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Chapter 14

I've heard it said that the week in which a young girl prepares for her debut as an apprentice geisha is like when a caterpillar turns into a butterfly. It's a charming idea; but for the life of me I can't imagine why anyone ever thought up such a thing. A caterpillar has only to spin its cocoon and doze off for a while; whereas in my case, I'm sure I never had a more exhausting week. The first step was to have my hair done in the manner of an apprentice geisha, in the "split peach" style, which I've mentioned. Gion had quite a number of hairdressers in those days; Mameha's worked in a terribly crowded room above an eel restaurant. I had to spend nearly two hours waiting my turn with six or eight geisha kneeling here and there, even out on the landing of the stairwell. And I'm sorry to say that the smell of dirty hair was overpowering. The elaborate hairstyles geisha wore in those days required so much effort and expense that no one went to the hairdresser more than once a week or so; by the end of that time, even the perfumes they put in their hair weren't of much help.

When at last my turn came, the first thing the hairdresser did was put me over a large sink in a position that made me wonder if he was going to chop off my head. Then he poured a bucket of warm water over my hair and began to scrub it with soap. Actually "scrub" isn't a
strong enough word, because what he did to my scalp using his fingers is more like what a workman does to a field using a hoe. Looking back on it, I understand why. Dandruff is a great problem among geisha, and very few things are more unattractive and make the hair look more unclean. The hairdresser may have had the best motives, but after a while my scalp felt so raw, I was almost in tears from the pain. Finally he said to me, "Go ahead and cry if you have to. Why do you think I put you over a sink!"

I suppose this was his idea of a clever joke, because after he'd said it he laughed out loud.

When he'd had enough of scraping his fingernails across my scalp, he sat me on the mats to one side and tore a wooden comb through my hair until the muscles of my neck were sore from pulling against him. At length he satisfied himself that the knots were gone, and then combed camellia oil into my hair, which gave it a lovely sheen. I was starting to think the worst was over; but then he took out a bar of wax. And I must tell you that even with camellia oil as a lubricant and a hot iron to keep the wax soft, hair and wax were never meant to go together. It says a great deal about how civilized we human beings are, that a young girl can willingly sit and allow a grown man to comb wax through her hair without doing anything more than whimpering quietly to herself. If you tried such a thing with a dog, it would bite you so much you'd be able to see through your hands.

When my hair was evenly waxed, the hairdresser swept the forelock back and brought the rest up into a large knot like a pincushion on the top of the head. When viewed from the back, this pincushion has a split in it, as if it's cut in two, which gives the hairstyle its name of "split peach."

Even though I wore this split-peach hairstyle for a number of years, there's something about it that never occurred to me until quite some time later when a man explained it. The knot-what I've called the "pincushion"-is formed by wrapping the hair around a piece of fabric. In back where the knot is split, the fabric is left visible; it might be any design or color, but in the case of an apprentice geisha-after a certain point in her life, at least-it's always red silk. One night a man said to me:

"Most of these innocent little girls have no idea how provocative the 'split peach' hairstyle really is! Imagine that you're walking along behind a young geisha, thinking all sorts of naughty thoughts about what you might like to do to her, and then you see on her head this split-peach shape, with a big splash of red inside the cleft . . . And what do you think of?"

Well, I didn't think of anything at all, and I told him so.

"You aren't using your imagination!" he said.

After a moment I understood and turned so red he laughed to see it.

On my way back to the okiya, it didn't matter to me that my poor scalp felt the way clay must feel after the potter has scored it with a sharp stick. Every time I caught a glimpse of myself in the glass of a shop, I felt I was someone to be taken seriously; not a girl anymore, but a young woman. When I reached the okiya, Auntie made me model my hair for her and said all sorts of kind things. Even Pumpkin couldn't resist walking once around me admiringly-though Hatsumomo would have been angry if she'd known. And what do you suppose Mother's reaction was? She stood on her tiptoes to see better-which did her little good, because already I was taller than she was-and then complained that I probably ought to have gone to Hatsumomo's hairdresser rather than Mameha's.

Every young geisha may be proud of her hairstyle at first, but she comes to hate it within three or four days. Because you see, if a girl comes home exhausted from the hairdresser and lays her head down on a pillow for a nap just as she did the night before, her hair will be flattened out of shape. The moment she awakens, she'll have to go right back to the hairdresser again. For this reason, a young apprentice geisha must learn a new way of sleeping after her hair is styled for the first time. She doesn't use an ordinary pillow any longer, but a taka-makura-which I've mentioned before. It's not so much a pillow as a cradle for the base of the neck. Most are padded with a bag of wheat chaff, but still they're not much better than putting your neck on a stone. You lie there on-your futon with your hair suspended in the air, thinking everything is fine until you fall asleep; but when you wake up, you've shifted somehow so that your head has settled back on the mats, and your hairstyle is as flat as if you hadn't bothered to use a tall pillow in the first place. In my case, Auntie helped me to avoid this by putting a tray of rice flour on the mats beneath my hair. Whenever my head drooped back while I slept, my hair sank into the rice flour, which stuck to the wax and ruined my hairstyle. I'd already watched Pumpkin go through this ordeal. Now it was my turn. For a time I woke up every morning with my hair ruined and had to wait in line at the hairdresser for my chance to be tortured.

