Hassaku in Gion Kobu Step by Step, Part 2

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

I ended my previous post on Hassaku 2012 as I was walking to the north side of Gion Kobu hoping to find any of the geisha or maiko I regularly photograph, but looking for the geiko Mameharu in particular. Fortunately, Gion is very small, so I made it across the district in about five minutes. I had just entered a narrow alley when a maiko broke through the line of photographers at the other end. It was Takahina, and she was by herself. She stopped to pose for me and then greeted me with a vehement "Atsui!" ("It's hot!") She took a few shaky steps forward, pretending she was going to faint from the heat.

I offered to give her a piggy-back ride, but she didn't understand what I was talking about. When I explained, she made a quick move towards me like a cat pouncing on a mouse and laughed. I asked her if it was okay if I photographed her for a few minutes, and she said it was. I photographed her extensively at Hassaku two years ago and realized she was already a bit hot and tired, so I decided to keep my time with her short. Fortunately, since she was alone, most other photographers were ignoring her. I photographed her going in and out of several ochaya, and when she entered a teahouse with a shaded entrance, I asked her to pose for one more portrait. I knew I wouldn't find better lighting anywhere else. Takahina agreed, I thanked her, and I was done. My time with her had gone incredibly well. I had spent only ten minutes with her, but I had gotten some great action shots of her coming and going from ochaya, and the portraits I made were lit as well as could be expected under the circumstances.

I turned away from Takahina just in time to see Mamesuzu, Mameharu, and Mamechika enter one of the teahouses Takahina had just visited. It was just after 10:30 a.m. In twenty minutes my morning had gone from being awful to excellent. I had already photographed Manaha and Takahina, and I had found Mameharu. Now it was just up to me to make sure I got the photos of her I wanted.

Of course, because of the unwritten rules of Gion Kobu, things would not be as easy with Mameharu as they were with Manaha and Takahina. I could talk to Takahina and ask her to pose for me because she was by herself. Manaha greeted me, but she was with her onesan Tsuruha, who is only a little older than Manaha and who has just become a geiko this year. Mameharu was with her onesan Mamesuzu, who has been a geiko for almost ten years and is one of the most respected geiko in Gion Kobu. It wouldn't be appropriate for me to talk to Mameharu while she was with Mamesuzu, let alone ask her to stop and pose for me while her onesan waited under the hot sun. I had to be unobtrusive and still manage to make some photos.

I think most of the geiko and maiko walk around during events like Hassaku with blinders on; they try not to even notice all the photographers and simply pretend they aren't there. Mameharu didn't notice me at first, but after a few minutes I saw through my lens that she was smiling at me. A moment later, she was looking straight ahead again.

I followed Mameharu, Mamesuzu, and Mamechika until they returned to their okiya at about 11:30 a.m. After the first smile, Mameharu seemed not to notice I was there, but of course she knew I was. The only sign I received from her was the photo posted here. Mamesuzu, Mameharu, and Mamechika had walked to an ochaya far off the beaten path and up a slight hill. No other photographers were around but me. Through my lens I saw Mameharu slow down for a moment, whisper something to Mamechika, and then both of them looked directly into my lens and smiled. This lasted for three or four steps, and then they looked straight ahead again. I was the invisible photographer once more, which was fine by me. I had what I needed.

At 11:30 a.m. I was ready to throw in the now very sweaty towel that was around my neck and call it a day. I wondered if I could find Manaha again, but I figured that would be asking too much. It had already been a great day. I gulped down the now almost-hot sports drink I had been carrying with me and decided to take one more stroll around the neighborhood. I turned a corner and there was Manaha, laughing and bowing to some senior geiko, still having a good time after almost two hours under this blistering sun.

I photographed Manaha for a while, and my day was complete. Before I left, I thanked Tsuruha and Manaha and said goodbye. When they saw me up close, they both started laughing. Apparently my face was bright red with a new sunburn, a small price to pay for such a great morning of photography. I'll have to remember my sunblock next year, or maybe borrow some oshiroi from one of the geiko or maiko. I've never seen one of them with a sunburn!