A Quiet Night in Gion Kobu

The main street of Gion Kobu in Kyoto on a rainy evening
The main street of Gion Kobu in Kyoto on a rainy evening

Golden Week is one of the most popular times of the year in Japan. April 29 and May 3-5 are all national holidays, so most people take the opportunity to travel somewhere, either to their hometown or a holiday destination.

I never travel anywhere during Golden Week, especially at the beginning or end of the week. I prefer to stay home and catch up on rest and whatever projects I have been working on.

I venture out only to go to Kamogawa Odori, which I particularly enjoyed this year since Momifuku is now a geisha and is playing a much larger role in the dance than she had in previous years when she was a maiko.

The only other time I went out was to go to the "home bar" of my friends' ochaya in Gion Kobu on the evening of May 2. I knew it would be a quiet night there because Miyako Odori had ended on April 30 and most people would be away for Golden Week.

On occasions like this, I often bring a bottle of wine with me. It may seem strange to bring alcohol to a bar, but it is a tradition my friends and I have had for many years now.

It started because one of the things I miss most about New York is good conversations with friends or family shared over a bottle of wine (or two) at a restaurant or simply the dinner table.

I wanted to recreate that experience in Kyoto, so I started bringing a bottle of wine with me to my friends' bar, usually when I wanted to thank them for something they had done for me. We would drink the bottle together.

One the second or third time I had done this, one of the ochaya's other patrons asked for a glass. The man didn't realize that I had brought the bottle with me. He thought the my friends were serving wine that night. "I've never had wine at an ochaya before," he said.

Other customers have shared drinks and food with me, so I was glad to be able to return the favor. When my friend looked at me to see if it was okay to give the other customer a glass, I quickly nodded yes.

This situation repeated itself a few times, and my friends realized there was a demand for wine, so they started to keep a few bottles on hand for other customers.

I am hardly a wine connoisseur. I like merlot and cabernet sauvignon, and I have enjoyed Chilean wine since I tried it for the first time at an Italian restaurant in the East Village in Manhattan many years ago after a movie at the Anthology Film Archives.

I couldn't find any of the wines I usually purchase at Yamaya (a liquor shop/foreign food store in Kyoto) on May 2, but I did see a bottle of merlot from Chile. I didn't recognize the maker, but I figured I would give it a try.

When I got to the ochaya, it was empty except for T-san, who was waiting for me. T-san is the father of the ochaya's owner, and up until a few years ago he was the bartender and manager of the bar. He's had some health problems in recent years, and now he doesn't come into the bar much, except when I am coming.

I show him the bottle of wine, and he gets us two glasses, a normal-sized wine glass for me, and tiny wine glass that looks like a shot glass on a stem for him.  He pours me a glass, and I pour him one.

I taste the wine. "This is awful," I say.

"What's wrong with it?" T-san asks.

"It's really sour. And fruity. This doesn't taste like a merlot at all," I tell him.

He takes a sip of his much smaller glass. "What are you talking about? It tastes fine to me," he says.

He asks for the bottle, and I give it to him. The label has a description of the wine in Japanese, which I didn't even notice.

"Ah, I see," he says. "This wine's taste is fukuzatsu."

I don't know this word. "Does that mean bad?" I ask him.

He laughs. I look the word up in the Japanese dictionary I have on my cell phone. Fukuzatsu means complex or complicated. Not a word I'd use to describe a bottle of wine!

We move on to other topics.

"Are you sure you don't want me to talk to the publisher for you?" T-san asks me.

He's referring to one of the ochaya's customers who runs a small publishing company. They don't publish photography books, so I know they won't be right for my next book, which I'm working on now. I tell T-san all this, but he knows it already.

"What about satsue-kai?" he asks next.

Satsue-kai is the Japanese term for photography events. If you are reading this, you are probably interested in geiko and maiko, and you have probably seen photographs of the same geiko or maiko in the same place taken by different photographers. These photographs were most likely taken at satsue-kai. My friends have been wanting me to organize a satsue-kai for some time now.

I've never been to one of these events, but from what I've heard, at satsue-kai there will be anywhere from one to five geiko and maiko and anywhere from 10 to 250 photographers. There is often a rope the photographers have to stand behind, and everyone gets to take photos of the maiko or geiko in their section.

These kinds of events go against everything I believe in as a photographer. Since I started photographing geiko and maiko back in 2002, my goal has always been to communicate with them, interact with them, and get to know them, which will hopefully lead to them revealing some aspect of their personality to me and my camera. This can only be accomplished in a one-to-one environment or at least a small group.

I am interested in giving photo workshops, where I share what I have learned about photographing geisha and maiko over the years with very small groups of photographers or individuals, but I can't imagine organizing an impersonal satsue-kai.

I suddenly realize that the entire time we have been talking, T-san has been mentioning things that he can do for me, things that will help me in some way. All I've done is bring him a not-so-good bottle of wine!

It's very rare to have a friend who thinks more about you than he does of himself, and I am very grateful. I tell T-san this, and he nods and looks away. I think he's a little embarrassed.

"Do you want some more of this delicious wine?" I ask him. To my surprise, he has finished his first small glass, and he does want another. As I mentioned, since he has started having health problems, he rarely has more than half a glass of beer when I visit. I'm glad he seems to be having a little more tonight. Sometimes it's good to indulge a little and forget you problems, if even only for an hour or two.

I pour him another glass, and his daughter, K-san, comes in and greets me. "Is everything ready for Friday?" she asks me.

On that Friday I'm going to be photographing a geiko in Miyagawa-cho putting on her makeup from start to finish. This is not a geiko I ordinarily photograph, but K-san set it up for me. Like her father, she has been very helpful to me.

"John-san brought wine, but he says it doesn't taste very good," her father says.

"I see," K-san says and jumps into action. She takes out a champagne bucket, fills it with ice, puts my bottle of wine in it, and gives me a new glass. "Let the wine chill for a few minutes and then use this new glass. It will taste better then," she says.

I am dubious, but I keep these thoughts to myself since she went to all that effort for me. There are no other customers, so K-san goes back into the house. "I'll be back later," she says.

I try the chilled wine, and it does taste a little better. Of course, I'm on my third glass now, and everything tastes better after the first or second glass. T-san has a little more, too.

A few minutes later a geiko comes in. She is dressed in blue jeans and a light sweater, but she still manages to look elegant. I congratulate her on this year's Miyako Odori and apologize that I didn't get to see her dance this year.

She sits next to me, takes out her cell phone, and starts showing me photos from behind the scenes at the dance. One I wish I could have taken is a photo of this geiko and another geiko dancing on stage, but it was taken from backstage right, an angle I've never seen before. There are also some funny photos of her and other geiko hamming it up backstage as well.

T-san asks the geiko, "Would you like a glass of wine? John-san doesn't like it, but I think it's pretty good."

The geiko says she'll try a glass. I pour her one as T-san explains what the label says in Japanese.

She takes a sip. I'm not sure, but I don't think she likes it. I start to laugh. "You don't have to drink it if you don't want to," I say.

A few minutes after that, H-san comes in. H-san is T-san's wife and K-san's mother. She is basically the agent for the geiko connected to the ochaya.

The four of us talk for a while. The next think I know, the wine bottle is almost empty and it's past eleven o'clock. I have to start thinking about making sure I catch the last subway, which is a little after 11:30 p.m.

After I say my goodbyes, I walk down Hanamikoji towards the subway station. Then it hits me.

Gion Kobu is no longer a place I go to see geiko and maiko. Gion Kobu is a place I go to see my friends.

When did that happen?

My mind is still a little foggy from that not-so-good bottle of wine, so I don't have an answer.