The Shigyoshiki Gauntlet


A geisha and two maiko approach the Gion Kobu Kaburenjo to attend an awards ceremony that is part of Shigyoshiki, an event held every January 7 in Gion. Since Shigyoshiki was held on a Saturday this year, even more photographers than usual showed up to photograph them. As a result, the geisha and maiko have to literally make their way through a sea of people just to walk down the street. My modus operandi on a day like this is quite simple.

My first priority is to cause the geiko and maiko as little trouble as possible, preferably no trouble at all. This means staying out of their way and only photographing the geiko and maiko I know personally and who have given me their explicit permission to photograph them. I greet other geiko I have come to know over the years, but I do not photograph them. I never block their paths or their entrances and exits to teahouses in order to get a photograph.

I also need to be aware of how each geiko and maiko prefers me to interact with them. Some geiko don't like me to speak to them at all while I'm photographing them in public. They acknowledge my presence with a very slight nod of their head, and I nod back to them. I photograph them as discreetly as possible so that the other photographers around us aren't even aware that I have a working relationship with that geiko. When I feel that I've gotten the shots I need or get the feeling that I'm about to overstay my welcome, I make eye contact with the geiko again, nod in thanks, wave goodbye, and go on my way without having spoken a single word.

Other geiko and most maiko acknowledge me quite openly. We exchange greetings and small talk as I walk beside them for a short time, and then I start to photograph them. One maiko actually waits for me to catch up to her if she sees me down the street. Another maiko, one of the few who is actually a Kyoto native, introduced me to her mother this year. I just happened to be standing next to her mother on the street, so when the maiko walked up to us, she said to me in English, "This is my mother!"

All the maiko got a big kick out of my appearance this year. It was quite cold, so I was bundled up in a ski cap, warm scarf, and heavy jacket. They all did a double take as they passed by me on their way into the kaburenjo and burst out laughing when they recognized me under all the layers. They must have felt a bit sorry for me because they all stopped to pose for me without my even asking even though the throngs you see in the posted photo were just a short distance away from us.

Most of the time, I try to get shots of the geiko and maiko "in action," going in out of teahouses or greeting people they know on the street. If I happen to be photographing a maiko or geiko and we find ourselves on a quiet street without hordes of other photographers around us, I will ask them to stop for a few seconds so I can get a quick portrait. Fortunately, I found myself in this optimum situation with all three maiko I was photographing this year, so I came away with a few portraits, plenty of great action shots, and very cold feet, despite the heavy wool socks I was wearing!