Living among the extraordinary maiko of Kyoto, Japan – Guest post by Lesley Downer, author of The Shogun’s Queen

The Shogun's Queen by Lesley DownerThis week, Bantam Press publishes Lesley Downer’s new novel The Shogun’s Queen. This attractive novel, set during the middle years of the 19th century, tells of the transformation of the young and beautiful Okatsu from being an independent and free-sprited member of a samurai people, the Satsuma Clan, to becoming Princess Atsu, concubine and consort to the shogun himself. The Shogun’s Queen is both a romance and an adventure as Atsu’s changing fortunes are played out against a backdrop of Japanese politics, piracy, warfare and secrets. And Atsu is destined to play a role at the heart of it.

I’m delighted to host a guest post from Lesley Downer as part of the blog tour that celebrates the publication of The Shogun’s Queen. In it, Lesley tells us of her own experiences while researching the novel, a journey that led her to live among the geisha and maiko of Japan.

Living among the extraordinary maiko (trainee geisha) of Kyoto, Japan

When I’m in grey wintry London I spend a lot of my time in my mind back in Japan. There men and women lead rather separate lives and I was privileged to find myself welcomed into the women’s world. I often think back to the extraordinary time when I lived among geisha.

When I was in Kyoto doing research for my latest novel, The Shogun’s Queen, I often went back to Miyagawa-cho, the geisha district where I used to live, to look up my friends among the geisha and maiko.

The upstairs room I stayed in for 6 months there only had three proper walls. The fourth was just sliding glass doors which didn’t do a very good job of keeping out the cold in winter or the heat in summer. I could hear every noise on the street outside. The doors opened onto a narrow balcony. I’d stand there and look down at the maiko clip clopping by on their high wooden clogs, chattering and laughing.

Lesley with a maiko friend

Lesley with a maiko friend

Maiko are trainee geisha. Most are in their mid-teens but they are magical creations – creatures of artifice, not teenagers. Their hair is oiled into stiff wings by the local hairdresser, who tucks in wads of yak’s hair to give volume. In the evening their faces are painted shimmering white and glow in the dark and they paint just the middle of the bottom lip with a single petal of bright red, which gives their mouths a pouting, bee stung look. They wear spectacular richly-coloured kimonos with long sleeves with bells that tinkle as they walk and a stiff very long obi sash of glittering brocade tied into a huge bow at the back with the ends hanging nearly to the ground.

They’re walking works of art – which is what the word ‘geisha’ means – ‘artiste’. Gei is ’arts’, sha is ’person’. In Kyoto the trainee geisha (aged 15 to 20) are called maiko – literally ‘dancing girls’ and the adults who’ve finished their training and qualified as geisha are geiko – ‘arts girls’. In all the other cities in Japan – and yes, there are geisha in every city in Japan – they are called geisha.

People always ask me if they sleep with men for money. My answer is that that’s like asking whether ballet dancers or opera singers sleep with men for money. Geisha are professional dancers and singers and skilled at the art of keeping the conversation light and entertaining – the perfect hostesses, in fact, and many a man’s ideal wife. They get paid quite enough – an enormous amount – just to do what they do.

Lesley in geisha makeup

Lesley in geisha makeup

Even at sixteen the maiko – the young trainee geisha – are already gracious and composed and confident.
Koharu was one of my favourites. I was once walking down the narrow street in Miyagawa-cho, lined with dark wooden houses with paper lanterns hanging outside. It was beginning to rain and I’d forgotten my umbrella. Koharu, a sixteen-year-old from a country town in the north, ran over and walked alongside me, holding her oiled paper umbrella over my head to protect me. She walked with tiny steps, toes pointed in. It was daytime, so she wasn’t wearing makeup. Her face was washed clean and she had huge innocent eyes.

In her bedroom she had a hard wooden pillow to stop her hair being mussed. She also had photographs of her pin ups, film stars and pop stars, tucked along the mirror. One had come to Kyoto and asked to be entertained by maiko and she’d been chosen to sit next to him, pour his drink and talk to him. She told me about it bubbling with excitement.

I also saw her at work in the evening, no longer a wide-eyed sixteen-year-old but a beauty with a white-painted face, pouring sake for rich and powerful men, teasing them, making them feel young again.

Being a maiko is a bit like being a model. There’s a distinctive look, a distinctive way of walking. Koharu was a country girl, a farmer’s daughter, but as a maiko she mixed with the richest, most powerful men in the realm – for those are the people who attend geisha parties. It was a sure way to rise in the world.

Last time I was back I heard that Koharu had left and gone back up north to get married but many of my other geisha friends were still there. I feel extraordinarily privileged to have been welcomed into their world.

In the end I collected my experiences into a book about geisha and went on to write several more books about the extraordinary worlds which women occupied in old Japan. The most recent, The Shogun’s Queen, is set largely in the vast harem in Edo Castle – a place where three thousand women lived and only one man, the shogun, could enter. But that’s another story!

For other stops on the blog tour, please take a look at the poster below.

Blog tour poster


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