I reviewed Geisha of Gion as part of my course through the London School of Journalism. As much as I enjoy fiction, I relish reading about real-life experiences. What made this book even more appealing to my creative spirit, was that it’s about an intriguing foreign culture, lifestyle, and art form.
In her memoir, Geisha of Gion, Mineko Iwasaki boldly sets out to provide insight into the enigmatic, and somewhat misunderstood, world of the Japanese geisha by sharing her journey from timid young girl to world-famous geisha.
From the start, Iwasaki’s life is influenced by an appreciation for aesthetics. Her parents, both artists, filled their home with beautiful things – quartz crystals, bamboo decorations and musical instruments.
Iwasaki’s father, a textile artist, instilled in her a love for kimono – the traditional, handcrafted Japanese garment made of silk. Ironically, they are indispensable to the image of a geisha.
But her seemingly idyllic childhood is interrupted by the sudden appearance of an older sister, Yaeko, and mysterious visits by Madam Oima, mistress of an okiya – a traditional geisha lodging house.
At the tender age of five, Iwasaki makes the life-changing decision to leave her parents’ home and join Madam Oima’s okiya.
Within a few years, she begins her artistic training and comes to adore the geisha dance. It is this art that binds her, for more than forty years, to the demanding, yet richly rewarding life of a geisha.
But at the height of her highly successful career, Iwasaki, now headstrong and independent, makes another life-changing choice: to leave the confines of the ‘flower and willow world’.
While skilfully weaving tales of the artistic and social traditions of Japanese culture around her own emotional and psychological journey, Iwasaki provides the reader with a deeper understanding of the role of the geisha within society, and the demands of living up to such high aesthetic and artistic expectations.