From the Collection of Rob Oechsle
|City|| As maiko: Osaka|
As geisha: Tokyo
|District|| As maiko: Minami|
As geisha: Shimbashi
Before ImmortalGeisha.com was launched, there was a website called The Geiko Gallery, ran by Jim Gatlan, a collector of old Japan photographs and postcards. Jim and I became online friends, sharing our mutual love of collecting bijin photographs. In many ways, he was one of my original mentors while starting my way into the wonderful world of collecting postcards.
Jim enjoyed sharing wonderful images from his collection, however, there was one beautiful, yet haunting face that he kept coming across. Curious about who she was, Jim set out on what he initially thought would be an impossible mission - to find out the name of the young geisha, and to learn about her life.
Much to Jim's surprise, he was immediately successful! The young geisha turned out to be Teruha, a geisha from Shimbashi who had lead a rather "checkered" life. While Teruha was well known in Japan, she wasn't in the West. Jim researched about her and wrote a wonderful article, and then an article about his search for her and then Teruha became known to us all.
It was with great sadness that I learnt of Jim's passing. While The Geiko Gallery remained online for a while, it eventually disappeared from the internet, taking along with it the story of Teruha. After many years of being offline, it was purely by happenstance that I discovered a fellow postcard collector and mentor, Rob Oechsle, was also in communication with Jim all those many years ago. Before Jim passed away, he shared with Rob his research documents on Teruha, and Rob was also able to save copies of The Geiko Gallery before it disappeared for good.
It is with great pleasure that we are able to present to you again the story of Teruha, as written by Jim Gatlan, and his heartwarming account of searching for, and discovering her.
From the Geisha House to the Temple...
The Story of Teruha, Geisha, Postcard Model and Priest!
Often, the image the word "Geisha" paints in most people's mind is one of elegance, style, wealth and beauty. Literature and prose suggests a rather gilded life, dedicated to the perfection of artistic pursuits. Very little is known about the lives of the Geisha from a personal prospective, or what actually occurs behind the gilded curtain of beauty and poise.
A mere peek into the life a Geisha is rare in and of itself. I was thrilled to discover the story of a young woman who lived such a life, but the added fact that she was one of the most featured Geisha in my postcard collection only added to the thrill as her life unfolded during a recent trip to Japan.
What I learned about this young Geisha was more than I ever expected. Her life was far more remarkable that even the wildest or most vivid imagination might dream up about the life of a sophisticated Tokyo Geisha.
From the glitz and fame of a turn of the century Geisha, to late Meji period beauty queen status, to suicidal depression and failed marriages. Our postcard Geisha traveled a road that eventually led from broken hearted affairs, to inner peace as a temple Priest. From shimmering kimonos to the habits of a nun, from New York's Wall Street, to the wooded silence of Kyoto. This is the story of Teruha. She was born in Osaka in 1896. Her real name was Tatsuko Takaoka. It is unclear how, or under what circumstances she made her way to Tokyo, but at the age of 13, after a brief training period, she became a Shimbashi Tokyo Geisha, and took the name Teruha, (Ter-rue-ha), which means "Shining Leaf".
The life of a Shimbashi Geisha at the turn of the century was a charmed life, complete with a certain amount of celebrity status attached to it. It was about this time that photography was becoming popular as an art form, and Shimbashi Geisha was a popular subject for many photographers, as well as a favored topic for many postcard publishers. Teruha enjoyed posing for many of the young and dashing photographers who eagerly hired her to pose for them. The newly published postcards was great advertising for the young and ambitious Teruha.
Teruha was painfully aware that her chosen profession was very much dependent upon her youth and her beauty to a large extent, and she also knew these were assets that she must use while she still possessed them. During her young Geisha days she was involved in a number of romantic affairs, most of which ended in failure.
Around the age of 16, she fell in love and had her heart broken, and tried to commit suicide by cutting off her little finger. She recovered from both the suicide attempt, and the broken heart, and at age 23 married a stock broker and moved to New York. Soon, the marriage ended however, and she returned to Japan and tried to reenter the Geisha community. She had a great deal of difficulty getting a license however, since she was said to have no talent. Most likely, this was retribution from her peers for the marriage and the move to New York. So Teruha returned to New York and studied dance for a few years in an effort to overcome her lack of talent.
