Liza Dalby first went to Japan as a teenager, spending a year with a family in Saga City, on the southernmost island of Kyushu. In the late 1960s Saga was quite rural—a very different environment from the bustle of Tokyo or sophistication of Kyoto. Liza was the first, and at the time the only, foreign student at Saga University. Since she knew only the barest rudiments of Japanese when she arrived, and without any English-speakers in the area, the first few months were quite difficult. Yet painful as it was at the time, it was also a very effective way to absorb Japanese language and social skills. Walking down the street one day, she heard the sound of the shamisen and was immediately entranced. Her Japanese family arranged for lessons with the local nagauta teacher, and thus Liza began to study the instrument that was later to prove crucial in making connections to the geisha world.
Liza attended Swarthmore College when she returned from Japan, and there encountered the field of cultural anthropology. Initially fascinated by kinship charts in an introductory course, she discovered an intellectual discipline that endeavored to come to grips with the variation of human cultures. Her earlier experience in Japan was still in a way undigested, and anthropology seemed to offer the intellectual tools for chewing on it. She went back to Japan for her junior year, spending the summer sitting Zen at Daitokuji and then attending Sophia University in Tokyo. After graduation from Swarthmore, Liza went on to graduate school in anthropology at Stanford University. During her second year, she conducted an offshoot of her advisor's research in a fishing village on a small island in the Inland Sea, and then for her own dissertation research decided to study the question of the place of the geisha in modern Japan. She planned to study these closed communities of professional entertainers according to their history, regional variation, and social meaning. She certainly never planned to become a geisha herself, although that is what eventually happened.
It quickly became apparent that geisha felt themselves to be misunderstood in the west. After spending six months on interviews and historical research, Liza found the geisha had come to accept her seriousness and seemed to think she might be someone who could articulate their own point of view to a western audience. It was as if the geisha themselves developed a stake in her gaining an understanding of their world. Thus the suggestion that she borrow appropriate kimono and take her shamisen to the teahouses of Pontochô came from the geisha. The rationale was unassailable and Liza made her debut as Ichigiku, younger sister of Ichiume. When she eventually wrote her book Geisha, her experiences as a novice geisha proved invaluable in presenting the insider's view of this world.about_LD2.html