Kyoto, Japan in the 1930s and 40s
It's a Beautiful Day in the Geishaborhood
Hey there. Yeah you. Want a geisha?
Well, if you want the best geisha in the world, you have to go to Kyoto, Japan. And travel back in time a few decades, when geisha were at the height of their popularity. That's not to say that they aren't still popular today—people even travel to Kyoto to photograph them. But the height of geisha culture (or the low point, depending on your perspective on geisha) is the time period written about in the book.
Besides cellphones, what changed? World War II, that's what. Although the Second World War gets only a handful of paragraphs in the book, its effects on geisha culture were catastrophic. Sayuri says, "Our country wasn't simply defeated, it was destroyed" (29.9). We see the geisha district of Gion get temporarily shut down, and it can barely recover. After all, geisha are like products. Would you return to a store if it kept going out of business?
Also, the war brings white Americans to Japan, which changes the culture and the methods geisha need to use to attract business. Americans don't understand the culture, and Pumpkin alludes to the parties being different. (We imagine there's more sex and less tea at these shindigs.)
Our setting within a setting is the Nitta okiya, which is basically a boarding house for geisha. It reminds us of a modern-day sorority house. It's run by a house mother, they go to parties, and there are hazing rituals. Girls must first work their way up the ranks, starting as a maid, before they end up a geisha.
Also, like the geisha, the house itself needs to be maintained. Sayuri realizes this after the geisha district is shut down during the war: "The house itself was punishing us for our years of neglect" (30.2). The house, like geisha culture, has fallen into disrepair. It can be fixed, but it will take time, and it will never be the same.