Hanagasa, Kasa, and Geisha, Oh, My!

Geisha Mamehana of Gion dancing with hanagasa
Geisha Mamehana of Gion dancing with hanagasa

After I had been photographing geisha and maiko for a few years, I wanted to try something new. I had photographed them dancing many times, but only with their mai ougi (dance fans). I wanted to try some new props, like hanagasa (flower hats), kasa (umbrellas), and maple leaf branches.

The hanagasa and maple leaf branches were no problem at all. Through my friends at the ochaya where I regularly photograph, I could rent them directly from the Gion Kobu Nyokoba (the school where Gion's geiko and maiko learn to dance).

The most common hanagasa have pale pink and yellow flowers, and the maple leaf branches are a bright reddish orange. Both props photograph beautifully.

Then I asked for an umbrella or parasol (kasa). I had seen them used in dances at Kyo Odori and elsewhere, and I was dying to make some photographs of a maiko or geiko dancing with one. As a result, I was particularly excited the day I was to photograph the maiko Makiko dancing with one.

When I got to the teahouse, the first thing I asked my friend was, "Did the umbrella come?"

"It's upstairs," he told me, meaning the room where I was going to photograph. When I got there, I saw the umbrella wrapped in a bag. I rushed over to it. Would it be bright red? Pink? Some other color that would look wonderful in my photographs?

When I took the umbrella out of the bag, I could only stare at it. It was a light charcoal gray. It would look great in a black and white photograph, but I wanted color. Bright color!

My disappointment must have showed. "You don't like it?" my friend asked. "Don't they have any other colors?" I responded. He said he would check and went downstairs to make a phone call.

When he came back, he said in an imperious voice, "In the Inoue School, maiko and geiko dance with gray umbrellas and ONLY gray umbrellas." For those of you who might not know, the Inoue School is the only form of dance practiced in Gion, and it has been since the late 1800s.

So, basically, I had committed heresy by asking for a different colored umbrella! Fortunately, I was not banished from Gion forever for my unforgivable sin, but I was forced to use that gray umbrella.

I was also lucky because I was going to photograph Makiko against a light gray background that day, so the darker gray umbrella would actually go well with the backdrop. Makiko was also wearing a striking yellow kimono, so there was plenty of color in the photographs.

Fortunately, there are no rules in Gion Kobu about the colors of hanagasa, so after using the standard pink and yellow hanagasa a few times, most notably with the maiko Takahina, I started searching for different variations of hanagasa to use in my photo sessions.

The first one I found is the one posted here, used by the geiko Mamehana in the dance also titled "Hanagasa." I think Mamehana's deep purple kimono and the red of her lips and eye shadow go well with the red and purple flowers of the hanagasa, so I was pleased with this day's work.

I always try to art direct my photo sessions to the best of my ability, but as I hope this post shows, tradition often makes that difficult! See you next month!