It All Began with Mameharu

The maiko Mameharu performing the dance "Kurokami" a short time before her debut as a geisha
The maiko Mameharu performing the dance "Kurokami" a short time before her debut as a geisha

If not for the geisha Mameharu, my new book Now a Geisha would not exist. Mameharu was the first maiko to say yes to me photographing her erikae (debut as a geiko), so she opened the door for me.

I told her exactly this when I signed her copy of the book. If you like, you can see my inscription on Mameharu's Instagram page. She posted several photos of the book, including her favorite.

Since she has retired, Mameharu uses her real name, Moe Koyama, which is why I signed the book to Moe, not Mameharu.

As with most things in the world of geiko and maiko, getting permission to photograph Mameharu's erikae was not easy. It started in March 2012, when I first found out Mameharu would be having her erikae.

I had my friends at a tea house ask Tama-san, the owner of the Tama tea house and geisha house, if I could photograph Mameharu's erikae. The answer came back that it would be up to Mameharu. Since this was not an outright "no," I was slightly encouraged.

I wanted to speak to Mameharu directly, but this is not as easy as it sounds. I couldn't just go up to the Tama okiya (geisha house) and ask to speak with her. And since it was March and Miyako Odori was just a few weeks away and she was preparing for her erikae, Mameharu would be incredibly busy.

Fortunately, Lady Luck was on my side, as she has been many times over the years when it comes to my photography of geiko and maiko.

One evening in early April I was going to meet friends for dinner. I had some time, so I decided to take a walk through Gion Kobu since it was on the way to the restaurant.

As I turned left from Hanami-koji to Aoyagi-koji, I flinched. I had forgotten that Miyako Odori had started, and there were photographers up and down the street waiting for maiko and geiko to exit the back entrance of the theater.

Because I didn't want to pass through the gauntlet of photographers, I almost turned around to find another street. Almost. I took a deep breath and moved forward.

I had only taken a few steps when a maiko emerged from the crowd. Of course, it was Mameharu. (Thank you, Lady Luck!) Even more shocking was the fact that no one was running after her to take her photo (yet).

She saw me and said, "John-san, John-san."

I knew right then that I was going to be able to photograph her erikae just by the tone of her voice and the fact that she had said my name twice. I don't remember exactly what we spoke about, but I think it was the date of her erikae and when she would start wearing sakkō and things like that.

Since Mameharu had stopped to talk to me, it wasn't long before photographers started to converge on us. I felt bad for Mameharu, so I quickly ended our conversation.

I was literally right in front of my friend's ochaya, so I stopped in to tell him the good news. I also knew that maiko in Gion Kobu wore the yakko shimada hairstyle before sakkō, and I was already hoping to do a book about Mameharu's erikae then. I decided I had better photograph Mameharu wearing yakko so the book would be as detailed as possible.

Unfortunately, Lady Luck had left Gion Kobu. After a flurry of phone calls between my friend's ochaya and the Tama okiya, I learned that Mameharu would be wearing yakko shimada for only three days. And she was busy and I was busy, so the only day of the three I could photograph her was May 12.

The only problem was that I was scheduled to photograph the geiko Mamehana on May 12, and Mamehana was so popular that I couldn't change the date.

What to do, what to do?

After more phone calls, it was decided that the only solution was to photograph Mameharu for an hour from 4:30 - 5:30 and then photograph Mamehana from 6:00 p.m. on. I would start setting up at 1:00 p.m. It would be a very long day, especially since I did not want to photograph Mameharu and Mamehana in the same way, but it was my only option.

Since I only had an hour with Mameharu and I was mainly interested in photographing the yakko shimada hairstyle, I would keep things simple. I would photograph Mameharu outside in natural light for as long as possible. I knew I would be photographing her against the red background with studio lights the following week, and I wanted the photos to look quite different.

So, at about 4:15 p.m. on May 12, I was waiting in the alley down the street from the Tama okiya. I had mapped out all the places I wanted to photograph her outside before we spent a few minutes in my friend's ochaya for photographs with lighting.

Mameharu appeared right on time, and I showed her where I wanted her to stand. I made a few photographs, but I had to stop. Mameharu's eyes were watering quite noticeably.

"What's wrong?" I asked.

"Kafunsho," Mameharu said. Kafunsho is the Japanese word for hay fever. I suffer from it myself, and Kyoto has a lot of pollen in the air from March until May.

So much for my plans to photograph Mameharu outside for most of the hour!

Mameharu assured me she would be fine, so we moved to our second location. She said she was fine, but I could tell her eyes were really bothering her.

Part of me was focused on making interesting photographs of Mameharu right there, but another part was frantically trying to decide what to do. I chose to finish quickly with the photographs outside and move into the tea house sooner than I had wanted.

Once we were inside, Mameharu's eyes started to water less and less. I photographed her in the entrance with the door closed to hopefully ward of the pollen, and this image became my favorite portrait of the day. It is on page 21 of Now a Geisha.

We then went upstairs to the main room to photograph the yakko shimada hairstyle in more detail. It took me a few minutes to adjust the light, and by then our hour was almost up. My favorite of the yakko photos is on page 20 of the book.

Exactly one week later, I was waiting for Mameharu outside of Tama again, this time to photograph her wearing the sakkō hairstyle and dancing Kurokami, a dance performed in Gion Kobu just before and just after a maiko becomes a geiko.

The first thing I said to Mameharu that day was, "Kafunsho?"

She was feeling much better, but I still photographed her mostly inside the ochaya. I have photographed 7 maiko and geiko with the sakkō hairstlye, and the images of Mameharu are my favorite from the 5 maiko I have photographed in Gion Kobu.

At the end of our sakkō session, I asked Mameharu if she would take me Tama so I could see where I would be photographing her erikae in just a few more days. I told her it would really help me prepare if I knew what the space looked like beforehand.

Mameharu agreed, and first she introduced me to her okasan. I had met Tama-san 6 years previously, but I don't think she remembered me. And I hadn't been introduced by one of her own maiko then, which makes a big difference.

Mameharu took me upstairs to where the dressing takes place, and I had time to look around and decide where I would put my light, which I had insisted on bringing.

Five days later, I was back in the same room photographing Mameharu's erikae. That story has already been written, though. You can read about it in the pages of Now a Geisha and see a few more images of Mameharu's erikae in the Now a Geisha gallery I have added to my website.