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Geisha: The Secret History of a Vanishing World
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Geisha: The Secret History of a Vanishing World

3.84  ·  Rating Details ·  1,046 Ratings  ·  75 Reviews
Ever since Westerners arrived in Japan, we have been intrigued by geisha. This fascination has spawned a wealth of fictional creations from Madame Butterfly to Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha. The reality of the geisha's existence has rarely been described. Contrary to popular opinion, geisha are not prostitutes but literally arts people. Their accomplishments might in ...more
Paperback, 434 pages
Published 2001 by Headline (first published 2000)
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Aug 17, 2013 Zanna rated it really liked it
Downer begins with the story of her embarkation on the quest to write this book, unashamedly and amusingly confessing her own mistakes and misconceptions when trying to access the geisha world, understandably well defended by every subtle barrier of etiquette against the exotifying and fetishising tendencies of western journalists. Eventually, perseverance and cake grant her both insight and cautious welcomes, and the real story begins.

This strategy of creating the ambiance of the present geisha
Sydney O
Mar 16, 2017 Sydney O rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history-travel
This is such an interesting book if you enjoy the Japanese traditions of the Geisha women. There is so much detail and raw information here... The author, Downer, is also a journalist, which is how this book became; and, while you can definitely tell through her writing, she does a lovely job.
She gives you the Japanese version in English - she seems to float in-between both worlds for much of her time in Japan. She is an Englishwoman, but she blends - a little.
Overall, I would definitely recomm
Jul 13, 2010 Laurie rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
This book is supposedly a history of geisha in Japan. The author states several times throughout that she was given unprecedented access to the "Floating World" and could therefore explain, in ways never before attempted,the different types of professional women whose job it has been to treat successful Japanese men like clever children. Initially, Downer's description of Japanese customs, social milieu, and social history was very interesting. However, by the fourth chapter, she resorted to end ...more
Sera Trevor
Aug 25, 2014 Sera Trevor rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction, research
A really fascinating book with lots of interesting history.

The one quibble I had with it was that the author seemed torn between her idealization of the geisha life and the obviously problematic aspects. She goes to pains to point out the differences between the modern geisha and the geisha of the past, which is great - obviously times have changed and geisha are not constricted the way they once were. But when she dips into the past, her views get contradictory. She goes into depth about the p
Another book that has been sitting on my bookshelf for ages off the list! Please excuse me while I do a victory dance.

I bought this book back in 2005 or so, so it's been a really long time coming. It's even signed by the author, which probably should have been motivation for me to actually read it. But whatever. I have finally completed it!

I thought that this was a very informative book about the geisha world, both historically and in more recent times. I really enjoyed learning about the origi
Nov 17, 2014 D rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
I found this book really relaxing, although I appreciated the book more as the writer's forays into the 'Floating World' than anything else. (i.e. I did not read this book for reference.) Kind of like a travel book focusing on a theme. Because of this, my most favourite parts are the ones where the writer goes in search of little cakes to give to mama-san and little details like that. Probably reading the book wrong, but?

From the structure of the book, however, I think that Lesley Downer's point
A shallow how-to guide for those that desperately want to become geisha, like the author, but ultimately have no chance in hell (due to their tainted blood). It gives some basic information about the water trade that was interesting though, but is all keeping with the romance and glamour of naughty Japan made popular by Arthur Golden.
Jul 23, 2009 Shelli rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I love reading about the power of women in all its forms. If you love history and Japanese culture, you will enjoy this book.
Sep 10, 2014 Patrick rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Jan 23, 2017 reneeNaDaBomb rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to reneeNaDaBomb by: Research
The book was an ok read.
Sue Thompson
A fantastic and very readable book. I find it rare for a nonfiction book to be described as a page turner, but this is precisely what I found myself doing and this book became responsible for many a tired day at work after I'd been unable to put it down the night before.
It really hits the right mark in my opinion as doesn't presume the reader is already an expert but at the same time doesn't treat you like a fool. It was very obvious that Lesley Downer knows Japan well and that this is a subject
Nov 24, 2011 Tara rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, japan
In secondary school, I studied Japanese as a language, and for one of the final exams I had to take, because I’m not from a Japanese background, I had to spend an ample amount of time studying culture, otherwise the questions wouldn’t have made sense to me. Far from disliking this studying, I became fascinated with Asian culture, especially Japanese.

