Author and Journalist


A hidden world: Among the sophisticated geisha of Tokyo

Friday, 17 November, 2017· Last Updated on: Friday, 17 November, 2017

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When Atsu was a child her father had many geisha concubines and there were always geisha around the house. She called them all indiscriminately ‘Auntie.’
Her favourite was Wife Number Two, an earthy woman with a loud laugh and big personality, competent and unshakeable, very different from Atsu’s refined mother, Wife Number One. Wife Number Two knew an infinite number of dirty stories. No matter how elegantly she dressed, when she opened her mouth everyone knew straight away she was a carpenter’s daughter.
‘Men are little boys,’ she’d tell Atsu. ‘They need mothering. That’s the best way to their hearts – mother them.’ Then she taught her an old geisha trick for dealing with unruly guests …

The Shogun’s Queen

Geisha dancing with geisha accompaniment

Geisha dancing with geisha accompaniment

Kiyoha in geisha mode around 2000

Kiyoha in geisha mode around 2000

When I first met Kiyoha, she was an ethereally beautiful woman with long flowing hair. Sitting with her in the hotel where we met it was hard to believe she was a geisha. She was just back from Paris. She had friends there and often went to shop for clothes. She was dressed in filmy French couture which she had bought on her latest trip.

Then she began to tell me about her life as a geisha. Geisha are custodians of classical Japanese culture, she said. Some young women become geisha because they want to train as dancers – the training is every bit as tough as joining the Bolshoi. In Kiyoha’s case she loved classical singing. For her it was a bit like becoming an opera singer.

The one thing she missed was a lover. Her job was to entertain men, to chat, to flirt – and then send them home to their wives. That’s the poignancy of the geisha life. And it’s that bittersweet poignancy, that underlying sadness that makes men love the company of geisha.

In old Japan everyone knew their duty, everyone had a role. Men expected to have different sorts of women in their lives – a wife at home, a concubine if the man was wealthy enough, or a geisha who was a long time lover; and he might also go and buy sex if he felt like it. There were lots of choices for men. Women conversely kept to their roles and couldn’t leave them.

One of the dichotomies in Japan is between honne and tatemae – your true feelings and how you have to behave, your desires and wants and what society demands of you. Many kabuki dramas are about people torn between what they want and what they have to do. In the modern west we no longer care about duty but in old Japan duty was all important.

As we were talking Kiyoha said, ‘Would you like to see me at work?’ I hadn’t dared ask. Then she took her mobile out of her expensive handbag and called one of her customers. He too loved classical singing and over the years they had become friends. Without a moment’s hesitation he agreed to host a party for me. It would, Kiyoha said with a smile, cost him about £5000.

Kiyoha (on the left) is now a highly acclaimed professional singer

Kiyoha (on the left) is now a highly acclaimed professional singer

Me with Kiyoha

Me with Kiyoha

A few days later I made my way to an intimidatingly grand Japanese building with wooden walls flecked with gold, rice straw tatami mats and low lighting. The prime minister was entertaining in another room there, I was told, which explained the limos and bodyguards at the entrance.

Kiyoha was in a kimono with her hair up and wearing pale make up. She introduced me to our host, a middle-aged businessman. There was food and sake and five geisha to entertain us. Two of the geisha were dancers. First they danced very beautifully while other geisha played music. Then Kiyoha sang and the customer sang too. His wife, she said, often came with him but tonight she had been busy.

Ten years later I was back in Tokyo and called Kiyoha. She was excited to hear from me. She was singing at the National Theatre, the equivalent of the Royal Opera House, she said, and asked me to come and watch her perform.

It was a splendid performance, a succession of geisha dances with Kiyoha’s singing as the highlight. She’d risen in the world, she was a star now. Later we chatted. She had her own bar now where she entertained, she told me. But, she added wistfully, she still had no lover.

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Ghosts, demons, fox spirits and pots and pans that torment you in the night

Friday, 3 November, 2017· Last Updated on: Thursday, 2 November, 2017

in Blog

The Shogun's QueenAtsu saw looming faces and felt cobwebby fingers brushing against her skin. She felt the wind of spirits rushing by and heard a roar like the crashing of waves on the beach. It was the cries and moans of all the babies who’d died here, not just babies but women, the maids who’d thrown themselves into wells. Was it not all too likely that the dead consorts were eying her – the new wife, the interloper – with malevolence?

The Shogun’s Queen

Hokusai Sarayashiki

Yurei – the ghost of a woman who’s been pushed into a well comes snaking out
Katsushika Hokusai [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

For the mysterious interstice between Hallowe’en and Bonfire Night, here is a post on Japanese ghosts, demons, goblins, monsters and other terrifying creatures.

