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Written by Lesley Downer, it is one of the most comprehensive desciption of the geisha profession and life in English. Ever since Westerners came to Japan, they have been fascinated by the geisha world. But as it is so private and secretive, few have been able to truely understand what goes on behind the shoji doors of the okiya and ochaya. This book dispells the myth with fact presented in a very warm, accessible way.

Lesley Downer had many years of experience in Japan before she started her research for the book. But despite the fact she spoke excellent Japanese, she found this task a challenge. Many weeks were spent almost fruitlessly in Kyoto, while she rented a Gion apartment. However with some luck and patience she was able to get a foot in the door of the geisha world. From then on, every person she met who was connected in some way to that life told her more and more about this curious trade.

Almost every aspect of the profession is outlined, ranging from the origin of the geisha and subsequent history, to how geisha operate today. There are historic references, describing the origin of geisha from the exclusive courtesans and original training methods, as well as the present state of affairs. She makes no attempt to sidestep the decline of the geisha profession, through cheaper and more accessible modes of "female entertainment". However she does note that there are enough young women still signing up to keep the tradition going. Tough lessons in the tea ceremony, ikebana, and playing the koto (as well as other traditional instruments) still attracts girls who want to be financially independent in a non-conventional industry.

Perhaps the most important feature of this book is that Lesley Downer gives a personal description of the geisha, maiko and those around them. We see them as real people, rather than some overgrown ornate dolls. Their life runs at a hectic pace, with the girls sometimes going to bed very late and rising still fairly early. She was able to visit the okiya where they live, interview maiko and geisha of all ages in a cosy, convivial atmosphere. Beneath the layers of white makeup are real girls and young women, who read magazines, gossip, watch TV and even clutch stuffed teddies in their sleep.

It does not have the interest of Memoirs of a Geisha, but after the cynicism of Arthur Golden's book, this was a wonderful portrait of life in Gion and Japan as a whole, for these remarkable ladies. Geisha by Liza Dalby reads almost like a university dissertation, and she appears a bit self-conceited due to her insistence of being a real geisha. However in truth she merely wore borrowed kimono and went with her shamisen to the ochaya of Pontocho for a little while, along with a group of geisha who were helping her with her research. Liza made her "debut" as Ichigiku, younger sister of the geisha Ichiume, but there is little chance she would be the equal of a young woman who had trained for several years. Perhaps her clients were too drunk to notice. Whether she was the victim of a practical joke by her geisha "friends" is unknown (but I would not have put it past them).

It has been argued that much of her success was due to the support of Arthur Golden, who has mentioned her in reprints of Memoirs of a geisha (and vice versa). Personally I feel that bad writers flock together.

On the other hand, Lesley Downer does not try to pretend to be something she clearly is not. She is always an observer, who mentions her feeling of privilege at being accepted by the community. There is one case where she puts on a geisha wig, but this is only for fun - she even appears a little embarrassed in some of the pictures. Lesley would be the first to highlight the dedication and skill of the modern geisha and maiko, rather than trivialising it by pretending to be one.

She successfully balances her personal experiences with geisha and those involved in the industry, with the knowledge essential in understanding how the geisha evolved into what we know about them today. Though she expresses her pleasure at being let into their community, she is always aware of the fact that it is a very private world and one that no one can claim to completely be at ease or familiar with.

Available in hardback and paperback, published by Headline.

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