The Maiko Mamefuji of Gion Kobu

A portrait of the maiko Mamefuji of Gion in May
A portrait of the maiko Mamefuji of Gion in May

Back in April I wrote about photographing the geisha Mameharu behind the scenes at the Miyako Odori tea ceremony. The photo I posted only shows Mameharu, but the maiko Mamechika was also there, as was a young shikomi (maiko in training) I'll call A-chan.

I first noticed A-chan as we were making our way into the Gion Kaburenjo theater. Mameharu was in front, followed by Mamechika, A-chan, and then me.

As we walked briskly along a dark and narrow corridor, Mameharu and Mamechika would tell A-chan something she needed to do, and A-chan would immediately say "Yes" and write a note in a small pad she was holding.

I had never seen A-chan before, but I was impressed by her right away. She looked very young, but she acted very maturely. The hallway was quite dark and Mameharu and Mamechika were walking very quickly and talking to A-chan without even looking at her.

However, A-chan did not get flustered at all. She calmly wrote everything down while she was walking in a hallway I could barely see in. She also asked questions to clarify what she was supposed to do when she needed to.

I lost track of A-chan that day, but her name came up in conversation with the geiko Manaha a month later. Manaha is from the same okiya in Gion Kobu as Mameharu and A-chan, and she is Mameharu's best friend.

Manaha and I were talking about Mameharu's retirement. Haru-san had just retired after being a geiko for about a year. I said to Manaha in Japanese, "I'm going to be looking for a new maiko to photograph since Mameharu is leaving. What about A-chan?"

Manaha suddenly became very animated. She gave me a big thumbs up sign. "A-chan, good!" she replied in English.

This was a very unusual response. Whenever I ask most geiko to recommend someone to me, I often get very noncommittal responses like "John-san, as you know, all maiko in Gion are equally pretty and equally able to serve as models for your photography."

That's why I was so surprised when Manaha gave such a ringing endorsement of A-chan. Part of it was just Manaha's personality (she didn't always pay attention to the "rules"), but she was clearly enthusiastic about A-chan, too.

I knew it would be a while before A-chan had her debut as a maiko, so I asked my friends in Gion to let me know when she would be having her misedashi.

A-chan became the maiko Mamefuji about seven months later on December 1, 2013, and I have been photographing her since. The photo I've posted here is from one of our first sessions in May 2014. Mamefuji asked me to photograph her in May because it is the month for wisteria (fuji in Japanese) kanzashi , and Mamefuji, as her name implies, loves wisteria.

Mamefuji has impressed many people in her almost two years as a maiko. She was the model for the official Miyako Odori poster this year, a rare honor for any maiko in Gion Kobu, let alone one just entering her second year.

And three days ago I was walking down one of the side streets in Gion on my way to a photo session with Mamefuji when I passed another poster of her. This one had a photo of Mamefuji, and it is part of an ad campaign. It was a surreal experience!

I wish Mamefuji continued success in Gion and beyond. All the good fortune that comes her way is richly deserved.