From Geisha to Diva: The Kimono of Ichimaru opened at the Fernie Museum on Friday night. Curator Barry Till (left) was among the sellout crowd, who enjoyed sake and sushi in the museum foyer. Kimberley Vlasic/The Free Press

Sushi, sake and silk kimono

“The Kimono of Ichimaru” opening night at Fernie Museum attracts sellout crowd

Geisha were once shrouded in secrecy, abiding by a code of silence that kept their intriguing lives under wraps.

Now, visitors to the Fernie Museum can gain an insight into the fascinating world of Japanese entertainers thanks to a travelling exhibition.

Geisha to Diva: The Kimono of Ichimaru opened on Friday to a sellout crowd, with sake and platters of sushi setting the scene for a night of Japanese culture.

The collection belongs to the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria and celebrates the life of Mitsue Goto, who found fame as the Japanese recording artist and geisha, Ichimaru.

Curator Barry Till described her as the “Madonna of her time”.

“She had a nightingale voice… she became very famous and she actually was able to buy her way out of the geisha-hood, and become simply a singer, a diva,” he said.

“But she continued to live in that lifestyle, she continued to buy geisha kimonos and we ended up with them in Victoria, including a painting of her as well as some prints, which depict her.

“She was sort of the Madonna of her time. From about 1926 to 1933, she was the number one star in Japan and she earned so much money she could buy herself out of the geisha house then continued to be a major entertainer right until she died.”

Till said Ichimaru entertained the Japanese troops during the war then went on to perform in the U.S. She had her own radio and TV shows, living until the age of 91.

Till is a renowned Asian arts curator who spent 36 years at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria before retiring. He was approached by a friend of Ichimaru’s about the collection.

“I immediately saw the potential for it,” he said.

The Kimono of Ichimaru has been enjoyed by art and culture lovers across North America, including at the National Geographic Museum in Washington and the National Textile Museum of Canada in Toronto.

It was also sought by Steven Spielberg for the film adaption of Memoirs of a Geisha.

About a dozen kimono have been lent to the Fernie Museum from the collection, which only continues to grow as Till receives more donations.

He believes it’s the only collection of geisha costume of this size outside of Japan.

“They’re highly esteemed in Japan, they were considered the ideal of femininity,” he said.

“They weren’t really prostitutes, they did provide sex in some cases but you were hiring them more for their talents because they were the most talented singers, dancers, very knowledge, knew the right etiquette, so when a man hired a geisha, they were hiring them more for their skills, their talent.

“If you were being rude and being a lout, you wouldn’t get any sex and you’d still get a huge bill. They did have a lot of power from that aspect.”

The Kimono of Ichimaru is showing in Fernie until September 22. Residents can learn the arts of geisha, such as calligraphy, through a series of workshops and events over the coming months.

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