Odori Season and a Book Recommendation

The geisha Kimina of Miyagawa-cho performs in scene 1 of the 2009 Kyo Odori
The geisha Kimina of Miyagawa-cho performs in scene 1 of the 2009 Kyo Odori

The cherry blossoms are forecast to be in full bloom on April 4 this year in Kyoto, but the odori season has already started to blossom: Kitano Odori began on March 25 in Kamishichiken, Miyako Odori commences on April 1 in Gion Kobu, and Kyo Odori premiers on April 5 in Miyagawa-cho.

I attended Kitano Odori for the first time last year and enjoyed it very much. It is longer than both Miyako Odori and Kyo Odori at 90 minutes (with a short intermission in the middle) and features one long dance of about 40 minutes and several shorter dances.

All the odori have gift shops or at least tables with souvenirs on display, and at last year's Kitano Odori I discovered a book about geiko and maiko that I want to share with you today.

The title of the book is Subtle Beauty, and the author is Kazuhiko Matsumura, a reporter and photographer for the Kyoto Shimbun (Kyoto's largest newspaper).

As soon as I started looking through Subtle Beauty, I knew immediately that it was a unique book on geiko and maiko. One of the first photos in the book is of two maiko in Kamishichiken cleaning one of the rooms in their okiya. One of the girls is vaccuming, and the other is wiping the tatami with a towel. A few pages later there is a photo of two maiko and an older woman hanging the laundry.

Not the glamorous world we are used to seeing!

To me, this is the greatest strength of the book: it shows us both ordinary and extraordinary moments in the lives of geiko and maiko, moments that most people will never get to see, let alone photograph.

Some of the "ordinary" moments include an older geiko sitting in a hospital waiting room, a maiko riding an escalator in everyday clothes, and several photos of maiko or geiko eating or talking with their parents and siblings, just like the rest of us.

Some of the special moments include the maiko Umechie crying when her father came to visit her on the day of her misedashi and behind the scenes images of rehearsals for Miyako Odori in Gion Kobu, among many others.

Best of all, these photos are accompanied by short esssays about some of the women in both Japanese and English. All five of Kyoto's hanamachi are featured, but I particularly liked the stories and photos about Kamishichiken and Ponto-cho, most likely because these are the two districts I knew very little about.

I did a Google search on Subtle Beauty and Kazuhiko Matsumura recently, and I was shocked to find almost no mention of the book in English and no customer reviews about it at all on Amazon.co.jp.

Since I bought the book at the Kamishichiken Kaburenjo I cannot write a review on Amazon, but I can write one here and urge anyone interested in the real world of geiko and maiko to consider purchasing it.

Publishing any photography book is difficult, but publishing a book with honest photos and accurate and perceptive stories about a closed world like the world of geiko and maiko is a rare feat. And I believe it deserves support!

Subtle Beauty can be purchased at Amazon.co.jp. I recommend it most heartily, and at 1,800 yen it is a bargain.