Today I’m delighted to welcome Lesley Downer to One More Page on the latest stop of her blog tour for her fabulous new novel, The Shogun’s Queen. Lesley has written many books about Japan and its culture, including Geisha: The Secret History of the Vanishing World and the gripping Shogun Quartet; The Last Concubine, The Courtesan and the Samurai and The Samurai’s Daughter. The Shogun’s Queen is the first book in the series.
Lesley’s mother was Chinese and her father a professor of Chinese, so she grew up in a house full of books on Asia. But it was Japan, not China, that proved the more alluring and Lesley lived there for some fifteen years. She lives in London with her husband, the author Arthur I. Miller, and travels to Japan yearly. Welcome Lesley!
Hello, Amanda. First, thank you for inviting me to post on your blog today. I much appreciate it!
Long before I started writing fiction about Japan, long before I began to research The Shogun’s Queen, I decided to write a book on geisha. Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha had been a huge hit. But it struck me as somehow false. It was a version of the Cinderella story, in which the heroine finds redemption by meeting Mr Right. But I felt sure this was a western myth, not a Japanese one.
And so I became curious about geisha. I wondered what their lives were really like.
I’d already spent ten years living in Japan by then. I went to Kyoto, the home of the geisha and a city of beautiful ancient temples. There I found a little room to stay in in the geisha area, in the lea of the Eastern Hills. It’s a beautiful area of narrow streets lined with dark wooden houses with lanterns outside. There’s a stream lined with willow trees and crossed with little stone bridges. Maiko (trainee geisha) clip clopped beneath my balcony but it was hard to know how to approach them.
I had an introduction to an elderly geisha, one of the grand old ladies of the district. I went to visit her taking a gift of expensive cakes. She was tiny like a bird with a perfect unlined face and steely black eyes, wearing an exquisite grey silk kimono. She must have been seventy at least. She took my gift and dumped it to one side.
‘You’re a westerner,’ she said contemptuously. ‘You’ll never understand our customs! Isn’t that what you tell foreigners who come to your country?’
I wanted to say that no, it wasn’t, but I dared not contradict.
‘You have no idea how to behave,’ she added. ‘You can’t just walk in. You must spend time, get to know us, then ask if perhaps we might very kindly introduce you to a geisha or maiko. Come back in a week,’ she added grudgingly.
I’d been in Japan long enough to know I might ruin my chances if I barged up to one of those exotic-looking creatures without an introduction. It was a small community and if I made the smallest slip they would close ranks against me.
Then one day I noticed the hairdresser’s up a little side street alongside the stream. He was outside of that closed community. He was a lively cheerful man who‘d been the geishas’ hairdresser his whole life. He let me watch while he did the maikos’ hair – combing it, ironing it, stretching it, rolling it and moulding it into the helmet-like winged maiko shape, putting in wads of yak’s hair to give extra volume. He was also an enormous source of entertaining geisha gossip.
I also went to visit the wig maker. Maiko are teenagers who begin their five year training in dancing and music at fifteen and they wear their hair in the distinctive maiko hairstyle. But qualified adult geisha wear wigs. When they take them off they can slip unnoticed into the crowd. I even tried on a wig but decided it wasn’t for me.
And every week I took another box of cakes to the stern old geisha and each time she put me off yet again.
I also went to tea ceremony classes. I studied tea ceremony for two years when I was first in Japan and love it. It has elements of mass and tai chi. It’s perfectly choreographed, you do every movement just so. It can be serious or it can be relaxed. And you end up eating a little cake and drinking a delicious cup of bright green tea.
One day the teacher, a rather good-looking young man, took me aside. I’d told him about my frustration.
‘There’s a cake shop where all the geisha buy their cakes,’ he told me. He drew me a map.
I went there. It was down a back street, a very unprepossessing little place, more a stall than a shop. I bought a box of cakes and went yet again to see the fearsome old geisha.
For the first time ever she gave me a smile. ‘The best cakes,’ she said, nodding approvingly. ‘You’ve finally started to learn!’
In fact she never did introduce me to anyone. But by then I’d been around for a couple of months. Her training had actually done me some good. I now knew how to behave around geisha. Little by little they became used to me and took me into their hearts. They invited me into their homes and I met the young maiko that lived there and that they were training. I attended the classes where the maiko learn singing and dancing, went to geisha parties and saw performances of geisha dance.
I was back in Kyoto recently to research my latest novel, The Shogun’s Queen. My geisha friends are still around and I looked them up. My ‘geisha training’ not only taught me how to behave around geisha but also how it feels to be a woman in Japanese society. I shall never forget the lesson I learnt. I’d found my inner geisha.
Thank you Lesley – what wonderful experiences!
The Shogun’s Queen is released on 3rd November in hardback and ebook formats from Bantam Press.
Only one woman can save her world from barbarian invasion but to do so will mean sacrificing everything she holds dear – love, loyalty and maybe life itself . . .
Japan, and the year is 1853. Growing up among the samurai of the Satsuma Clan, in Japan’s deep south, the fiery, beautiful and headstrong Okatsu has – like all the clan’s women – been encouraged to be bold, taught to wield the halberd, and to ride a horse.
But when she is just seventeen, four black ships appear. Bristling with cannon and manned by strangers who to the Japanese eyes are barbarians, their appearance threatens Japan’s very existence. And turns Okatsu’s world upside down.
Chosen by her feudal lord, she has been given a very special role to play. Given a new name – Princess Atsu – and a new destiny, she is the only one who can save the realm. Her journey takes her to Edo Castle, a place so secret that it cannot be marked on any map. There, sequestered in the Women’s Palace – home to three thousand women, and where only one man may enter: the shogun – she seems doomed to live out her days. But beneath the palace’s immaculate facade, there are whispers of murders and ghosts. It is here that Atsu must complete her mission and discover one last secret – the secret of the man whose fate is irrevocably linked to hers: the shogun himself . . .
Find out more about Lesley and her writing at: http://www.lesleydowner.com/