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From critically acclaimed author and Japanese scholar Lesley Downer, an enchanting portrait of the mysterious world of the geisha.
Ever since Westerners arrived in Japan, they have been intrigued by Japanese womanhood and, above all, by geisha. This fascination has spawned a wealth of extraordinary fictional creations, from Puccini's Madama Butterfly to Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha. The reality of the geisha's existence, though, whether today or in history, has rarely been addressed.
Contrary to popular opinion, geisha are not prostitutes but, literally, "arts people." Their accomplishments include singing, dancing, playing a musical instruments; but above all, they are masters of the art of conversation, soothing the worries and stroking the egos of the wealthy businessmen who can afford their attentions. It is this which imbues the geisha with such power—and which makes absolute secrecy such a crucial aspect of their work.
As denizens of a world defined by silence and mystery, geisha are notoriously difficult to meet and even to find. Lesley Downer, an award- winning writer, Japanese scholar, and consummate storyteller, gained more access into this world than almost any other Westerner ever has and spent several months living among them. In Women of the Pleasure Quarters, she weaves together intimate portraits of modern geisha with the romantic legends and colorful historical tales of geisha of the past.
From Sadda Yakko, who dined with American presidents and had her portrait painted by Picasso, to Koito, a modern-day geisha who maintains her own website, geisha throughout history step out of the pages of Women of the Pleasure Quarters to become living, breathing creatures. Looking into such traditions as mizuage, the ritual deflowering which was once a rite of passage for all geisha, and providing colorful depictions of the geisha's dress, training, and homes, Downer, with grace, elegance, and respect, transforms their reality in a captivating narrative that both informs and entertains.
At once a symbol of a bygone age and an institution more quintessentially Japanese than any other, geisha are a society at a crossroads, struggling to reinvent their place in the new millennium while honoring the traditions of the past. Both instructive and evocative, Women of the Pleasure Quarters is an enthralling portrait of a world unlike any other.
Inspired by Arthur Golden's massively popular Memoirs of a Geisha to "meet the real geisha" in the last stronghold of geisha training in Japan, Downer skillfully intertwines her profiles of Kyoto personalities and tea-house customs with a fluidly written geisha history that's unabashedly aimed at a Western audience. Author of On the Narrow Road and The Brothers: The Hidden World of Japan's Richest Family, Downer was no stranger to the country. However, she found the entrance to the "geisha world" heavily guarded. She writes: "I was always an outsider, I could never step through the looking glass." But small successes (finding the right cakes to present to "the mama," a very powerful geisha) and patience eventually won Downer a place at events that are "utterly closed to outsiders." These included an invitation to a young girl's misedashi ("store opening"), the "rite of passage" from trainee to geisha. We also learn, for example, of the distinction that has developed between a prostitute and a geisha (which translates as "arts person"), who undergoes intense and lengthy apprenticeships in dance and music. Written in dynamic, highly readable prose, the book is supported by exhaustive research and a lengthy bibliography. Readers who were as smitten with Golden's geisha as Downer was will find this good companion reading. Photos.