First Day in Miyagawa-cho


This portrait of the maiko Fukuna holds special significance to me because it was taken on my first visit to Miyagawa-cho on a Saturday afternoon in June 2003. At that time, Miyagawa-cho was a photographer's paradise, in stark contrast to Gion Kobu. The atmosphere in the two hanamachi (geisha districts) couldn't have been more different.

Gion Kobu, the most famous hanamachi in Kyoto, has always been swamped with tourists and photographers, but when I found Miyagawa-cho, there were no outsiders. In fact, I didn't even know I was in Miyagawa-cho when I got there. I was walking down a narrow street, and there were some children running and playing near a small pharmacy with a poster of Ichiro Suzuki, the famous baseball player, in the window. A woman came out of one of the houses to talk to the children, and I asked her how to get to Miyagawa-cho. She replied in Japanese, "You're in Miyagawa-cho right now."

I didn't really believe her. The street I was on (Miyagawa-suji), seemed more like a residential district than a geisha district, but I decided to stay around and see what I would see. I only had to wait about ten minutes until maiko started coming out of the woodwork. Almost simultaneously, three maiko appeared. One turned the corner onto Miyagawa-suji and walked right by me. Another came out of an okiya (a house where maiko and young geisha live) almost directly behind me, entered an ochaya (teahouse) across the street, came back out again a few moments later, and continued down Miyagawa-suji towards the Miyagawa-cho Kaburenjo (district office). I saw the third maiko in the distance getting into a taxi.

I was fast, so I was able to photograph two of these three maiko (I missed the one getting into a cab, but I have never photographed a maiko or geisha getting into a cab). In fact, both these photos made it into the my first book, One Hundred Views of Maiko and Geiko. What struck me about these maiko was how at ease they were. They both saw me and my camera, but they continued to walk at a leisurely pace and simply ignored me, but in a good way, not a bad way. They looked straight ahead, not at me, but not away from me, either.

In Gion Kobu, it was always easy for me to tell when a maiko did not want to be photographed. She would either walk much faster as she approached me or look away from me as much as she could. It was never my intention to make any maiko feel uncomfortable, so I never took photos in these situations. I was keenly aware of these warning signs that my presence was not welcome, so I was on the alert for them on my first day in Miyagawa-cho. I never encountered them.

Fukuna was the fourth maiko I encountered that day. She was walking out of an alley, and we almost bumped into each other. I was so stunned to see the first three maiko in such quick succession that I didn't even think about talking to them. When I saw Fukuna, I was more prepared, and I asked her politely if I could take a photo of her. She readily consented, and she even let me get a few different angles and poses. I found the bright sunlight and the window in the background quite distracting, though, so I did not include this photo in One Hundred Views.

Miyagawa-cho remained relatively unknown by tourists and photographers until about 2006. I haven't photographed on the streets there since 2007, but I was walking down Miyagawa-suji on a Saturday afternoon a few months ago at just about the same time I had first arrived there nine years earlier. I didn't have a camera with me, but I noticed five or six photographers up and down the street, and when the maiko materialized out of alleys and okiya as I knew they would, several of them were practically running down the street in their haste to avoid being photographed.

Paradise lost, indeed...