First Encounter with Kikugawa Tayū

Kikugawa Tayu and Her Kamura after a performance
Kikugawa Tayu and Her Kamura after a performance

As I rode the train from Kyoto to Shiga last September, the same phrase kept running through my mind: "Your mission, should you choose to accept it..."

I was thinking about the old Mission: Impossible tv series because I wasn't sure I was going to succeed at my mission that day. I was on my way to Shiga to attend a traditional Japanese culture event where Kikugawa Tayū, one of a handful of tayū left in Kyoto, would be performing.

I was going to photograph Kikugawa-san for the first time, but there were several obstacles in my way. The first was that there was no photography permitted at the event, so I could not photograph Kikugawa while she was dancing onstage.

The second was that I had never met Kikugawa Tayū or her okasan, the former Takasago Tayū. I would have to introduce myself, make a good impression, and photograph Kikugawa-san in less than thirty minutes, and probably closer to five or ten.

The third and probably biggest challenge was that I would be permitted to photograph Kikugawa-san in a private room sometime during the event, but I didn't know when. I would be called when Kikugawa was ready for me. And I couldn't see the room before I entered, so I had no idea what kind of light I would be working with.

Basically, I was flying blind.

Just arranging all this had taken a long series of phone calls with both Kikugawa's okasan and the organizers of the event in Shiga. Still, after all these calls, all I really knew was that the event lasted about three hours and that I would be able to photograph Kikugawa some time during that period.

Kikugawa-san performed just before the first intermission, accompanied by her kamuro (child attendant). I thought that she would want to relax for at least an hour after her appearance before she called for me, so I was quite surprised when my contact person approached me just as intermission began.

"Kikugawa Tayū will be ready for you in ten minutes," he said.

I practically jumped out of my seat, rushed into the lobby, and looked for a quiet corner to prepare myself. I double-checked my camera, and I was ready to go. My contact took me to Kikugawa's door and left me standing just outside it.

I knocked and opened the door.

Kikugawa-san came over to greet me, and she was smiling. "That's a good sign," I thought. I introduced myself to Kikugawa and the former Takasago Tayū, and then I turned to say hello to the young kamuro, who was clearly a bit shocked to see me.

There was also a man in a suit and tie in the room with the three ladies, but he stayed in the background and did not speak. We nodded silently to each other in greeting, but that was all.

As I was making my introductions, I was also trying to look at the lighting in the room. Unfortunately, it was a bit of a nightmare from a photographic perspective. There were windows covered with shoji, but there were also fluorescent lights and tungsten lights.

Daylight has a blue cast, tungsten light is more orange, and fluorescent bulbs usually have a greenish tint to them. Mixing all three makes for a difficult lighting situation, but that was the hand I was dealt. I would have to play it.

Also, with five of us in the room, there was almost nowhere for us to move without bumping into each other. I made the first photo of Kikugawa-san and her kamuro posted here simply because that is where they positioned themselves when I said I would like to begin. You have to start somewhere, and this was as good a spot as any.

After a minute or two I said I'd like to make some portraits of Kikugawa-san by herself. I was very pleasantly surprised when the former Takasago Tayū asked the kamuro if she would like to go outside and play for a few minutes. The kamuro agreed, and they left.

The room seemed a bit bigger with only Kikugawa-san, the man in the suit, and me in it. The man in the suit stayed in the far corner, but I knew he was watching me. I also knew there was nothing I could do about it, so I focused on Kikugawa-san and soon forgot him.

For a few minutes I was in a rush to make as many photographs as I could, but then I realized two very important things. Kikugawa-san was a bit nervous, and I wasn't going to make any masterpieces in this room with this lighting.

I slowed down. I started photographing less and talking more. I told Kikugawa-san a little about me and my photography, and I asked her some questions about life as a tayū in the modern world.

After all, this mission in Shiga was just a warm-up for the real mission, when I would be photographing Kikugawa-san for a much longer period of time in much better conditions in November. All I needed to do that day was break the ice with Kikugawa and hopefully  make her feel as comfortable as I could having me photograph her.

I enjoyed talking with Kikugawa-san very much, and after another ten minutes I did finally make one or two interesting portraits of her. As if on cue, the former Takasago Tayū and kamuro came back into the room. It was time for me to wrap things up.

To my surprise, I had been in the room almost thirty minutes. I was also surprised that the kamuro went right over to the man in the suit. It finally dawned on me that he was the girl's father.

I finally spoke to him. I said I would like to make a photo of him and his daughter as a sign of my thanks for allowing me to interrupt their afternoon. Everyone agreed that this would be nice, so I made a few portraits, thanked them, and told Kikugawa-san I would see her again in early November.

I left the room feeling pretty good. Of course, I didn't know what they had really thought of me, but Kikugawa-san seemed to enjoy herself. If nothing else, it had been a good first step, and as the proverb goes, "A journey of a thousand miles begins with just one step."

Mission accomplished -- but don't worry. This blog post will not self-destruct in ten seconds!