At Play with Kikugawa Tayū

Kikugawa Tayu with Fuji Kanzashi
Kikugawa Tayu with Fuji Kanzashi

A few times a year now I have short portrait sessions of about an hour with Kikugawa Tayū in Shimabara, and since these meetings are so brief, I approach them in a much different way than the longer and more formal sessions we have that last anywhere from 8 - 10 hours for me, including setting up and taking down sets.

I view these briefer encounters as a time to play photographically, to experiment and try different things.

I arrive in Shimabara 1-2 hours before I'm supposed to meet Kikugawa-san, and I usually have a plan. On the day this portrait was taken a few months ago, I didn't have a plan. I didn't really need one.

I had basically two options: to photograph Kikugawa on the streets of Shimabara or inside Kushigiku, the home of her okasan, the former Takasago Tayū. I have done both before, and I knew only that I didn't want to repeat myself.

As I walked around Shimabara, I wasn't getting very excited about photographing Kikugawa outside. As I have written about previously in the post "Tayū in Shimabara Today," Shimabara has lost a good deal of its former luster, and there just aren't many backgrounds I like in the area. The ones I do like I have already photographed, so there was no need to go back to them again.

It was also getting close to 1:00 p.m., and the sun almost directly overhead was bright and harsh on this cloudless day. I decided I would photograph Kikugawa-san inside, but I wasn't sure exactly what I would do. I had one camera, one lens, one light, and one stand. That's all.

There are some interesting bamboo screens in Kushigiku, so I figured I'd play with them somehow.

A little before one o'clock, I made my way to Kushigiku and was surprised to find the door open. I announced myself and Kikugawa-san came right out to greet me. We are in our third year of working together, so we know each other pretty well now.

We climbed the very narrow and steep staircase to the second floor, and we entered the main room. The first thing I noticed was a bright patch of sunlight on the sliding doors facing the entrance.

I had never seen it so bright in the room before, but I was usually there later in the afternoon. I decided I would make some natural light portraits of Kikugawa-san before I set up my light.

The window the light was coming from was covered with shoji, but it was also partially blocked by a 100-year old kimono hanging on a kimono stand. I was obviously reluctant to move the kimono, so I decided to just work around it.

I guess I photographed Kikugawa-san for about 10 minutes or so, and I liked the results. It was time to move on, or so I thought.

I started to set up my one light, and I even made a few test shots of Kikugawa-san. Then a little voice whispered to me, "Go back to the window. The light's much nicer and you haven't worked it enough yet."

I moved my light to the side and told Kikugawa that I'd like to go back to the window. "Can we move the kimono?" I asked her. She said we could and helped me slide it very gently out of the way.

We had much more room to maneuver, and Kikugawa-san could get much closer to the window.

And for the rest of the time, we just played. I'd move Kikugawa-san closer or farther away from the window, or turn her face toward or away from the light. I'd also move myself closer or farther from Kikugawa, getting close-ups and full-length images. I'd make a portrait and see what I had.

Along the way, we'd chat in between photos or just be silent. It was all very relaxed and easy. I wish it were always that way!

Before I knew it, our time was up. As I walked back to the train station, I was stunned to see that it wasn't even three o'clock in the afternoon yet. I had accomplished a lot and the day was still mostly ahead of me.

It is only a 7 or 8-minute train ride to Shimabara, so I can make it from my apartment to Kushigiku in about 30 minutes if I time it right.

The journey always seems much longer, though, because I feel I'm moving through time, space, and different worlds as I make the trip.

And when I get home, I always long to return.