The Geisha Teruhina and the Photo I Didn't Take


Teruhina was a geisha in Gion Kobu during my early days photographing geisha and maiko. This photo was taken in June 2004, a time when I was still struggling to develop relationships with the geisha and maiko in both Gion and Miyagawa-cho. I made a real breakthrough when I took this photo, and the day I took it remains one of the most memorable moments I have ever had in Gion.

In those early years, I had no guide as to what I should do to be successful in photographing geisha and maiko. Back then (and still now), my definition of success was that I was able to make a photograph that did not disturb or annoy the maiko or geiko in any way. In other words, if I got the most fantastic shot imaginable of a geiko, but I had to run after her for blocks, stand in the middle of the street blocking traffic, and shove my camera within millimeters of her face to get that shot, it was not a successful shot. If I had an encounter with a maiko or geiko and she left that encounter with any negative feelings because of my rude behavior, I had failed.

I had no guide how to take successful photographs of geiko and maiko at that time, but I had plenty of guides as to how not to take a successful photo. All I needed to do was look around at pretty much every tourist and photographer I could see in Gion. People I saw offended maiko or geiko every day, and, worst of all, they were never even conscious of it most of the time.

For example, one evening in 2003 I remember standing at the corner of Shijo Dori and Hanamikoji Dori, the main intersection of Gion Kobu. A maiko was standing at the corner waiting for the light to change. There weren't many people around, but one photographer came up to her and started snapping photos of her. The maiko had nowhere to go, so she ignored the photographer and waited for the light to change. She kept her composure until the photographer got a little bit too close to her, and she flinched. For just a split second, a look of complete disdain crossed her face. I saw it because I was standing across the street. The photographer was still busy snapping photos, so he didn't even notice how uncomfortable he was making the maiko. Even if he had noticed, I doubt he would have cared. When the light changed, the maiko practically ran across the street to escape.

I was thinking to myself what an idiot the photographer had been when I realized with a sinking feeling that I had photographed a maiko not too long before in the same spot. I didn't get as close as this photographer had or taken as many photos. In fact, I had just taken a few quick shots of her elaborate hairstyle from the back and gone on my way, but I couldn't help wondering. Had I been as rude as this guy? Had the maiko been as annoyed and uncomfortable with me? I would never know, but I could make sure that I never did it again. I made it a personal rule that I would never photograph a geiko or maiko while she was held captive at a crosswalk, waiting for the light to change.

I kept my promise for about a year. Then I came up to the crosswalk one evening in 2004 and found Teruhina standing there. I didn't really know Teruhina, but she seemed quite friendly to me whenever I had seen her. I remembered my rule not to take any photos at the intersection, but then Teruhina glanced my way. We made eye contact, and my camera was still hanging around my neck... "What the hell," I thought. Rules are made to be broken. I asked her in Japanese if I could take her photograph.

The first thing she did was look up at the crossing signal. It was still red. I knew instantly I had made a mistake. I should have stuck to my rule. Asking her for a photo there was an imposition, but since she was trapped she was going to let me take her photo anyway. She turned back to me, nodded, and started to check her kimono. I felt awful. I didn't want to take the photo at this point, but I didn't want to offend her even more by not taking it after I had just asked her.

I started to raise my camera to my eye when I saw a flash of green out of the corner of my eye. Yes! The light had changed! I was saved! I lowered my camera, pointed at the blinking green light, and told Teruhina that she should go because the light had changed.  She said it was okay, I could still take her photo. I insisted that she go, and I added as an afterthought, "Please let me take your photo the next time I see you." She went on her way, and I breathed a big sigh of relief. I vowed never to photograph at that intersection again, and I didn't until May 2008 when Yukako had her erikae and I had her permission to photograph her.

A few weeks after my evening encounter with Teruhina, I was in Gion on a Saturday afternoon in June. There were even more tourists and photographers in Gion Kobu than usual, so I moved as far away from Hanamikoji (the main street of Gion where most tourists congregate) as I could. I was thinking I was never going to get any good photos that day because of all the crowds when I saw Teruhina appear out of an alley. Instead of turning towards Hanamikoji as she usually would, she started walking in my direction. "Yes!" I thought to myself. Here comes my chance! An instant later my heart sank. All the tourists who were waiting on Hanamikoji came running after Teruhina like a herd of wild buffalo. "No! They're going to ruin it!" I thought. If you haven't figured it out by now, my inner voice can be a bit melodramatic, and I'm often bouncing between emotional highs and lows, especially when it comes to my photography. It means so much to me, maybe too much.

Another of my rules was to never ask a maiko or geiko for a photograph after she had just been harassed by a group of tourists. I had already gotten into trouble with Teruhina by almost breaking one of my rules at the intersection. I wasn't going to make the same mistake twice and break another of my rules with her that day. I would not ask her to let me take a photo with a herd of tourists on her heels. I would just greet her and let her go on her way.

