Copyright Okinawa Soba
|City|| As maiko: Osaka|
As geisha: Tokyo
|District|| As maiko: Minami|
As geisha: Shimbashi
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.