Every afternoon during the week leading up to my debut, Auntie dressed me in the complete regalia of an apprentice geisha and made me walk up and down the dirt corridor of the okiya to build up my strength. In the beginning I could scarcely walk at all, and worried that I might tip over backward. Young girls dress much more ornately than older women, you see, which means brighter colors and showier fabrics, but also a longer obi. A mature woman will wear the obi tied in back in a manner we call the "drum knot," because it makes a tidy little box shape; this doesn't require very much fabric. But a girl younger than around twenty or so wears her obi in a showier fashion. In the case of an apprentice geisha, this means the most dramatic fashion of all, a darari-obi-"dangling obi"-knotted almost as high as the shoulder blades, and with the ends hanging nearly to the ground. No matter how brightly colored a kimono might be, the obi is nearly always brighter. When an apprentice geisha walks down the street in front of you, you notice not her kimono but rather her brilliantly colored, dangling obi-with just a margin of kimono showing at the shoulders and on the sides. To achieve this effect the obi must be so long that it stretches all the way from one end of a room to the other. But it isn't the length of the obi that makes it hard to wear; it's the weight, for it's nearly always made of heavy silk brocade. Just to carry it up the stairs is exhausting, so you can imagine how it feels to wear it-the thick band of it squeezing your middle like one of those awful snakes, and the heavy fabric hanging behind, making you feel as if someone has strapped a traveling trunk to your back.

To make matters worse, the kimono itself is also heavy, with long, swinging sleeves. I don't mean sleeves that drape over the hand onto the ground. You may have noticed that when a woman is wearing kimono and stretches out her arms, the fabric below the sleeve hangs down to form something like a pocket. This baggy pocket, which we call the/wn, is the part that's so long on the kimono of an apprentice geisha. It can easily drag along the ground if a girl isn't careful; and when she dances, she will certainly trip over her sleeves if she doesn't wrap them many times around the forearm to keep them out of the way.

Years later a famous scientist from Kyoto University, when he was very drunk one night, said something about the costume of an apprentice geisha that I've never forgotten. "The mandrill of central Africa is often considered the showiest of primates," he said. "But I believe the apprentice geisha of Gion is perhaps the most brilliantly colored primate of all!"

Finally the day came when Mameha and I were to perform the ceremony binding us as sisters. I bathed early and spent the rest of the morning dressing. Auntie helped me with the finishing touches on my makeup and hair. Because of the wax and makeup covering my skin, I had the strange sensation of having lost all feeling in my face; every time I touched my cheek, I could feel only a vague sense of pressure from my finger. I did it so many times Auntie had to redo my makeup. Afterward as I studied myself in the mirror, a most peculiar thing happened. I knew that the person kneeling before the makeup stand was me, but so was the unfamiliar girl gazing back. I actually reached out to touch her. She wore the magnificent makeup of a geisha. Her lips were flowering red on a stark white face, with her cheeks tinted a soft pink. Her hair was ornamented with silk flowers and sprigs of un-husked rice. She wore a formal kimono of black, with the crest of the Nitta okiya. When at last I could bring myself to stand, I went into the hall and looked in astonishment at myself in the full-length mirror. Beginning at the hem of my gown, an embroidered dragon circled up the bottom of the robe to the middle of my thigh. His mane was woven in threads lacquered with a beautiful reddish tint. His claws and teeth were silver, his eyes gold-real gold. I- couldn't stop tears from welling up in my eyes, and had to look straight up at the ceiling to keep them from rolling onto my cheeks. Before leaving the okiya, I took the handkerchief the Chairman had given me and tucked it into my obi for good luck.

Auntie accompanied me to Mameha's apartment, where I expressed my gratitude to Mameha and pledged to honor and respect her. Then the three of us walked to the Gion Shrine, where Mameha and I clapped our hands and announced to the gods that we would soon be bound as sisters. I prayed for their favor in the years ahead, and then closed my eyes and thanked them for having granted me the wish I'd pleaded for three and a half years earlier, that I should become a geisha.

The ceremony was to take place at the Ichiriki Teahouse, which is certainly the best-known teahouse in all of Japan. It has quite a history, partly because of a famous samurai who hid himself there in the early 17005. If you've ever heard the story of the Forty-seven Ronin- who avenged their master's death and afterward killed themselves by seppuku-well, it was their leader who hid himself in the Ichiriki Teahouse while plotting revenge. Most of the first-class teahouses in Gion are invisible from the street, except for their simple entrances, but the Ichiriki is as obvious as an apple on a tree. It sits at a prominent corner of Shijo Avenue, surrounded by a smooth, apricot-colored wall with its own tiled roof. It seemed like a palace to me.

