The Sweet Sadness of Maiko Momozuru

A portrait of the very young maiko Momozuru in May 2003
A portrait of the very young maiko Momozuru in May 2003

This is the first in a series of posts I'll be doing on my favorite photos and the stories behind them.

I'll begin at the beginning, with the first portrait of a maiko or geisha I took where I said to myself, "This is the kind of portrait I want to make." In other words, this is the first photo I made where I saw my style starting to take shape.

This portrait of the maiko Momozuru of Gion Kobu, taken late on a Monday afternoon in May 2003, is special to me for several reasons: the soft, warm, and almost shadowless sunlight of a spring afternoon; the elaborate wisteria kanzashi that so beautifully frames Momozuru's face; and the bright reds of her bag, sash, collar, lipstick, and hair ribbon that seem to tie the photo together.

Most importantly, this photograph is the first I made where a maiko let her mask slip to show some genuine emotion. Or it might be more accurate to say that this is the first portrait I made where a maiko had yet to develop her mask and conceal her emotions behind it. After all, Momozuru had been a maiko for only a brief time when this photo was made.

As has always been the case, my most memorable photographic relationships with maiko and geiko began with luck, coincidence, or serendipity (call it what you will). I actually encountered Momozuru for the first time on the day of her debut or the day or two after, and our encounter was completely by accident.

I had gone to Gion Kobu on a weekday afternoon to practice with my Mamiya 645 M, a medium format film camera that could only be focused by hand. Up until then I had only used Nikon cameras that had autofocus. I wanted to practice focusing the Mamiya manually, so I went on a weekday when I thought I wouldn't see as many maiko or geiko and feel bad if I missed a photo because I couldn't focus my camera!

No sooner had I taken my camera out of the bag when Momozuru appeared around the corner with an older woman who was also wearing a kimono. Both women saw me and my camera, and my wish was obviously clear. What was miraculous to me was that the older woman actually told Momozuru to stop and pose for me, which Momozuru did quite willingly and happily.

I thought at the time it was strange that Momozuru seemed so cheerful, and I also thought it odd that she was wearing a black kimono. I had never seen one before. (I had been going to Gion to photograph for about seven months at this time). What I didn't know then was that Momozuru was wearing a black kimono and seemed so happy because she had just had her omisedashi (debut as a maiko). Boy, was I ignorant in those days!

Since I had had so much luck on my first visit to Gion on a weekday afternoon, I decided to try my luck again a short time after that, and that is when I encountered Momozuru again.

She was standing by herself on one of the main streets of Gion and waiting for a taxi. I recognized her as the cheerful maiko I had met before, so I approached her again and asked her her name. "Momozuru. It means one thousand cranes," she said to me in English. This was the first time a maiko or geiko had ever spoken to me in English, and it remains one of the only times this has happened in more than a decade.

I was about to ask her if I could photograph her when some Japanese tourists came running up and started asking her questions, too. They even took a photograph of Momozuru while I waited patiently. The other tourists finally realized I was waiting to make a photo and backed off a little.

I made one of Momozuru looking into the camera, and some instinct told me to take another. This time I asked her to look down, away from me, my camera, and the tourists standing just to my right. I knew instantly that this was the portrait I wanted, and I was able to make two frames of the same image. One was in focus, the other was not.

I was also surprised by the emotion conveyed by Momozuru even though she is looking down. She looks a little sad, a little tired, and a little overwhelmed, which is completely understandable since she had been a maiko for only a short time. Most maiko tell me the entire first year is overwhelming, not just the first week or month!

More tourists started arriving, and Momozuru started to feel trapped. I thanked her, and she crossed the street to get away from us. I didn't follow. When the taxi finally came and she got in, she looked at me. I pointed at my camera, gave her the thumbs up sign, and waved good-bye. She bowed slightly and smiled that sweet and sad smile I would come to know well back at me.

Then she was gone.

I encountered Momozuru many, many times in 2003 and 2004, mostly at night. Since no one else was around and her engagements for the evening were over, she would often stop and chat with me for a minute or two. In 2005, I didn't go to Gion Kobu as much as I had in previous years, and when I went to Momozuru's okiya in 2006 to ask for permission to use the photo in my book One Hundred Views of Maiko and Geiko, I was told simply that she had stopped being a maiko.

I was shocked then, but knowing what I know now, I shouldn't have been too surprised. I think the girl I met those first days, a sweet and sensitive girl, a little bit sad, a little bit tired, a little bit overwhelmed, was the real Momozuru, and my impression of her never changed much over the next year or two.

I don't think she ever constructed the mask of a maiko or geiko, and make no mistake, especially those of you out there who romanticize this world so much, as I used to do: the face of a veteran maiko or a geiko is a mask.

A part of me misses Momozuru, but another part of me is glad she did not make that mask. The problem with masks is that once they have hardened, it's not so easy to take them off. For many, but not for all, it's better to never even try them on.