Photographing Geisha: Avoid the Hanamikoji Herd
The best piece of advice I can give about photographing geisha and maiko has nothing to do with photography or understanding Japanese culture or the Japanese language. The biggest secret of my success as a street photographer was simply that I avoided other tourists and photographers like the plague. If you want to get a decent photograph of a geiko or maiko, stand on a side street or alley where you are the only person around. If you are in Gion Kobu, this means staying as far away from Hanamikoji, the main street of the district, as you can.
Why is avoiding other people and Hanamikoji so important? First, a geiko or maiko is almost never going to stop and pose for you on Hanamikoji. There are just too many tourists and photographers around. (This is another reason to stay away. It's hard to make a good photo with several people swarming in the background of your shot.) In fact, most of the geiko and maiko in Gion Kobu avoid walking down Hanamikoji as much as they can. I know one geiko whose okiya is actually on Hanamikoji, but I always run into her on one of the side streets when she's returning home. She stays off Hanamikoji as long as she can to avoid the people there.
If you are standing patiently and quietly on a side street by yourself, you are much less threatening than the hordes of tourists running up and down Hanamikoji. The maiko or geiko will see you and your camera and know exactly what you want. Now the only problem you have is getting the young woman to stop and pose for a moment.
How do you get them to stop? There is no one answer to this question except to be polite and show that you have good manners. The first thing young girls learn when they become shikomi (girls in training to be maiko) is that they must have good manners, even as simple as saying the Japanese equivalents of please and thank you. People respond to people who act like them. Geiko or maiko are taught to be exceedingly polite. If you are extremely polite as well, they will respond to your courtesy if they have the time.
If a geiko or maiko is approaching you, make sure you are not blocking her path down the street and just stay where you are, a little off to the side. If they make eye contact with you, hold up your camera and smile. That's usually all you need to do. If she has time, she will most likely stop. The maiko and geiko I know are very aware that they are symbols of Kyoto and want to accommodate requests for photos if they are approached in the right way. (FYI, running after them or getting in their face with your camera is not the right way). If the young woman doesn't make eye contact, I would try saying, "Maiko-san, onegai shimasu. " "Maiko-san, please." Or try this: "Geiko-san, ichi mai dake? Okay?" "Geiko-san, only one photo? Okay?" Don't leave out the -san, either. It is a sign of politeness and respect.
If they stop, be quick. Take a few photos, bow, and say thank you, preferably in Japanese. You can say either "Arigatou gozaimasu" or "Ookini." I got more than a few laughs from geiko and maiko when I started when I thanked them by saying "Ookini!" Geiko and maiko have a certain lilt to their voice when they say this, and I would try to imitate this in my very deep bass voice. I doubt I sounded very Japanese or very feminine, but they got my message.
Avoid the crowd and be polite. This is probably the secret to success in almost any endeavor. It's a shame more people don't follow this advice, especially on Hanamikoji in Gion Kobu.
I'll be taking a break from my posts on how to photograph geisha for a while after today. For the next few Sundays I'll be focusing on Gion Matsuri, which is happening right now, and then Hassuku, which is on August 1.