The geisha Mamehana of Gion Kobu retired last Saturday, August 25, one year and nine months after she made her debut as a geiko on November 25, 2010. I met Mamehana on Valentine’s Day in 2009, photographed her for the first time in June of that year, and photographed her for the last time at the end of July this year.
Near the end of The Wizard of Oz, one of my favorite movies when I was a child, Dorothy turns to the Scarecrow and says, “I think I’ll miss you most of all.” Right now, I feel the same way about Mamehana. She has so many endearing qualities, and I’d like to share just one of them here.
We always take a break during photo sessions when we just sit and relax and talk over drinks and snacks. One of those snacks is usually an elegant dish filled with individually-wrapped chocolates. Geiko and maiko don’t eat very much while they’re working, so I usually end up gobbling most of the chocolates (much to the amazement of whichever geiko or maiko I am with at the time). The first time I photographed Mamehana, I reached for a chocolate myself, but Mamehana beat me to it and had it unwrapped and was holding it up for me to take, all in the blink of an eye. I was stunned.
With lightning-quick reflexes like that, I asked her if she wasn’t some kind of undercover ninja pretending to be a maiko, but she swore to me that she was just an ordinary maiko. Geiko and maiko are taught to serve their customers in small ways like this, but it has always made me feel a bit uncomfortable to be waited on, especially by someone I am trying to photograph!
I explained to Mamehana that I was old enough to open up my own chocolates, so she didn’t need to do it for me. I reached for a second candy, and Mamehana had it unwrapped before I knew what hit me. She even took the wrapper from the first chocolate I had so boorishly crumpled and discarded on the tray in front of me, smoothed it out, and tied it into a neat little bow. She did the same with the wrappers of the two or three chocolates she had eaten herself, and she even tied a few more of my own wrappers. This made me feel like a total slob, so I started to hide my wrappers behind my glass or one of the other dishes so Mamehana wouldn’t see them.
At every photo session since then, this became our routine, a battle-of-wills over who would open my chocolates. I never told Mamehana, but by the second or third time I started to look forward to her opening the chocolates for me, even though I still felt the need to protest some to preserve my perceived dignity as a member of the adult male species. And now I can’t help but think of all those chocolate wrappers tied in neat little bows. I never took a photograph of them, but I wish I had.
I titled this post “Good-bye and Hello” because although my time photographing Mamehana is over, my time working with her photos is really just starting. The good news is that my instincts told me that Mamehana would only be a geiko for a year or so, so I photographed her twice as much in 2010, 2011, and 2012 as I have other geiko, and I have several thousand photographs of her as a maiko and geiko. My job now is to edit these photos into a book that will do Mamehana justice. I’m at the very start of the process, but I’ll be posting updates on my progress here from time to time.
Even though I said good-bye to Mamehana at the end of July, I won’t say my last good-bye until the book is finished. That’s when I’ll finally be able to let her go.