I’ve previously read books about Geisha, and I couldn’t quite leave this one on the shelf of the second hand bookshop where I found it.

Much like L
Sep 13, 2016 Jessica rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction, history, 2016
This was a great nonfiction look at the mysterious world of geisha, both from a historical and a contemporary perspective. The author lived in Japan for many years and speaks excellent Japanese, so she was able to directly talk to geisha, their clients, and teahouse owners, as well as provide valuable perspective on cultural and linguistic nuances.

Lesley Downer traces the history of the profession, providing some broader context so the reader can understand how geisha have fit into Japanese his
Magdalena Llamandra
Thoroughly enjoyed this.

I picked it up as a discount book that I ~might~ read eventually as it is a subject close to my heart. Started reading it in the car on my way home... and was hooked on reading it before I could read anything else :D

As a "foreigner" that has lived in Japan for a year as an exchange student, I found it admirable that the author as a westerner actually managed to unlock such doors that are tightly sealed with a tipple bolt to most people and that is exactly what made the bo
Shawny Butler
Jul 16, 2015 Shawny Butler rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I read this book about a month ago. I went to my local Half Price Books and found it within the Asian History section. I love to read anything pertaining to the geisha of Japan. I found this book very informative on the history and the making of the modern day geiko and maiko of Kyoto and other districts of Japan I had no clue still existed. I only thought the high class geiko of Kyoto were the last nest of women performing this ancient tradition. Her adventures delving her way into this secret ...more
The Idle Woman
Sep 11, 2016 The Idle Woman rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, japan
For my review, please see my blog:
Jun 10, 2010 Ashley rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: geisha
I found this book right after I had read Memoirs of a Geisha and found myself wanting to know more about the geisha world. Overall I loved the book. I often find myself going back to read the more personal moments when the author is telling about how she lived in the geisha world more often than I go back to look up the actual history. I found myself cheering for her to break through the secrets that the Geisha kept for myself but by the end of the book I came to the thought that there were just ...more
Sep 04, 2008 Anne is currently reading it  ·  review of another edition
I'm only a quarter of the way through this book and I absolutely love it. It's got a great mix of factual history of give you the context and cultural background and understanding of Japan, but also of Geisha and Tayu who are courtesans unlike the Geisha. It's written from the personal experience of the author who lived in Japan and immersed herself as fully in to the subject as a person can. I have to say I'm totally hooked and look for every chance I have to read a few pages. It's truly a fasc ...more
Feb 15, 2010 Lisa rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: japan
This book was...good. The chapters alternated between the modern day geisha culture, author's experience, ect. and the history of the geisha et al. I found everything very interesting and informative, but some of the history read like a college thesis and the way the author went back and forth between present and past so methodically was kind of...amateurish? I don't know. By the end of the book, I was glad I was wrapping it up and I was moving on to new things, BUT the good in this book was rea ...more
Jun 25, 2011 Lady rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: true-stories
The author's voice throughout the book is insanely annoying, she is extremely full of herself and spends whole pages talking about how wonderful and smart she is to have gotten acess to this hidden world. She is obviously a hardcore feminist who seems affronted by the traditions of the geisha and seems in many places in the book very condesending to the geisha traditions shes apparently so interested in.

If you can get past all that its a fairly interesting overview of the history and traditions
Aug 11, 2015 Judith rated it really liked it
Shelves: japan
Downer has lived among geisha and travelled all over Japan to meet them, too.

The result is a wonderful read - an engaging book that gives not only a fascinating and concise history of the geisha and their profession, but also an up-close-and-personal look into the lives of the women who are geisha now. There are stories of famous geisha and stories of old women whose entire lives were spent in this profession, who have their own code, their own language and their own world.

