Good-bye to the Geisha Mameharu of Gion Kobu

The geisha Mameharu of Gion Kobu during New Year's 2013
The geisha Mameharu of Gion Kobu during New Year's 2013

The geisha Mameharu of Gion Kobu retired on May 20, 2013, a little less than a year after she became a geiko on May 24, 2012. I first met and photographed Mameharu as a maiko in June 2011, and I had the chance to say a brief good-bye to her in person on May 27, the day her best friend Manaha became a geiko.

Although I only photographed Mameharu for two years (a relatively short period for me to photograph a maiko or geiko), our paths crossed at exactly the right time for both of us. 2012 was the biggest year in Mameharu's career as a maiko and geiko. She was one of the few maiko featured as a dancer in Miyako Odori in April 2012, and she had her erikae and became a geiko the following month. I was able to photograph her at both these events and many others throughout the year. In fact, 2012 was my most prolific year as a photographer, and there is a very good reason for that.

I first started photographing maiko and geiko in Kyoto in 2002, but I started getting serious about both photography and learning about the world of geiko and maiko in 2003.  So, 2012 marked my tenth year as a photographer and observer of Kyoto's hanamachi (geisha districts). After ten years, I felt I was finally beginning to understand both photography and the hanamachi. I had more rare opportunities to photograph geiko and maiko because of my increasing knowledge, and I could capitalize on these opportunities because I was a better photographer than I had been.

So, Mameharu came along at the right time for me, and I came along at the right time for Mameharu. Looking back, I guess I should have known 2012 was going to be a very good year for us right from the start. Literally.

Shigyoshiki is a ceremony for geiko and maiko held every year at the Gion Kobu Kaburenjo (theater) on January 7, and after the event the geiko and maiko of Gion make their New Year's greetings to businesses in the district. Of course, there were around 100 photographers, if not more, waiting just in front of the entrance to the theater and on the street in front of the theater.

As soon as a few geiko and maiko started trickling out of the theater, there was a mad rush forward by all the photographers and other onlookers. I caught a glimpse of Mamehana, a geiko I was photographing at the time, but she disappeared from view as she and the geiko and maiko she was with were engulfed by a crowd of photographers.

I didn't need ten years of experience to know I wasn't going to get any usable photos in a situation like that, so I retreated to the far side of the street where the crowd was much thinner and decided to bide my time. A minute or two later, I saw Mameharu. She started walking right towards me, and she was smiling quite happily. I thought something was a bit strange, but then I noticed she wasn't looking at me. She was looking at the woman standing right next to me.

She approached the woman, and they greeted each other rather shyly. Then Mameharu turned to me, and she said in English, "This is my mother." Of all the people in the crowd that day, I just happened to choose the mother of one of my subjects to stand next to. At times like that, I make sure to look skywards and whisper a silent prayer of thanks. I'm not sure who is up there, but someone is definitely looking out for me.

I exchanged greetings with Mameharu's mother, and then Mamechika, Mameharu's younger sister (as a maiko, not a relative) came up. I asked Mameharu if it was all right if I accompanied her and Mamechika as they made their greetings, and she said it was.

Just like that, we were off, and the ride lasted all of 2012 and a bit into 2013 as well.

Thank you for letting me tag along, Mameharu. I enjoyed the ride, and I hope you did, too.