She eventually returned to Japan again, and was successful in becoming a Geisha again. She soon turned most of her efforts towards teaching dance to other Geisha in the district. She remained active to some degree as a Geisha in her own right, and before long, she tried marriage again. This time, Teruha married a medical professor and tried to live as an ordinary housewife, but once again the marriage failed. After her second failed marriage, it was now virtually impossible for her to become a Geisha again, so she sought work wherever she could as an actress, a bar madam and even still as a model. During this period in her life, Teruha struggled through several failed affairs that later she described as "A Checkered Life!"
As is so often the case with troubled people who find themselves locked in a cycle of deep depression, Teruha eventually turned to her religion for a peace and purpose in her life that she had not been able to find as a Geisha. In 1935, at the age 39, she decided to dedicate her life to Buddha and entered the priesthood as a monk. She found herself in the Sagano / Arashiyama area of old Kyoto, at the famous Gio-Ji Temple.
The Gio-Ji Temple is noted for having been founded by two sisters, Gioh and Ginyo who were both loved by the same man, Kiyomori Taira. The affair ended and the sisters secluded themselves in the Heiko Monogatari area to spend the remainder of their lives in quite contemplation and solitude among the bamboo forests the area is famous for. Over the years, Gio-Ji Temple became a place of refuge for many broken hearted women who lived out their lives in the modest temple. It became known in some circles as the Temple of the Broken Hearted. Teruha became one of the broken hearted, and spent the remainder of her days there also.
At Gio-Ji, she took the name Chi syo, which means "Clever Sunshine". She soon became a very popular monk, and later, she rose to the position of Head Priest at the all-female temple. She never escaped the notoriety of her Geisha days, and her failed suicide attempt as a young lover. She was known to some, as "The Nine Fingered Geisha", and to others, "The Nine Fingered Priest!" Sometime later during her life at Gio-Ji, Chi syo (Teruha) published a book about her life called "Bird Eating Flowers" . She also published a book in diary form about her checkered life called "The long life of a leaf" The fascinating story of her checkered life did not escape the eyes of the Japanese literary world. Several years ago, a popular novel was based upon her life, (sadly, to the best of my knowledge, none of these books were ever translated from Japanese.)
Despite her troubled youth, Teruha lived a very long and religiously active life. She was well known and loved in the Heiko Monogatari area around Gio-Ji, although she rarely ventured from the temple grounds. She readily spoke to people about her checkered life, and participated in the writing of the novel based on her life. She proved to be a very capable Head Priest, and skillfully administered the Gio-Ji.
The checkered life of the young Shimbashi Geisha, turned Priest came to an end at Gio-Ji in 1995 at the age of 99. Her remains rest on the beautiful temple grounds that she loved so much. By all accounts, Teruha found the happiness that she so desperately sought as a young woman within the confines of the this simple but elegant temple. She never tried to escape her past, the temple was left an impressive collection of Teruha postcards upon her death, instead, she used her troubled youth as a foundation for her faith and dedication in her later life.
During her brief period as a Geisha, Teruha left a legacy of delicate and subtle images that many postcard collectors throughout the world enjoy nearly a hundred years after they were first published. I am sure that she had no idea of the popularity her photos have gained outside of Japan. Her life was filled with the satisfaction she discovered within her religion, and that of Gio-Ji after she turned her back on the Geisha world. Still however, I think she would smile with the knowledge that her old photos have found a treasured place in the hands of many admirers around the world.
It is my hope that story of Teruha, the nine fingered Geisha, will be remembered by her collectors and admirers wherever they may be.
The Search for a Vintage Postcard Model...
Finding a 1909 Geisha in the Land of the Rising Sun
Admittedly, it was a long shot. At times, I thought it would be downright impossible. The passage of time, incomplete, lost or destroyed records of publishers long since gone made the thought of identifying a particular Geisha on a particular postcard seem like a lost cause. Still, it had a certain appeal, especially in the case of the postcard model I came to know as Teruha.
This is the story of how I stumbled on not only her name, but her entire life story.