I found the book absol
Jan 10, 2016 Joanna rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
This book had a lot of good information inside and it was obvious the author did her research as well as having lived in Japan while writing it. However there was too much jumping around for me. One minute it was a history lesson and the next it was present day Geisha living. It kept going back and forth too much making it hard to follow. I would have much rather it been in chronological order so as to retain the information better and get a better grasp on the evolution of the Geisha life from ...more
Dec 07, 2013 Bruce rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A book of several parts -- part history, part memoir, part travelogue, and part social commentary -- centering on Geisha culture reveals the gulf of misunderstanding between East and West. The author was able to gain insight into Geisha culture through patience, the Eastern way. She got to know the women by taking a room in their neighborhood. Eventually she gained the confidence of the women and discovered the information that might not otherwise have been available.
This was an intersting and thought provoking read about the history and present of the geishas in Japan. It was though provoking because Downer's analysis of the geisha turned my gender conceptions of Japan around. I would have thought that the geisha represents the most unfree woman in a very patriarchal society. However, as Downer describes it, the geisha is maybe the most free, or at least the most emancipated of all Japanese women. A little too repetitous in parts, hence 3 stars.
May 20, 2013 Jewel rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, asian-lit
Sadly, this book didn't live up to my expectations. I was hoping for a more straight forward history of geisha but ended up with a somewhat scattered history of geisha. Having already read a bunch about geisha, I just didn't find the "inside the ochaya" sections useful. There were good things about this book, for example I really enjoyed the information Downer collected about early geisha from the Heian period to the Tokugawa era. The way this book was organized though, really bothered me.
Jun 19, 2012 Realize rated it really liked it
I enjoyed reading this one. It's so fascinating to read how the geisha world developed and how it is nowadays. I don't know that much of Japanese Culture so I can't tell whether this is accurate or not, but it was a nice reading for sure. Didn't find it boring at all.. it would have been even better if it contained some pictures, but I guess it would spoil privacy and the whole mystery around geishas.
✿ Jenna ✿
Nov 26, 2012 ✿ Jenna ✿ rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: owned-books, reviewed
Inizierò col dire che il libro è stato "tirato" un po' troppo dall'autrice, soprattutto nella seconda parte che ho trovato abbastanza ripetitiva. In ogni caso m'è piaciuto, soprattutto per il fatto che l'autrice stessa si sia fatta strada in questo mondo così affascinante per avere la possibilità di trasmetterci tutto ciò che ha scoperto.. Concorderete se dico che è un libro decisamente interessante se, come me, amate il mondo delle geisha. Consigliato!
May 02, 2011 Crystal rated it liked it
The author is honest about the reluctance of ordinary Japanese people to talk about geisha, as well as her own special status as a foreign woman in Japan. Acknowledging these challenges, she tries to present an insider's view of the geisha. An interesting look at a "known but unknown" part of Japanese culture.
Apr 10, 2016 G rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I found the first half (the evolution of what a geisha is today) to be very interesting and really well laid out but as we progressed more towards the 21st century the narrative started to bore because it just seemed to keep repeating the same ideas constantly. Still I'm happy to had read it . . . at least the first half.
Tara Lynn
Jul 24, 2009 Tara Lynn rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I loved Memoirs of a Geisha, and this is a fantastic scholarly piece for anyone who wants to know more about the history and culture of the geisha, from its earliest origins to today's society. I was impressed by the narrative, which has a ton of information and moves quickly enough to keep a reader interested. Good read!
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I write historical fiction set in Japan - women’s untold stories, largely true and based on meticulous and detailed research, though primarily, of course, good yarns. I’ve just finished The Shogun’s Queen, the fourth of The Shogun Quartet, four novels set in the nineteenth century during the tumultuous fifteen years when Japan was convulsed by civil war and transformed from rule by the shoguns int ...more
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