Maiko Makiko with Sakko

The maiko Makiko of Gion Kobu two weeks before she became a geisha in 2009
The maiko Makiko of Gion Kobu two weeks before she became a geisha in 2009

My two favorite times to make portraits of maiko are the first time I have a photo session with them and just before they become geisha, when they have the sakko hairstyle and are wearing their most formal black kimono.

The first photo sessions are exciting because we are both new to each other, and neither the maiko nor I know exactly what to expect. This mixture of curiosity and nervousness has led to some of my most memorable portraits.

The two weeks just before a maiko becomes a geiko are also filled with curiosity and nervousness, but they are also a time of tension and change.

The maiko are looking forward to their hard work of the past three to five years finally paying off and their dream of becoming a geiko coming true, but they are also concerned about how they will look in a katsura and how they will handle the much greater responsibility of a being a geiko.

In addition, the maiko and geiko I have photographed tell me that they perform the dance "Kurokami" about 80 times while they are wearing sakko. In Gion Kobu, this period lasts for two weeks, so on average they are attending four different parties a night. This means greeting four different sets of customers, responding to the same well wishes and questions four times, and then performing "Kurokami" again before moving on to the next engagement.

I get exhausted just hearing about it, but the maiko tell me it all passes in a blur, a very happy and joyful and exciting blur.

I had known the maiko Makiko for almost six years when I made this portrait of her wearing sakko. I first met her in 2004 when she was just a shikomi, and I had already photographed her many times for my book Geisha & Maiko of Kyoto: Beauty, Art, & Dance, which came out a few months after this photo was taken.

Even though we had a long history by this point, Makiko had a different air about her on this day. I consider Makiko to be one of the most reserved and private of the maiko and geiko I have photographed, but she was both more tense and more relaxed on this day than ever before.

In fact, I just reviewed the portraits I made at the time, and in most Makiko is either smiling brightly or laughing, sometimes uncontrollably. She had never opened herself up to me so much, before or since.

I chose this more serious portrait as my favorite of the day because it reveals another side of Makiko, and her expression makes me wonder just what exactly she is thinking. I think I captured the truth of her in that moment, whatever that is, which is all I am ever really trying to do.