A Golden Age of Maiko Photography

The maiko of Gion Kobu on their way to Yasaka Shrine
The maiko of Gion Kobu on their way to Yasaka Shrine

2012 was without a doubt my golden age of maiko photography, and it came in my tenth year photographing maiko and geisha. It was a pinnacle for several reasons.

Senior Maiko

The biggest reason for my success was that I was photographing three of Gion Kobu's most senior maiko at the time: Takahina, Mameharu, and Manaha.

In this photo, Mameharu is at the front of the line in the light blue kimono. Takahina is to her right in the pale green kimono, and she is talking to Makino and Manaha, wearing a light brown kimono.

This image shows the hierarchy of maiko in Gion Kobu quiet clearly. The more senior maiko are at the front of the group (frame right), and the younger and newer maiko are in the back (frame left).

The photo also shows some of the real friendships between the young women. Takahina spent most of that day chatting with Makino, and I remember Takahina telling me the two of them were close.

On the other hand, Mameharu and Manaha started as maiko at the same time, and they were roommates and best friends. They didn't spend much time together that morning, so I shouldn't read too much into an image!

Back to Back to Back!

I arrived at Yasaka Shrine a little before 9:30 a.m. that morning (May 1, 2012). I knew the maiko visited the shrine the day after Miyako Odori ended every year, but I had never attended before.

I don't really enjoy photographing maiko when they are out in groups in like this, Hassaku (August 1) and Shigyoshiki (January 7). I prefer working with them in a more quiet and private environment.

However, with the chance to photograph 3 maiko I knew well, I decided to give it a try. I was not disappointed!

Takahina was the first to arrive at the shrine, alone. There were a few photographers around, but not too many. I made eye contact with her, motioned with my head for her to move away from the crowd, and made some nice portraits of her in about 30 seconds. It was 9:39 a.m.

I thanked Takahina, turned, and saw Manaha arriving. I waved her over and photographed her at 9:43 a.m. When I finished with Manaha, I turned again and saw Mameharu watching us. She knew she was next and changed places with Manaha. It was 9:45 a.m.

And that is one of the reasons why I say 2012 was my golden age of maiko photography. In no other year could I have made portraits  of 3 different maiko in 6 minutes. Everything just came together like that in 2012.

One month before this event, I had photographed Miyako Odori for the first time since 2007, a big thrill. Less than a month after this was Mameharu's erikae, the first time I ever had the chance to photograph inside an okiya, the house where geisha live. This was the biggest thrill I had ever had photographing maiko and geiko. It probably still is.

I had my second chance to photograph inside an okiya a few months later when I photographed Mamehana inside Ninben about a month before she retired. It was a bittersweet day for me. I was excited to photograph Mamehana putting on her makeup, but really sad that it was probably the last time I would ever see her. Now, six years later, I know that it was our last afternoon together.

A Joyous Smile

I was back at Yasaka Shrine to photograph Takahina and Manaha dancing during Hanagasa Junko on July 24, a few days before I photographed Mamehana for the last time.

That year, maiko from both Gion Kobu and Miyagawa-cho were performing. I didn't know any of the maiko from Miyagawa-cho, so I wasn't even going to photograph their dance.

Then, as the maiko from Miyagawa-cho ascended the stage, one of the young women turned to the maiko behind her, and she just beamed. It was one of the happiest and most excited smiles I had ever seen.

I had no idea who the maiko was, but I knew I wanted to photograph her. That maiko turned out to be Toshikana, who would become one of my all-time favorites. I photographed her officially for the first time in November 2012.

I liked her so much I wanted to photograph her once more before the end of the year. Toshikana was so popular that every day in December was booked except for a holiday, her day off. She must have enjoyed working with me, because she gave up her day off to let me photograph her again.

2012 was just that kind of year. Everything worked out for me, and I went from peak experience to peak experience to another peak experience.

I wish I had more years like 2012, and I have had some. Not many, but some. I wish the same for you, too, with whatever you love to do!