Hassaku in Gion Kobu Step by Step, Part 1

Hassaku in Gion Kobu in Kyoto, Japan
Hassaku in Gion Kobu in Kyoto, Japan

Hassaku is an event held every August 1 in Gion Kobu in Kyoto, and this photo of the maiko Manaha really captures the essence of the day for me: geisha and maiko make their rounds of all the ochaya (teahouses) in the district to thank the owners for their patronage during the year, and hundreds of photographers literally pop out of every corner to take photos of them! Since the day is always brutally hot (check out the highlights on Manaha's hair, collar, and shoulders), it is a challenge for the geiko and maiko, who walk around under this morning sun for about two hours. The day is also a trial for photographers like me who want to document the event well and not make these young women any hotter under the collar then they already are. Here's how I photographed Hassaku 2012, step by step.

As with any event, it pays to show up early, and I do. The geiko and maiko start making their rounds anywhere from 10:00 a.m. on, so I'm all set up and ready to go by 9:30. My plan this year is to focus mainly on Mameharu, who just became a geiko a few months ago. I position myself down the block from her okiya (the house she lives in with several other geiko and maiko), but not in front of it. There is already a small crowd of photographers standing right outside her door, and I don't want to be one of them.

I've only been waiting a few minutes when I see Tsuruha, Manaha, and Eriha, who all live in the same okiya as Mameharu. I want to get some photos of Manaha, who I also photograph regularly, but I already photographed her on July 16 and July 24 during Gion Matsuri. She's seen me a lot in the last few weeks. Mameharu remains my priority, but Manaha is right in front of me. I decide to follow Manaha for a few minutes and then try to find Mameharu later. It's a small gamble.

Manaha sees me among the crowd and waves cheerfully at me. Since maiko and geiko aren't really supposed to acknowledge others when they are with their onesan (older geiko and maiko "sisters"), I'm pleasantly surprised. Manaha is by far the most happy-go-lucky maiko I have ever met, so it is great fun to photograph her. I go over to her, wish her a good morning, and thank her for posing for me during Hanagasa Junko. We talk for a moment, and I back off to start photographing her.

I take a few photos, but Tsuruha, Manaha, and Eriha enter an ochaya down a side street, and they don't come back out. My dilemma begins. Do I stay here and wait for Manaha, or do I go back and look for Mameharu? Have I already missed Mameharu in the few minutes I've been following Manaha? I move down the block to an intersection where I can see both the ochaya where Manaha is and Hanamikoji, the main street of Gion. If Mameharu hasn't left yet, I'll see her on Hanamikoji, most likely. If she hasn't left yet...

I wait in the spot, getting hotter and hotter, for about 15 - 20 minutes. I don't see any geiko or maiko on Hanamikoji, but two taxis do go by. I could tell geiko and maiko were inside, but not who. Was Mameharu in one of those taxis?

Tsuruha, Manaha, and Eriha emerge from the ochaya with Mayuha, their onesan. I manage to get a few nice photos before the four women are swarmed by photographers. There are two taxis waiting for them on Hanamikoji. The four women get in them and drive off.

I'm in trouble. I've lost Manaha and haven't even seen Mameharu yet. I can stay here and wait for a while, but my gut is telling me that Mameharu was in one of those taxis that passed earlier, and those taxis were taking them to the north side of Shijo Dori, where the dance teacher Inoue Yachiyo lives. I start walking, but there's a sinking feeling in my stomach. This feeling gets worse when I pass Ichiriki, the most famous ochaya in Gion, and there is a police car trying to get the crowds of photographers out of the middle of the street. Maybe this isn't going to be my day. I tell myself that it's still early, just 10:15 a.m., and I have already gotten one or two photos of Manaha. It's not all bad...

I will continue the story on Wednesday, August 8. Don't worry, it does have a very happy ending. See you then!