Fortunately, I was standing quite a long way from Hanamikoji, so all the tourists had given up by the time she passed me. I just said hello to her and let her go on her way. "Oh, well. Win some, lose some," I consoled myself. I watched Teruhina walk away from me and cursed the tourists (not for the last time, either). Suddenly, Teruhina turned around and looked back at me. When she saw that I wasn't following her, she gave me a look that said, "You're a bit slow, aren't you?" She waved me after her surreptitiously. Trying to act as nonchalantly as possible (I didn't want the tourists to sense anything was up), I quickly followed Teruhina down the street. I glanced over my shoulder. No tourists were in pursuit. Whew!

I followed her for more than a block, and we turned down a side street. When we got to the ochaya she was going to, she asked me, "Is here okay?" I readily agreed. I had caused her enough trouble already. I wasn't going to ask her to move somewhere else for me! She adjusted her kimono as she had when I had seen her at the intersection and posed. I said in Japanese, "I'd like to get a close up." She immediately replied, "Not too close." In the immortal words of Homer Simpson, "D'oh!" I started mentally kicking myself. "After all this, the first thing I say to her makes her tense. She's afraid I'm too close, so she's uncomfortable. I'm never going to get a good shot now," I thought.

I was right. I took a few shots of her and thanked her. Another of my rules was to be quick. Maiko and geiko are very busy. If they did pose for me, I wasn't going to keep them too long. I knew I didn't really get any great shots of her, but I had troubled her long enough. She had been more than kind to me. Teruhina said goodbye, lifted up the noren (curtain) of the ochaya to enter, and suddenly turned back towards the street. A friend was calling to her. Her face brightened with a huge smile, and she waved to the woman. I was quick enough to catch the moment. It's the photo that begins this post.

As I walked away, I had to laugh at myself and how slow on the uptake I can be sometimes and how much mental anguish I had put myself through just to get this photo. But I knew I had gotten the shot. It was completely by accident, but still, I had gotten it. I also realized that it's the photos you don't take that are sometimes more important than the ones you do. If I had taken the photo of Teruhina at the intersection, she never would have gone out of her way to help me when I saw her the next time. Since I had shown her a bit of consideration, she had done the same for me. After that, I made sure just to say hello to maiko and geiko I knew when I saw them sometimes even though I wanted to take their photos. Sometimes you have to give a little, even if it's just saying a few words. If you try to take all the time, no one will want be around you.

Teruhina retired as a geiko some time in 2005 or early 2006, I'm not sure. I must have seen her after 2004, but I don't remember meeting her or taking her photo ever again. I very much wanted to use this photo in my first book, One Hundred Views of Maiko and Geiko, but since I had no way of contacting Teruhina to obtain her permission, I decided I had better not. I did not want to offend or upset someone who had been so kind to me. I heard through the grapevine that she had gone to New York to study English, but I never quite believed it.

At the end of April 2009, I returned to New York for my father's funeral. A few days after we buried him, I went into Manhattan just to get away for an afternoon and take my mind off things. Between the jet lag and my grief, I was physically and mentally exhausted. I took the A train from Penn Station down to West 4th Street, as I often do. As the train slowed to a stop at the station, I looked through the doors and saw a woman standing on the platform in a kimono. I remember thinking how odd it was to see a woman who looked like she belonged in Gion standing in a subway station in New York when the doors opened. The woman was none other than Teruhina! "Teruhina-san!" I exclaimed as she entered and I exited the train. For a second she looked shocked, and then she just said "Oh!" and gave me the same big and beautiful smile as she had given her friend in Gion when I had photographed her five years before.

From the look in her eyes and the expression on her face, I knew that she had recognized me, but I still don't think she knows my name or who I am. One Hundred Views of Maiko and Geiko came out after she had already left Gion, so she has probably never even heard of the book.

The subway doors closed, but now she was inside and I was outside. I stood there dumbfounded, not believing I had really seen her after all those years and in New York, of all places, but there she was, waving back at me, still smiling. For a few moments at least, my grief and sadness vanished, dispelled by Teruhina's smiling face and memories of much happier times.

I have only had three encounters with Teruhina, but her kindness touched my life in ways she will probably never know. I will never forget rushing to catch up to her on that Gion Street or seeing her in New York during one of the darkest times in my life. It's amazing how one person can touch another's life without even realizing it. I doubt it will ever happen, but I hope to run into Teruhina once more, on the streets of Gion, New York, or Timbuktu, I don't care. I'd just like to introduce myself and say thank you.

Ookini, Teruhina, wherever you are.