Memoirs of a Geisha (Chapter 5)
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 a retirement 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-jii-saaaannnnnnnn!”
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 do!”
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 your 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 accident.
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 hand.
“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 ajar 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 howHatsumomo 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 true.”
“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 apattern 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 beautifully.
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 was.
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 did.
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.