The Tea Ceremony at Miyako Odori

The geisha Mameharu of Gion Kobu prepares for the tea ceremony at Miyako Odori
The geisha Mameharu of Gion Kobu prepares for the tea ceremony at Miyako Odori

If you are familiar with the tea ceremony held before every performance of Miyako Odori (The Cherry Blossom Dance) at the Gion Kobu Kaburenjo in Kyoto every April, you might notice that this photo is a little different than most you will see.

For one thing, the geisha Mameharu is smiling here, and geiko are taught to keep their faces expressionless during the tea ceremony. For another, the candle in the bottom left corner of the frame is not lit.

The reason for these anomalies is that this photo was made about an hour before the tea ceremony began on April 1, 2013, the first and only time Mameharu performed the tea ceremony during Miyako Odori as a geiko.

I accompanied Mameharu and her maiko "sister" Mamechika as they prepared for the ceremony that day. When we finally arrived in the main room after a walk through the dark bowels of the theater, Mameharu began to familiarize herself with all the utensils she would be using as two tea ceremony instructors and Mamechika gave her advice as they watched.

I was quickly forgotten as Mameharu focused on her task and was able to move around the room and photograph as I liked. As I was going through all the photos from that day again this morning, this image stood out to me because I think it shows Mameharu's personality so well.

She was about to perform the tea ceremony as otemae for the first time on the first day of Miyako Odori that year with several groups of about a hundred people each watching her every move. And Mameharu smiled and laughed and made jokes as she practiced, never showing a hint of nervousness. She seemed completely at ease.

The day was special for me because I had the chance to see behind the scenes of the tea ceremony for the second time, and because it was the last time I had the opportunity to photograph Mameharu. She retired a short time after Miyako Odori ended in 2013 after being a geiko for just about one year.

It was also memorable because when it became clear that Mameharu was ready, the tea instructors very kindly told Mameharu and Mamechika to serve me a bowl of tea. I willingly put down my camera for a few minutes to enjoy such a rare opportunity.

I will remember that day, the tea, and Mameharu's smile for a very long time.