Tatsuko Takaoka’s story, though steeped in sepia and deeply romantic, is also the story of a woman in charge of her own destiny in a milieu where such independence was rare. Born in Osaka in 1896, she made her way to Tokyo and at the age of 13 became a Shimbashi Tokyo Geisha, taking the name Teruha (Shining Leaf). Heartbroken at 16, she cut off one of her little fingers, at which point she was nicknamed ‘The Nine-Fingered Geisha’. She recovered from her heartbreak, marrying a stock broker and moving to New York City in her early twenties. The cabaret scene welcomed her warmly—the Broadway choreographer Michio Ito hosted a party for her, and she took to Western dance moves like a duck to water. Takaoka then decided to further her education at a ‘Domestic Science School’ in the city’s suburbs, where she fell in love with a woman named Hildegard. Her marriage subsequently ended and she returned to Japan, hoping to become a geisha again. However, the divorce was a mark against her, so she went back to New York to study dance; then travelled to London and later to Paris, where she gave birth to a baby girl (whose father’s identity was a mystery). At 28, Takaoka returned to Japan again and began teaching dance to other geisha. After a second marriage to a professor of medicine also fell apart, she was shunned by the geisha community, so she worked as an actress, model and the madam of a bar; and had a series of love affairs (calling this period ‘a chequered life’). When she was 39—in a sharp if not entirely surprising turn—she became a Buddhist nun, changing her name to Chishō (Clever Sunshine). Fittingly, she found her spiritual home at Kyoto’s Gio-ji Temple, which is also known as the Temple of the Brokenhearted because its namesake, a dancer, took spiritual vows after being spurned by her powerful lover. Takaoka died there in 1995 at the age of 99, bequeathing the temple a treasure trove of postcards (a series of her younger self as Teruha) collected over the years.
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