memoirs-of-a-geisha chapter 8


From Chiyo to Sayuri

Pumpkin had come to the Nitta okiya six months before I arrived. She was born in Sapporo. Her mother died when she was five and her father sent her to Kyoto to live with an uncle. Then the uncle lost his business and he sent Pumpkin to Mrs. Nitta.

Pumpkin was the kind of girl who could get fat quickly, if she had the chance. But they didn’t give us much to eat at the okiya, just rice at most meals, with soup once a day and a little dried fish twice a month. Sometimes in the night I’d hear Pumpkin’s stomach making noises from hunger.

On our first walk to geisha school together, she suddenly said, «Oh Chiyo-chan! Doesn’t it make you hungry?»

We were passing a small Shinto shrine. Inside there were sweet-rice cakes on shelves, but Pumpkin didn’t mean them. Outside the doorway, just on the edge of the street, there was a small piece of fish on the sidewalk. You could buy fish like that in the street; somebody had dropped the last piece. Two flies were walking around in circles on it.

«Pumpkin,» I said, «if you’re hungry, take a sweet-rice cake from that shelf. Don’t eat the fish, the flies have got it.»

«I’m bigger than they are,» said Pumpkin, and she bent down and picked up the fish.

«Pumpkin!» I cried out. «Why don’t you eat the sidewalk?»

«OK,» she said, and she bent down and licked the sidewalk with her tongue.

When Pumpkin got to her feet again, she clearly couldn’t believe what she’d done. But she put the dirty piece of fish in her mouth and chewed it all the way to the block where the school was.

I now know that only some of that block was the school itself. Part of it was actually the Kaburenjo Theater-where the geisha of Gion perform Dances of the Old Capital every spring.

I followed Pumpkin into a long wooden building next to the theater; this was the school. There was a smell of roasted tea leaves which even now makes my stomach turn over. Halfway down a hall was a big, traditional-style Japanese classroom. We put our names down for four classes that morning-shamisen, dance, tea ceremony, and a kind of singing we call nagauta.

Some people call a shamisen a Japanese guitar, but actually it’s a lot smaller than a guitar. It has a thin wooden neck, and the entire instrument can be taken apart and put into a box or bag so you can carry it about.

Pumpkin tried to play shamisen before the class started, but even after more than two years, as I knew from listening to her practice, she wasn’t very good at it. The room tilled with girls who began practicing shamisen.

Then the teacher came in. She was a tiny old woman with a high voice. Her name was Teacher Mizumi and this is what we called her to her face. But her name, Mizumi, sounds like nezumi — mouse; so behind her back we called her Teacher Mouse.

Pumpkin led me to the front of the room, where we bowed to Teacher Mouse.

«May I introduce Chiyo to you, Teacher,» Pumpkin said, «and ask you to teach her because she is a girl of very little talent.»

Pumpkin wasn’t being rude; this was just the way people spoke back then, when they wanted to be polite. My own mother would have said it the same way. Teacher Mouse looked at me and then said, «You’re a smart girl. I can see it just from looking at you. Maybe you can help your sister with her lessons.»

Of course she was talking about Pumpkin.

Then we went back to our places, and Teacher Mouse called a girl to the front of the room. After bowing to the teacher, the girl began to play. In a minute or two Teacher Mouse told her to stop and said all sorts of unpleasant things about her playing; then she shut her fan and waved it at the girl to send her to the back of the room.

This continued for more than an hour, then it was Pumpkin’s turn. I could see she was nervous and she played badly, even for her. Nobody could tell what tune she was trying to play.

Teacher Mouse banged the table and told her to stop. She hit her fan on the table to give Pumpkin the tune. She put Pumpkin’s fingers in the right place on the shamisen-but nothing helped. She sent Pumpkin away to the back of the class and Pumpkin walked slowly, with tears in her eyes.

I was pleased that Pumpkin’s other classes weren’t as painful to watch as the first one had been. In the dance class, for example, the students practiced the moves together, with the result that no one looked too bad. And Pumpkin wasn’t the worst dancer in the group. The singing class, later in the morning, was more difficult for her because she couldn’t hear a tune. But there again, the students practiced together, so Pumpkin was able to hide her mistakes by moving her mouth a lot and singing quietly.

After I’d been going to these lessons for some time, I started learning to play a small drum we call a tsutsumi. At parties at teahouses, geisha sing with a shamisen only. But when they perform at the theater, for example in Dances of the Old Capital every spring, six or more shamisen players play together with drums and other instruments. Geisha learn to play all these instruments.


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