Chiyo was the second daughter of a poor fisherman in Yoroido and a curiosity in her village - her eyes were blue (in the novel they were blue-grey). Ser father was old and her mother terminally ill; thus the parents were persuaded to sell their daughters for a more secured life. Chiyo and sister Satsu were promptly sent to Gion(geisha district) right away. Auntie decides to keep her in the Nitta Okiya, but rejects her sister. Satsu is then sent to a common brothel in the Miyagawa-Cho district to become a prostitute.
Chiyo spent her first few years in the okiya working as a maid and planning her escape. Hatsumomo, the star of the okiya and one of the most beautiful and popular geishas at the time, sensed that she was going to be a threat and set out to eliminate her. She and Korin forced Chiyo to ruin a kimono(which belonged to Hatsumomo's most hated rival in Gion, Mameha). The next day, Auntie half-heartedly beat her as punishment for the ruined kimono since she didn't want Mother or Granny getting their hands on her. She also warns her against trusting Hatsumomo because she'll ruin her in a second. As a reward for ruining Mameha's kimono, Hatsumomo finally told her that her sister is in the Miyagawa-Cho district under the brother home, Tatsuyo and arranged for them to meet. The sisters decided that Chiyo would sneak out of the okiya by walking on top of the neighbouring roofs, meet up with Satsu, and then they would escape together. Her attempt failed as she fell off one of the roofs, and her sister went on without her. Auntie was infuriated at Chiyo for not heeding her warning to keep clear. While she was recovering from her injuries, she received a letter informing her that both of her parents have died. Now she is all alone in the world.
Mother (the madam) was furious with Chiyo's rebellious behaviour and decided not to raise her as a geisha, but as a maid. On a maid wage, she will never be able to pay off her contract and leave the okiya. Chiyo settled uneasily into her doomed life, while watching her friend and fellow maid, Pumpkin get elevated to being an apprentice geisha and all her work as a maid is transferred to her. Upon learning that Chiyo will remain Mother's slave for all time, Hatsumomo rejoiced at the prospect and set out to make her life even more miserable than before.
One day while a 12-year-old, Chiyo was out on an errand, her concerns for her future remaining as a maid under Mother overwhelmed her and she started to cry. A man stopped to talk to her and accompanied her for some shaved ice. He bought her flavoured ice and gave her two coins to cheer her up. Watching the Chairman walk away with two geishas, Chiyo decided that she would become a geisha at any cost, just so that she can be with him. She spent the coins on making her wish, and kept the Chairman's handkerchief.
In the winter of 1935, Chiyo is 15 and she's helping Pumpkin get ready for her debut as an apprentice geisha, under Hatsumomo's tutelage. After they left, she noticed that her friend forgot her shamisen and ran out of the Nitta Okiya to the back of Mizuki Teahouse(Hatsumomo's prime) and gave the mistress there her friend's shamisen. A few days later the okiya got a surprise visit from the famed geisha Mameha, who offered irresistable conditions to take Chiyo as her apprentice geisha. Mother's greed got the better of her and Chiyo became Sayuri. During her training, Sayuri showed considerable talents and Mother began to consider adopting her, instead of Pumpkin, as her daughter, to inherit the okiya. This further intensified the feud between Hatsumomo and Mameha.
Time was drawing close to the bidding for Sayuri's mizuage (the first night), but with Hatsumomo's schemes, Mameha was no where close to finding enough potential dannas (patrons) to start a proper bidding. She decided to try the impossible - Nobu, a rich man disfigured by chemical accident and disliked geishas. Miraculously,he fell in love with Sayuri; and Sayuri with his best friend - the Chairman.
Sayuri's mizuage made history as the highest bid to date, and she became the IT geisha. Mother adopted her, kicked Hatsumomo out for trying to destroy her career by causing the fire and Pumpkin was left homeless to fend for herself. But Sayuri's glory was cut short by World War II. As all geishas were gathered up and shipped to factories as workers, she and Mameha went into hiding with the Chairman's help.
After the war, Mameha and Sayuri found it hard to survive as genuine geishas. The American soldiers are the big spender now, and they prefer common prostitutes to geishas. Pumpkin's fell from grace now turned out to be a blessing.
The Chairman hired Sayuri, Mameha and Pumpkin for a trip, so that they could entertain an American colonel named Derricks, his associates and turn them into his business partners. Sayuri realised that she would have to get either Nobu or Col. Derricks to become her danna to survive. But meeting the Chairman again after the war proofed to be too strong a temptation, she decided to throw everything away and follow her heart for once. In her room, Mameha warned Sayuri against doing that because it's disrespectful to Nobu and she could ruin her career for that mistake. She told he to accept him as her danna because he saved her life and she owed a great debt. She mentions that Hatsumomo made the mistake of following her heart once by eloping with Koichi and destroyed her chances to have a danna. Sayuri refuses to listen to Mameha, which proved to be her undoing.
She arranged for the general to meet her in a shack and told Pumpkin to bring Nobu, so that both can be disappointed at her. She took this long-awaited chance and had her revenge - she brought the Chairman. When Sayuri demanded an answer from her friend. Pumpkin vehemently out of anger (cool, but still upset in the movie) told her she took away her rightful place as Mother's daughter and heir of the Nitta Okiya. A heart-broken Sayuri threw away the cherished handkerchief, and gave in to her fate.
Just when she thought she had lost favour with Nobu, Mother got a booking request from him. Disillusioned and settling for security, Sayuri arrived prepared to get back in Nobu's favour, only to find that the booking was made by the Chairman.
Now that his best friend is no longer interested in Sayuri, the Chairman can finally show his feelings and have his Chiyo back - it was him who sent Mameha to find the girl with blue eyes and ensure that she was taken care of and reunited with him.......