We were joined there by two of Mameha's younger sisters, as well as by Mother. When we had all assembled in the exterior garden, a maid led us through the entrance hall and down a beautiful meandering corridor to a small tatami room in the back. I'd never been in such elegant surroundings before. Every piece of wood trim gleamed; every plaster wall was perfect in its smoothness. I smelled the sweet, dusty fragrance of kuroyaki-"char-black"-a sort of perfume made by charring wood and grinding it into a soft gray dust. It's very old-fashioned, and even Mameha, who was as traditional a geisha as you would find, preferred something more Western. But all the kuroyaki worn by generations of geisha still haunted the Ichiriki. I have some even now, which I keep in a wooden vial; and when I smell it, I see myself back there once again.

The ceremony, which was attended by the mistress of the Ichiriki, lasted only about ten minutes. A maid brought a tray with several sake cups, and Mameha and I drank together. I took three sips from a cup, and then passed it to her and she took three sips. We did this with three different cups, and then it was over. From that moment on, I was no longer known as Chiyo. I was the novice geisha Sayuri. During the first month of apprenticeship, a young geisha is known as a "novice" and cannot perform dances or entertain on her own without her older sister, and in fact does little besides watching and learning. As for my name of Sayuri, Mameha had worked with her fortune-teller a long while to choose it. The sound of a name isn't all that matters, you see; the meaning of the characters is very important as well, and so is the number of strokes used to write them-for there are lucky and unlucky stroke counts. My new name came from "sa," meaning "together," "yu," from the zodiac sign for the Hen-in order to balance other elements in my personality-and "ri," meaning "understanding." All the combinations involving an element from Mameha's name, unfortunately, had been pronounced inauspicious by the fortune-teller.

I thought Sayuri was a lovely name, but it felt strange not to be known as Chiyo any longer. After the ceremony we went into another room for a lunch of "red rice," made of rice mixed with red beans. I picked at it, feeling strangely unsettled and not at all like celebrating. The mistress of the teahouse asked me a question, and when I heard her call me "Sayuri," I realized what was bothering me. It was as if the little (girl named Chiyo, running barefoot from the pond to her tipsy house, no longer existed. I felt that this new girl, Sayuri, with her gleaming white face and her red lips, had destroyed her.

Mameha planned to spend the early afternoon taking me around Gion to introduce me to the mistresses of the various teahouses and okiya with which she had relationships. But we didn't head out the moment lunch was done. Instead she took me into a room at the Ichiriki and asked me to sit. Of course, a geisha never really "sits" while wearing kimono; what we call sitting is probably what other people would call kneeling. In any case, after I'd done it, she made a face at me and told me to do it again. The robes were so awkward it took me several tries to manage it properly. Mameha gave me a little ornament in the shape of a gourd and showed me how to wear it dangling on my obi. The gourd, being hollow and light, is thought to offset the heaviness of the body, you see, and many a clumsy young apprentice has relied upon one to help keep her from falling down.

Mameha talked with me a while, and then just when we were ready to leave, asked me to pour her a cup of tea. The pot was empty, but she told me to pretend to pour it anyway. She wanted to see how I held my sleeve out of the way when I did it. I thought I knew exactly what she was looking for and tried my best, but Mameha was unhappy with me.

"First of all," she said, "whose cup are you filling?"

"Yours!" I said.

"Well, for heaven's sake, you don't need to impress me. Pretend I'm someone else. Am I a man or a woman?"

"A man," I said.

"All right, then. Pour me a cup again."

I did so, and Mameha practically broke her neck trying to peer up my sleeve as I held my arm out.

"How do you like that?" she asked me. "Because that's exactly what's going to happen if you hold your arm so high."

I tried pouring again with my arm a bit lower. This time, she pretended to yawn and then turned and began a conversation with an imaginary geisha sitting on the other side of her.

"I think you're trying to tell me that I bored you," I said. "But how can I bore you just pouring a cup of tea?"

"You may not want me looking up your sleeve, but that doesn't mean you have to act prissy! A man is interested in only one thing. Believe me, you'll understand all too soon what I'm talking about. In the meantime, you can keep him happy by letting him think he's permitted to see parts of your body no one else can see. If an apprentice geisha acts the way you did just then-pouring tea just like a maid would-the poor man will lose all hope. Try it again, but first show me your arm."

So I drew my sleeve up above my elbow and held my arm out for her to see. She took it and turned it in her hands to look at the top and the bottom.

"You have a lovely arm; and beautiful skin. You should make sure every man who sits near you sees it at least once."

So I went on, pouring tea again and again, until Mameha felt satisfied that I drew my sleeve out of the way enough to show my arm without being too obvio............

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