Over the months, I bought and sold quite a number of Teruha cards. I kept several for my private collection, but duplicates were auctioned off. Three of my best customers, Tina Crumpacker of Florida, Ashley Weber Thompson of Oklahoma and Barbara Perry of Alabama bought the majority of my auctioned Teruha cards, and built quite an impressive collection. Soon, like me, they began to wonder about the identity of the young Geisha featured in so many of our cards.
It was Ashley who first brought up the question of who she was, (we used the term 'was', since we assumed she was probably dead due to the age of the cards), and Barbara also was curious. Tina offered encouragement in trying to identify her since she also enjoyed Teruha cards. But the thought of tracking down a woman nearly 100 years old, in a foreign country with nothing to go on but a postcard seemed like a real long shot. But what the heck, I had a trip planned to Japan anyway, so I packed a card or two, and off I went.
Upon my arrival in Japan, my dear friend Riuko Hamasaki presented me with a book as a gift. The book was a photo book that loosely translated to being about late Meji period beauty queens. As I leafed through the beautiful book, I was stunned to see the photos on page 127. Displayed were photos of the very Geisha Ashley, Barbara, Tina and myself had wondered about. Moreover, one of the illustrations used on the book was one of my favorite postcards of the young woman. Suddenly, a task I thought was nearly impossible earlier, was unfolding within hours of my arrival in Tokyo.
The next day, when my friend arrived to begin our tour, I asked her about the book, and my postcard model. Sure enough, I had not been dreaming. A brief bio was given about my postcard model, named Teruha, along with a mention that she eventually became a priest at the Gio-Ji Temple on the outskirts of Kyoto.
My travel plans were quickly changed to include a visit to Gio-Ji. My hopes were of course that Teruha might somehow still be alive and at the temple. But her age would now be 104, (I learned from the book that she had been born in 1896), not impossible, but also not likely. Otherwise, I hoped to locate her grave and perhaps find someone still at Gio-Ji who might remember her.
When I arrived at Gio-Ji, I was surprised to find it not at all like the typical Japanese temple or shrine. There were no ornate decorations, not elaborate carvings or statues, just a simple elegance and charm that belied the history and story behind the temple. Somehow, as I learned more and more about the troubled life of Teruha, the spartan temple seemed to fit her well, or she fit Gio-Ji.
What Gio-Ji lacked in opulence, it made up for in charm and warmth. This point applied not only to the lovely grounds, but the staff of the temple as well. Two volunteers who worked at the temple selling admission tickets were very helpful and eagerly answered my questions about Teruha.
As it turns out, there was never really a mystery at all as to the identify of the young postcard Geisha. Teruha was somewhat of a celebrity in Japan, and the temple staff remembered her fondly, (she died in 1996 at the age of 99). They knew of her past as a Geisha, a model, and the strange tale of her attempted suicide by cutting off her finger, and they willingly spoke about her as if recalling the adventures of a long lost friend.
Where Teruha lived as a monk, and later the Head Priest of temple, was pointed out to me. I was also shown her final resting place. Remarkably, the temple had copies of two books written by Teruha later in her life for sale in the temple office, and I was pleased to add them to my library.
The last area of Gio-Ji I visited was the small section of the temple where past monks and Priests are laid to rest. This is where my search for the lovely little Geisha came to it's conclusion. I quickly found her marker, and I was pleased to see that she is well tended, and cared for, as evidenced by the fresh flowers that adorned her stone.
I was very pleased to have visited the temple, and later, I was afforded a chance to talk (via Riuko as my interpreter) to the current Head Priest about Teruha. As it turns out, the present Priest, Chieko, was Teruha's successor as administrator the temple. She spoke warmly of Teruha, and I learned that she left behind a collection of her postcards which Gio-Ji now treasures. I am only sorry that time didn't permit me a chance to view the collection.
What began as an improbable search at best, turned into a quick and complete discovery that answered the questions that Ashley, Barbara, Tina and myself has wondered about from afar. We did not 'find' her, because she was never lost. We did not 'discover' her, because she was already well known in her own country. But we now know her, and this knowledge lends a new appreciation for the young Geisha on the old postcards that we know and enjoy so much.
I hope that her name is forever linked to her cards that trade in cyber space around the world, And that she finds the same admiration outside of Japan, as she enjoyed at her beloved Gio-Ji.