Sasuga Manaha!

The geisha Manaha of Gion Kobu during her last Shigyoshiki
The geisha Manaha of Gion Kobu during her last Shigyoshiki
Geisha Manaha of Gion Kobu during her last Shigyoshiki
Geisha Manaha of Gion Kobu during her last Shigyoshiki

The Japanese expression Sasuga doesn't really have an equivalent in English. The clearest explanation I have found is from "Sasuga is a complimentary term said about someone, and it means 'only that person could have done that thing.'"

When I first looked at these photos I had made of Manaha, "Sasuga Manaha!" was the first thing I thought. Only Manaha would stop amidst the chaos of Shigyoshiki in Gion Kobu, flash me the peace sign, and then laugh about it. It is one of the main reasons I loved photographing her, especially during her brief time as a geiko.

For those of you not familiar with Shigyoshiki, held every January 7 in Gion Kobu in Kyoto, let me set the scene for you. First, the geisha and maiko of Gion Kobu attend an awards ceremony at the Gion Kobu Kaburenjo, the theater in Gion Kobu were Miyako Odori and other dance performances are held.

After the ceremony, the geiko and maiko from the same okiya go around Gion Kobu in small groups and make their New Year's greetings. There are hundreds of photographers everywhere. Some photographers wait in front of a certain ochaya the entire time, others walk around randomly, and still others follow a group of maiko and geiko even though they most likely have never met those geiko and maiko.

Manaha was walking with Mayuha, Tsuruha, and Eriha. Mayuha, the most senior geiko, led the way, followed by Tsuruha and Manaha walking side by side, and then Eriha, the youngest and only maiko among the four, bringing up the rear. There were also about 10-15 photographers following the four women, myself included.

Manaha and her sisters had already been walking around for at least 30 minutes when I made the first photo here. They had just come out of a narrow alley and were on there way to one of the most famous ochaya in Gion Kobu, a few meters away. There was a small group of photographers in front of the alley, and a much larger group of photographers waiting in front of the ochaya.

Since I try to avoid taking almost the same photo as everyone else, I was crouched down in the corner of two buildings, halfway between the two spots. I was hoping to get a few photographs of Manaha as she went by, hopefully with no photographers in the background cluttering up the shot.

Manaha came out of the alley and somehow spotted me crouched down in the corner. She stopped, flashed me the peace sign, and held it for several beats as I frantically tried to compose the image (I didn't expect Manaha to see me or stop for me here). Then she just burst out laughing, oblivious to all the people scrambling around her.

I have many more beautiful photographs of Manaha, but I don't know if I have any that capture her carefree side as much as these two.

I usually do not photograph geiko and maiko in the last few weeks before they retire, but after seeing and talking to Manaha during Shigyoshiki, I decided to photograph her one last time before she left Gion Kobu at the end of January 2014. She had only been a geiko for eight months, so I wanted a few more photographs of her before she left.

She was still in good spirits, and I told her about these photos and how I wanted to publish them here on my blog. There are certain photos I make, mostly comical ones like these, that the geiko and maiko would like me to keep private. In a way, they are gifts to me, usually after we have been collaborating for several years.

Manaha didn't mind me sharing these, and so I have. I know she would get a kick out of them, as she does out of most things in life.

Wherever Manaha is now, I'm sure she is still laughing.