The book opens by presenting the geisha’s life and family before coming to Gion. She was a young girl, belonging to a fisherman, who grew up in a fishing village called Yoroido. She grew up as being the youngest one and often being compared to her mother with whom she shared the same unusual eye color, a light grey, not common among Japanese people. Her father’s name was Sakamoto Minoru and he was married before but his wife and also his two children, a boy and a girl, died.
After that Sakamoto Minoru married again and together with his new wife had two daughters, Chyo and Satsu. The older daughter resembled her father both in manner and physical appearance while Chyo was more like her mother.
When Chyo was seven, her mother became ill. Despite that the village doctor, Miura, tried to help her, it seemed that there was no more hope for her. Chyo overheard her father and the doctor talk about her mother and she started fearing what would happen if her mother were to die.
When her father sent Chyo into the village to bring incense for the altar, she felt down and was rescued by Tanaka Ichiro, the owner of the Japan Costal Seafood Company. He took care of her and recognized her as being Sakamoto’s daughter. Chyo then started to look up to Mr., Tanaka because she saw him as being more mannered than the others.
The very next day, Chyo meets Mr. Tanaka again as she spies on her sister making out with one of the village boys. Mr. Tanaka invites Chyo and her sister to come to his house the next day and they agree.
The next day, they are first taken to Mr. Tanaka’s office where the two girls meet old women that Chyo calls Ms. Fidget, and examines them. After that, they are taken to Mr. Tanaka’s house. Chyo meets Tanaka’s daughter who is the same age as she is and the idea that Mr. Tanaka wants to adopt her and her sister grows inside of her.
A few days pass until one day, Mr. Tanaka sends after the two girls. Instead of adopting them, they are taken to the train station where a man awaits for them and the two girls are taken to Kyoto. There, Chyo is taken to a geisha house in the Gion district and is separated from her sister.
In the house lives only another geisha named Hatsumomo who immediately dislikes Chyo because she sees her as a potential threat. The house is also inhabited by Granny, an old geisha, Mother, a person who only cares about money, Auntie, a failed geisha, and Pumpkin, another girl the same age as Chyo brought to become a geisha.
Chyo starts as a servant, doing chores and whatever she is put up to, but after a while, she is sent to be trained as a geisha together with Pumpkin. Hatsumomo tries to get rid of Chyo by making her life miserable, withholding information about her sister’s whereabouts and blaming the destruction of Mameha’s kimono, a rival of Hatsumomo’s, on Chyo. Auntie, knowing Hatsumomo’s character, warns Chyo not to trust her.
Chyo’s sister tries to get in touch with her but Hatsumomo doesn’t let her. Because she wants to torment Chyo, Hatsumomo lets her know that her sister searched her but refused to tell her where she is and where she works.
One day, Chyo is sent to go and give Hatsumomo an instrument at a tea house and she uses the opportunity to go and find Satsu. Chyo finds her sister in the pleasure district and they set the date when they would run away, Satsu refusing to run away that night because they had no money.
When Chyo arrives at the okyia, Hatsumomo reveals that Chyo went to see her sister to Mother. Because of this, Chyo tells Mother that Hatsumomo has a boyfriend, a peasant named Koichi, fact that could endanger Hatsumomo’s career and the okyia’s revenue. Mother punishes Hatsumomo and forbids her from seeing her lover again, which only makes Hatsumomo hate Chyo more.
Despite Auntie and Pumpkin’s warnings, Chyo tries to run so she could meet with her sister. She goes up on the roof believing that she can escape that way but ends up falling and breaking her arm. Mother gets angry with her and decides that she will no longer pay for Chyo’s training to be a geisha and that from that day on, Chyo will pay her debts by being a slave to the okyia. That day, Chyo also finds that her sister had run away from the pleasure house and is nowhere to be found.
A few years passed and while Pumpkin continues her training as a geisha, Chyo remains a servant in the okyia. One day, when Chyio returned home from running errands, she stops on a bridge and reflects on how miserable her life has been. A man passing by accompanied by another geisha stops to comfort her, telling her kind words and buying her shaved ice and giving her some money and his handkerchief. Chyo knows him only as the Chairman, since that was what the geisha called him, and it is then when she decides that she wants to become a geisha too, just to have the chance to meet him again. Chyo keeps the handkerchief but donates the money to a temple hoping that that way she will be closer to becoming a geisha.
Grandmother dies in an accident and at her funeral, Mameha comes to pay her respects. Mameha takes an interest in Chyo and manages to convince Mother to let Chyo begin her training as a geisha again under her tutelage and they set a bet concerning Chyo’s ability to pay all her debts by the age of 20.
