Maiko Yukako: Seconds to Take, a Year to Make

The maiko Yukako of Gion Kobu a few months after her debut as an apprentice geisha
The maiko Yukako of Gion Kobu a few months after her debut as an apprentice geisha

This portrait of the maiko Yukako of Gion Kobu taken in 2004 is definitely my most famous photograph among the geisha and maiko of Kyoto.

It first appeared in my book One Hundred Views of Maiko and Geiko in 2006, and for several years after that I was introduced to geiko and maiko as the author of this book. "Oh, that's the one with the photo of Yukako!" most of them would exclaim after they heard the title.

I think this photograph stood out for them because it was quite rare to see a photograph of a maiko or geiko smiling so unabashedly, especially in a posed portrait like this one.

What they didn't realize is that although this photograph was taken in about 30 seconds, it took me a year to make it.

I first met Yukako about a year before this photo was taken, when she was still a shikomi (a girl in training to be a maiko). And when I first met her, I was always trying to avoid her -- in my photographs, at least.

As a shikomi, one of Yukako's jobs was to carry whatever accoutrements a maiko or geiko might need during the evening, things like an umbrella or a musical instrument. Shikomi often walk a few feet behind a maiko or geiko, so I was always trying to get a photograph of the geiko or maiko without Yukako being in the frame. Shikomi dress very simply, in blue jeans and t-shirts usually. They don't look like much compared to their elders in their beautiful kimono!

After a while, Yukako and I started saying hello to each other, and then we would chat for a moment or two, usually in Japanese, but sometimes in English. Way back when, my first job out of college was as an assistant English teacher in a high school of 700 girls in rural Japan. Yukako was the same age as my former students, so I just talked to her the same way I would have spoken to them.

I ran into Yukako several times once she had become a maiko, but I never tried to take a photo of her. The timing just never seemed right.

Then one day I was waiting in a spot I thought would be a good place to make a portrait of a maiko or geiko when Yukako passed by. The timing was finally right. I told her where to stand, and she assumed the standard maiko pose. She looked very, very serious.

Uh-oh.

I made a few photos and stopped.

I knew what the problem was. Yukako was a maiko now, and she wanted to show how far she had come. She was mature, she was an adult, she was a professional.

I lowered my camera. I said in a mixture of English and Japanese, "Come on, this is your dream, right? You've been working for a year to become a maiko, and now you are finally one, right? So be happy! Smile, smile, smile! Come on, smile! Come on!"

I think Yukako responded to my energy more than my words, but she started to ride that wave of energy and give it back to me. The portrait above is the crest of that wave.

If I hadn't been talking to Yukako for the previous year, she never would have responded to me the way she did. I wouldn't have even tried this if I hadn't known her personality pretty well, either. I could tell she was pretty fearless, even as a shikomi just out of junior high school. Most other young maiko would have thought I was crazy if I had spoken to them like that.

Yukako told me later on that she got teased for a long time about this photo by older maiko and geiko. She told me this with great pride, which is how I am telling this to you.