Kuniyoshi The Ghosts of Togo and his Wife

The ghosts of Togo and his wife. You can tell they’re ghosts because he has no legs and her hair is loose.
Public Domain

To this day people in Japan know that the dead still make ripples in the lives of the living, particularly if they died too young. My book The Shogun’s Queen is set in the Women’s Palace, a seething claustrophobic place of unimaginable luxury, beauty, wealth and leisure alongside horror, jealousy and murder, where three thousand women lived cheek by jowl and only one man could ever enter – the shogun. Many people died unhappy deaths there. Babies were smothered at birth, maids were pushed down wells, rivals for the shogun’s favour were stabbed or poisoned and their illicit lovers were crucified. The spirits of those who died so unhappily couldn’t just float off peacefully to the other world. They hung around the palace, tormenting the living, or so people believed.

Once at the kabuki theatre I saw the great actor Tamasaburo Bando playing a yurei, the ghost of a woman who has been killed by her husband. Her skin was white, her eyes sunken and ghastly, her hair instead of being long and glossy hung loose and tangled in great knots. She was wearing a long white gown and floating high up the wall. Wailing, she started tearing out her hair in clumps that piled up in a heap on the floor below her. It was one of the most frightening things I’ve ever seen. If you ever meet a beautiful woman wearing a long white gown and floating half way up a wall it means she has no legs. If she starts tearing out her hair and wailing, best run for your life!

Then there’s Kohada Koheiji, a kabuki actor who specialised in yurei roles and whose wife had an affair with one of his rivals. The rival took him out for a boat ride, pushed him into the water and drowned him. But Kohada rose from his watery grave and haunted his wife and her lover for the rest of their lives, leaning over the top of their mosquito net and grinning horribly whenever they were about to make love.

Obaké - umbrella ghost

Obaké – umbrella ghost from the Illustrated Volume of a Hundred Demons 1737 by Sawaki Suushi
By Kanō Enshin ([狩野宴信, Japanese, †1761) (scanned from ISBN 4-09-607023-8.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

There are many ghosts and demons in Japan. The one everyone hears about first is the obaké, who looks like an oiled paper umbrella hopping about on one leg, wearing a wooden clog and with one big eye.

Then there are kappa who kill children, pull horses into water and have the nasty habit of putting a hairy hand up from the toilet (in a squat toilet) and trying to extract your internal organs though your anus. They live in rivers and ponds and are scaly creatures with a tortoise shell on their backs and crucially a saucer shaped indentation on their heads which holds water. The key thing you have to know is that this is the source of their power. When you meet one you should bow low. Kappa are very polite and will bow back and the water will spill out, making it powerless.

Ghosts and monsters exist on the margins. You’re most likely to encounter one at twilight, when day merges into night, at a place where realms cross, like the edge of a town where it turns into country, on a bridge, in a tunnel or at a crossroads, where you have to choose one path or another.

You could be out walking at twilight, at the edge of town, and meet a beautiful woman. You fall instantly in love, get married, have children, and then several years later suddenly spot a fox’s tail sticking out from your wife’s skirts, after which she disappears. There are many scary tales of men out walking in some remote place who meet a beautiful woman. She takes the man to her house where they spend a romantic night together. Next morning he wakes up feeling rather the worse for wear and finds himself alone outside on the cold moor. He goes to look for her but all he can find is a moss-covered gravestone, marked with the name of a woman who died 500 years ago.

Snow Woman from the Illustrated Volume of a Hundred Demons

Snow Woman from the Illustrated Volume of a Hundred Demons – she hugs you and you freeze to death.
By Sawaki Suushi, 1737 (佐脇嵩之) (scanned from ISBN 4-3360-4187-3.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Or, as was reported in the newspapers in the 1890s, you might be a train driver and see a train heading straight towards you on the same track but somehow never getting any closer. You decide to risk it and speed ahead and the other train disappears in a flash. The next day investigators find an old tanuki (racoon fox) dead on the tracks. Or you might buy a cooking pot that screams when you put it on the fire and reveals itself to be a tanuki, badly burnt and probably dead. (Tanuki are rather poor shape changers, unlike foxes).

Cats are another animal that can easily cross the gap. If your cat starts getting larger and growing a forked tail, it could be turning it into a cat ghost, a very nasty creature indeed. (You will find the story of one very famous cat ghost in The Shogun’s Queen.)

Then there’s the Snow Woman who hugs you and you freeze to death.

