Summer in Gion Kobu with Mamehana

The geisha Mamehana of Gion Kobu dancing in the summer of 2011
The geisha Mamehana of Gion Kobu dancing in the summer of 2011

This portrait of the one-and-only Mamehana of Gion Kobu was taken on one of the hottest days I can ever recall in Kyoto, a blistering afternoon in late June a few years ago.

When I arrived at the teahouse, I was already covered in sweat after a five-minute walk from the train station, most of it in the shade. Even though we would be working inside, I knew the weather would be a factor all afternoon.

The first thing I did was have the father of the teahouse arrange a taxi for Mamehana. Mamehana lived only a few minutes away and would usually walk to the teahouse, but I wanted her to arrive comfortably in an air-conditioned taxi. I was already grumpy from my brief walk out in the heat, and I wasn't wearing a heavy wig or a kimono!

I also kept my lighting simple so I wouldn't need to work too hard setting up. The portrait was made with only one light, so the room was darker and cooler than usual as well.

The teahouse had already prepared for the summer heat. From October to May, the sliding doors behind Mamehana in the portrait would be shoji, screens made of translucent Japanese paper that let in a good deal of sun and no breeze.

Early in June most teahouses replace the shoji with bamboo doors called yoshido in Japanese. The bamboo doors block much more light than shoji, but there are gaps between the bamboo that let any summer breeze into the room. The yoshido remain until mid to late September when it starts to cool down again.

Teahouses usually place a custom-made bamboo "carpet" over the tatami in the zashiki as well. However, this flooring is very fragile and expensive, and my friends at the teahouse usually worry that my light stands and tripod will damage it. Sometimes they take the carpet up for me as they did on this day, but other times we wrap towels around the legs of my stands to protect the bamboo.

When I finished setting up, I went downstairs to the ochaya's home bar to wait for Mamehana. To my surprise, she was already there waiting for me, looking cool as a cucumber. And she hadn't needed a taxi. She had had a music lesson at the Gion Kobu Kaburenjo right before our photo session, and it was only half a block walk for her from there.

The photo session went as usual, but at a much slower pace. A geiko or maiko will never come right out and say they are too hot or need a break, so I would stop and say I needed a break or just pretend I had a question I had to ask Mamehana in the middle of the dance. We would chat for a few minutes, allowing both of us to cool down, and then Mamehana would begin dancing again.

I tried keeping Mamehana cool by fanning her with one of my circular reflectors (which are 90cm and make a great fan), but Mamehana would protest so vehemently that I didn't need to do it that I had to stop. I think her protests were making her hotter than my fanning was making her cooler!

Mamehana felt uncomfortable because I was essentially reversing our roles. She was supposed to be taking care of me, in her view, making my fanning her highly unusual. As I had explained to her (and every other geiko or maiko I have photographed) many times, I don't care about our "roles" during our sessions. I care about making good photographs, and the photographs will be better if she looks cooler in them.

Mamehana and I would often gently but heads like this.

We then took a much longer break than usual and just chatted over drinks and snacks. I had known Mamehana for three years at this point, so there was always plenty to talk about.

When our time was up, I had a taxi waiting to take her home. She again protested that this was unnecessary since she lived very close, so I said I wanted to ride home with her. The taxi was really for me, not her, I said.

Of course, when we arrived at her okiya, the taxi driver asked if I would be returning. Mamehana said yes, but I said no. "It's a beautiful afternoon. I'd rather walk," I lied to her. It was still hot, but she had won the fan argument. I wasn't going to let her win this one, too!

I would have usually brought my camera with me and made a few portraits of Mamehana in front of her okiya, but it was too hot. We thanked each other and said goodbye. I started down the long street away from Mamehana's okiya.

When I looked back, Mamehana was still at her door watching me, as is customary in Gion and other parts of Japan. Geiko, maiko, or anyone from an ochaya or restaurant wait at the door until their customers disappear from view.

"It's too hot, Mamehana, you can go inside," I said.

She just smiled and waved and stayed right where she was. To make matters worse, a creepy Japanese photographer happened by. He said something to Mamehana, who ignored him as she watched me. He started taking photos of her anyway, which made me feel worse.

I started walking again, a little faster now. When I turned around again, Mamehana was still there, and so was the photographer. I gestured for her to go inside.

She didn't budge.

I actually started jogging a little so I would reach the corner a bit sooner. As I reached the end of the street, I turned and waved a final time, and Mamehana finally went inside.

By then I was sweating again, so the day ended as it began. "Maybe you should have let her win that one and taken the taxi," I thought as I scurried from shadow to shadow as I made my way back to the ochaya.