When Chyo starts her training as a geisha again, Pumpkin is already an apprentice geisha who has taken the name Hatsumiyo and has Hatsumomo as her older sister.
Chyo becomes close to Mameha who tells her more about Hatsumomo and why she is considered as being a failed geisha. Despite her fame and steady income, Hatsumomo is unable to get a danna, or a man who will pay for what she needs and make her financially independent. Because of this, Hatsumomo has to remain in the okyia and under Mother’s authority because she needs the okyia’s kimono collection. Mameha suspects that the reason why Hatsumomo hates Chyo is because she is more beautiful that she is and that she suspects that one day Mother will chose to adopt her as a daughter and thus making Hatsumomo loose her power in the okyia.
With Mameha’s help, Chyo soon becomes a geisha and adopts the name Sayuri. Mameha begins to introduce Sayuri through the district but her efforts are in vain because Hatsumomo starts spreading rumors about Sayuri and how she is no longer a virgin. Because of this, Mameha is more determined to make everything she can to throw Hatsumomo out of Gion.
Mameha arranges that Sayuri’s virginity or mizuage to be bided between two influential men: a doctor that is known for buying the virginity of a large number of geishas including Mameha and the president of Iwamura Electric, Toshikazu Nobu. Sayuri meet Nobu at a summon match where she was taken by Mameha and it was there when she also meet, the Chairman again, Ken Iwamura who happened to be a close friend and business partner with Nobu.
The doctor is ready to give up bidding for Sayuri’s virginity when he hears that she may not be intact but is convinced not to do it by Mameha.
Before the bidding is done, Sayuri attends a party at the villa owned by Mameha’s danna, the Barron. There, the Barron tries to sexually assault Sayuri , undressing her. As a result, the Barron also bids for Sayuri’s virginity but loses against the Doctor.
After Sayuri is no longer a virgin, Mother decides to officially adopt Sayuri and make her heiress to the okyia. Hatsumomo and Pumpkin get angry but they can’t convince Mother to change her mind.
Hatsumomo starts to behave reckless and is eventually thrown out of the okyia by Mother, and is never seen again.
Nobu manifests his wish to become Sayuri’s danna but loses when Mother chooses General Tottori instead. Even is The General doesn’t lavish Sayuri with gifts, he proves to be useful when Japan is on the brick of war in the World War II, providing necessities and not only and protecting the okyia from being seized and searched by the military.
The general falls from his position and is no longer able to help them just when the geisha district is closed. Many geishas are sent to work in factories and lose their lives because the factories were frequently bombed. Sayuri goes to the General to ask him to send her somewhere safe but he is unable to as he used his influence to protect another girl.
Sayuri is helped by Nobu and she ends up sent to a kimono maker that now made parachutes, outside the city and safe from the bombing.
At the end of the war, Nobu goes back to Sayuri and asks for her help. Because of the war, many factories were destroyed, including a few belonging to Iwamura Electric. Nobu and the Chairman needed Sayuri to entertain the new Deputy Minister Sato who could help them rebuilt and save the company.
Sayuri agrees and goes back to Gion where the okyia is opened again. Together with Mameha and Pumpkin, they start to entertain the Minister on a regular basis, and the Minister ends up getting attached to Sayuri to the point where he proposes himself to be her danna. The minister is however made to drop his proposal by Nobu who also wanted to become Sayuri’s danna.
Sayuri dreads the idea of Nobu becoming her danna because of her feeling for the Chairman. Sayuri starts to form a plan to make Nobu give up the idea of becoming her danna by staging to be caught while having sexual relationships with the Minister on a trip she took together with Nobu, The Chairman, Pumpkin and Mameha to an island.
Sayuri asks Pumpkin to bring Nobu to the place where she and the Minister will be, but she brings the Chairman instead to get revenge on Sayuri.
They return to Gion and Sayuri realizes that she lost the trust Nobu had in her but also that she ruined whatever chance she had with the Chairman.
After a while, Syuri meets with the Chairman again and they confess their feelings. The Chairman reveals that he didn’t pursued Sayuri because he saw how much Nobu got attached to her and didn’t wanted to ruin the relationship that may form between them.
The Chairman and Sayuri kiss and for Sayuri, that was the first time she felt loved.
Sayuri retires from being a geisha and the Chairman becomes her danna. She moves to New York after a while and it is implied together they had an illegitimate son. The two of them continue to love each other until the day the Chairman dies.
The book ends presenting Sayuri in New York, having a little tea house opened there, and reflecting on life.