And there’s the woman you find weeping on the street. When you ask if she’s okay she lifts her sleeve to reveal a face as smooth as an egg, with no eyes, no nose and no mouth. Terrified you rush into the nearest shop. As you’re telling the shopkeeper what happened he turns around and says, ‘Like this?’ – for he too has no face.

A young woman wearing a white mask, such as Japanese wear to avoid passing on a cold, approaches you from behind and taps your shoulder. She asks, ‘Am I pretty?’ You answer politely, ‘Yes.’ She says, ‘Even like this?’ and pulls off her mask to reveal that her mouth is a hideous slit stretching from ear to ear.

Kibyoshi Unshidai Izumoengumi

Sandals that have grown arms and legs
By 十返舎一九 (Jippensha Ikku, Japanese, *1765, †1831) (scanned from 978-4-06-212873-5.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

You can’t even rely on your household implements. When pots, pans, lanterns, candles, sandals, musical instruments, whatever, get to be a hundred they frequently acquire spirits and grow arms and legs and start causing trouble, dancing around, making a noise in the night.

But do they really exist? As Michael Dylan Foster writes in a wonderful book called The Book of Yokai, yokai being the catchall term for all these Japanese monsters, yokai are like fish. They live in a different element. If you look down through the water there’ll be some you recognise and there’ll be others you can’t even see and don’t have a name for.

But just because you can’t see them doesn’t mean they’re not down there.

My latest novel, The Shogun’s Queen, an epic tale set in nineteenth century Japan, is out now in paperback.

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When Love was the Forbidden Fruit

20 October 2017
When Love was the Forbidden Fruit

“He turned away into the darkness and she heard his voice above the ripple and roar of the waves. ‘Okatsu-san, Okatsu-san. Don’t forget me.’ She gave a sob and closed her fingers around the hilt of the dagger and said softly, ‘I won’t, I swear it. I won’t.’” The Shogun’s Queen How do you fall […]

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Living with the Geisha of Kyoto – The Inside Story

6 October 2017
Thumbnail image for Living with the Geisha of Kyoto – The Inside Story

Dark alleys wound between wooden houses with lanterns hanging outside, no doubt tea houses where geiko, the famous geisha of Miyako, entertained. Women in exquisite kimonos clattered by on high clogs, long sleeves swinging. Atsu listened for the tinkle of a shamisen plucking out a plaintive melody. She caught the scent of incense on the […]

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The Once and Future City – A Visit to Edo, Modern-Day Tokyo

21 September 2017
The Once and Future City – A Visit to Edo, Modern-Day Tokyo

To her Edo was a magical place, a city of dreams where brilliant men and beautiful women lived. She gazed transfixed at the map with the perfect cone of Mount Fuji, mystical and beautiful, etched above the network of streets. Together they traced the maze of canals that wound round and round like a snail’s […]

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Edo Castle – Japan’s Versailles

15 September 2017
Thumbnail image for Edo Castle – Japan’s Versailles

Edo Castle was like Louis XIV’s Versailles, a place of fabulous riches, of unimaginable beauty and luxury. Its mammoth granite battlements and gleaming roofs towered above the great city of Edo, the largest city in the world – which we now call Tokyo.

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Concubines, Geisha and Me – Living as a Woman in Japan

8 September 2017
Concubines, Geisha and Me

Atsu smelt kyara and sandalwood, musk and ambergris mingled with camphor and a dank mustiness. Glistening heads with black hair coiled into glossy loops stretched into the gloom. There were several hundred women on their knees but the room was totally silent. The Shogun’s Queen In Japan until recently men and women led very separate […]

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A True Japanese Ghost Story

4 September 2017
Lantern ghost

When Atsu started to drift off she saw looming faces and felt cobwebby fingers brushing against her skin. She felt the wind of spirits rushing by and a roar like the crashing of waves on the beach. It was the cries and moans of all the babies who’d died here. The Shogun’s Queen The Women’s […]

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Tea the Japanese way

25 August 2017
Tea the Japanese way

Princess Konoe lifted the lid of the tiny porcelain tea jar and a fresh sweet scent wafted out. ‘Uji tea,’ she said brightly. ‘The finest in the land. Have you ever tried it?’ Atsu shook her head. ‘An urn of this same tea is sent up to the Great Ruler in Edo every year. All […]

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Lesley Downer speaking on Sadayakko at the Royal Opera House

24 March 2017
Thumbnail image for Lesley Downer speaking on Sadayakko at the Royal Opera House

Click below to watch Lesley speaking on Sadayakko at the Royal Opera House on Tuesday March 14th 2017

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