegs at the end. The body is just a little wooden box with cat skin stretched over the
top like a drum. The entire instrument can be taken apart and put into a box or a bag, which is
how it is carried about. In any case, Pumpkin assembled her shamisen and began to tune it with
her tongue poking out, but I'm sorry to say that her ear was very poor, and the notes went up
and down like a boat on the waves, without ever settling down where they were supposed to
be. Soon the classroom was full of girls with their shamisens, spaced out as neatly as
chocolates in a box. I kept an eye on the door in the hopes that Satsu would walk through it,
but she didn't.
A moment later the teacher entered. She was a tiny old woman with a shrill voice. Her name
was Teacher Mizumi, and this is what we called her to her face. But her surname of Mizumi
sounds very close to nezumi-"mouse"; so behind her back we called her Teacher Nezumi-
Teacher Mouse.
Teacher Mouse knelt on a cushion facing the class and made no effort at all to look friendly.
When the students bowed to her in unison and told her good morning, she just glowered back
at them without speaking a word. Finally she looked at the board on the wall and called out
the name of the first student.
This first girl seemed to have a very high opinion of herself. After she'd glided to the front of
the room, she bowed before the teacher and began to play. In a minute or two Teacher Mouse
told the girl to stop and said all sorts of unpleasant things about her playing; then she snapped
her fan shut and waved it at the girl to dismiss her. The girl thanked her, bowed again, and
returned to her place, and Teacher Mouse called the name of the next student.
This went on for more than an hour, until at length Pumpkin's name was called. I could see that
Pumpkin was nervous, and in fact, the moment she began to play, everything seemed to go
wrong. First Teacher Mouse stopped her and took the shamisen to retune the strings herself.
Then Pumpkin tried again, but all the students began looking at one another, for no one could
tell what piece she was trying to play. Teacher Mouse slapped the table very loudly and told
them all to face straight ahead; and then she used her folding fan to tap out the rhythm for
Pumpkin to follow. This didn't help, so finally Teacher Mouse began to work instead on
Pumpkin's manner of holding the plectrum. She nearly sprained every one of Pumpkin's fingers,
it seemed to me, trying to make her hold it with the proper grip. At last she gave up even on
this and let the plectrum fall to the mats in disgust. Pumpkin picked it up and came back to
her place with tears in her eyes.
After this I learned why Pumpkin had been so worried about being the last student. Because
now the girl with the disheveled hair, who'd been rushing to the school as we'd left for
breakfast, came to the front of the room and bowed.
"Don't waste your time trying to be courteous to me!" Teacher Mouse squeaked at her. "If you
hadn't slept so late this morning, you might have arrived here in time to learn something."
The girl apologized and soon began to play, but the teacher paid no attention at all. She just
said, "You sleep too late in the mornings. How do you expect me to teach you, when you can't
take the trouble to come to school like the other girls and sign up properly? Just go back to
your place. I don't want to be bothered with you."
The class was dismissed, and Pumpkin led me to the front of the room, where we bowed to
Teacher Mouse.
"May I be permitted to introduce Chiyo to you, Teacher," Pumpkin said, "and ask your
indulgence in instructing her, because she's a girl of very little talent."
Pumpkin wasn't trying to insult me; 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 didn't speak for a long while, but just looked me over and then said, "You're a
clever girl. I can see it just from looking at you. Perhaps you can help your older sister with her
Of course she was talking about Pumpkin.
"Put your name on the board as early every morning as you can," she told me. "Keep quiet in
the classroom. I tolerate no talking at all! And your eyes must stay to the front. If you do these
things, I'll teach you as best I can."
And with this, she dismissed us.
In the hallways between classes, I kept my eyes open for Satsu, but I didn't find her. I began to
worry that perhaps I would never see her again, and grew so upset that one of the teachers,
just before beginning the class, silenced everyone and said to me:
"You, there! What's troubling your1"
"Oh, nothing, ma'am. Only I bit my lip by accident," I said. And to make good on this-for the
sake of the girls around me, who were staring-I gave a sharp bite on my lip and tasted blood.
It was a relief to me 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 in unison, with
the result that no one stood out. Pumpkin wasn't by any means the worst dancer, and even had
a certain awkward grace in the way she moved. The singing class later in the morning was more
difficult for her since she had a poor ear; but there again, the students practiced in unison, so
Pumpkin was able to hide her mistakes by moving her mouth a great deal while singing only
At the end of each of her classes, she introduced me to the teacher. One of them said to me,
"You live in the same okiya as Pumpkin, do you?"
"Yes, ma'am," I said, "the Nitta okiya," for Nitta was the family name of Granny and Mother, as
well as Auntie.
"That means you live with Hatsumomo-san."
"Yes, ma'am. Hatsumomo is the only geisha in our okiya at present."
"I'll do my best to teach you about singing," she said, "so long as you manage to stay alive!"
After this the teacher laughed as though she'd made a great joke, and sent us on our way.

Part 3...