The First Brush of Oshiroi

The new geisha Manaha has her makeup applied during her debut
The new geisha Manaha has her makeup applied during her debut

Before I photographed my first erikae (the debut of a geisha), one of the key moments I wanted to record was the first brush of white makeup across her face. I thought it would be simply a matter of timing, of me pressing the shutter release of my camera at the right moment.

Was I wrong!

I was fortunate enough to be able to photograph the erikae of three geiko, which is the subject of my new book Now a Geisha. Of those three erikae, only this image of Manaha matched what I had envisioned in my imagination, and that is why it is one of my favorite photos from the book.

First Chance: Mameharu's Erikae

The first erikae I photographed was Mameharu's, and I did capture the moment of the first brush of makeup across her face. The only problem was that the makeup artist moved in closer to Mameharu as he did this, so the back of his head was blocking half of Mameharu's face. Ugh!

In addition, he moved the brush from Mameharu's nose to over her left eyebrow (frame right) and down her left cheek. There wasn't a clean line of makeup. It was more like a solid block.

I had no control over either of these actions, but I was still a little disappointed. The images certainly didn't match what I had imagined!

Third Chance: Momifuku's Erikae

Momifuku's first brush of makeup was also anticlimactic for me. Momifuku applied her own makeup during her erikae, but she started with her neck, as many geiko do. Then, she brushed a bit of makeup down the bridge of her nose and onto her forehead.

There was nothing wrong with this, but there were two problems. The first was that Momifuku was holding a hand mirror, which was partially blocking her face. The second was that Yoko, the woman who dresses Momifuku, had entered the room and was moving behind Momifuku. Her presence was taking attention away from Momifuku.

Again, there was nothing I could do about either of these circumstances. "Shoganai," as Japanese often say, which means, "It can't be helped," in English.

The Second Time's the Charm: Manaha's Erikae

Only the photograph of Manaha's erikae posted here matched the image I had in my mind of what the first brush of makeup should look like. The makeup artist started on Manaha's forehead and made one quick, zig-zagging line down the center of Manaha's face.

The edges of the brush stroke look almost like calligraphy to me, and the makeup artist was kind enough not to block the view of my lens. This was the photograph I had envisioned, and it is one of my favorites in Now a Geisha.

Makeup and Donuts!

Speaking of the makeup artist who did such an excellent job during Manaha's erikae, I have a funny story to tell.

In early November last year I went to Gion Kobu one afternoon with copies of Now a Geisha to give to all those who participated in the book like Onaka-san, Tama-san, Kojima-san, and Yamakami-san.

When I was finished, I decided to stop by the Maruzen bookstore on Kawaramachi between Shijo and Sanjo to see how the book was selling. As I was walking north on Kawaramachi, I saw the word "Taco" out of the corner of my eye.

I was instantly excited. Had a new Mexican restaurant opened up? I looked more closely at the sign in the window. It actually said "Taco & Donut." What? The name of the shop was Kitten & Donuts. I was still confused. Was this a cafe where you could play with cats and eat donuts? Believe it or not, there are such cafes in Japan where you can play with kittens.

I like donuts almost as much as tacos, so I decided to go in and give it a try.

Who greeted me from behind the counter?

The makeup artist from Manaha's erikae, of course! She is the owner of Kitten & Donuts!

We both looked at each other for a moment. I recognized her and she recognized me, but neither of us could place the other. Then it hit me: Manaha's erikae!

We had a good laugh, and I told her that believe it or not, I had just been in Gion giving copies of my new book out, and that she was in the book (from behind, at least). We chatted for a few minutes, and I bought some donuts. Unfortunately, the taco donut was sold out, so I had to wait to try it.

As I left the shop, I thought to myself, "What are the odds that you encounter her on the day you are giving out the book?" I don't know if it's luck, fate, or coincidence, but these kinds of things happen to me a lot in Kyoto, especially with maiko and geiko.

If you are ever in Kyoto, I recommend you try Kitten & Donuts, on the East side of Kawaramachi a few blocks north of Shijo. You can check out the Kitten & Donuts Instagram page by clicking on this sentence.