Mamefuji and What Might Have Been

Already 5 Years

A few days ago I began work on a presentation on the misedashi (debut) of maiko in Kyoto, and I started with images of Mamefuji’s misedashi, the first debut I photographed both inside the maiko’s okiya and outside on the streets of Gion Kobu.

It took me a few moments to find the images. What year was her misedashi again? That’s right, 2013. Has it been so long? And then I realized that her misedashi was on December 1, so the five-year anniversary is just one week away.

She would have been a geiko by now, I thought.

Unfortunately, Mamefuji ended her career in April 2016, after being a maiko for about two and a half years. Rumors started in March that she would be leaving, and I don’t remember there ever being as much talk on the Internet about whether a maiko was retiring or not as there was in Mamefuji’s case.

I had posted one photograph of my work with Mamefuji in September 2015, and I decided not to post any others until after all the furor about her leaving had died down. It’s been more than 2 years, and since the anniversary of her debut is just a week away, I thought now would be a good time.

Our Final Photo Session

I last saw Mamefuji on January 29, 2016. We had a photo session that afternoon, and everything was normal until the very last minute. Mamefuji was getting ready to leave when I asked, “And how are all the Tama girls?”

I was just making casual conversation. I knew most of the young maiko and shikomi from Tama, Mamefuji’s okiya, because I had photographed inside the house several times over the years. They were a lively and friendly bunch.

Mamefuji suddenly became very serious. “Mamekiku’s leaving soon,” she told me. I didn’t know Mamekiku, but I knew that she was Mamefuji’s closest friend at Tama. I told her that I was sorry her friend was leaving and that I hoped she wouldn’t miss her too much.

Mamefuji just looked at me with an intensity that surprised me and even made me a little uncomfortable. I wasn’t expecting my innocent question to cause such a strong emotional reaction. She looked like she wanted to say something else, and I thought I could see tears forming in her eyes.

I reached out and touched her on the shoulder, trying to comfort her. “You’ll be okay,” I said. The moment passed. Mamefuji nodded. “Yes,” she said.

I don’t remember what happened after that, but that moment with Mamefuji stuck with me. Like all of us, I know what it’s like to lose a friend, and I was sorry Mamefuji was losing hers.

Retort curry?

I wanted to do something to try to cheer her up, so I asked my friend at the tea house if she knew of something I could get Mamefuji that would cheer her up.

Her answer surprised me. “Retort curry,” she told me.


I had no idea what retort curry was. I learned that it is precooked Japanese curry (which is very different from Indian curry) that is sealed in a plastic pouch. You put the pouch in boiling water, heat it up, and then serve it over rice.

It sounded awful to me, but Onaka-san (the owner of the tea house where I usually photograph) assured me that it was quite good. She knew that Mamefuji liked curry because they had been at an engagement together, and they talked about how much they both liked curry.

I went to one of Kyoto’s trendier supermarkets and sheepishly asked where there retort curry was. The salesclerk took me over to a shelf, and I was overwhelmed with choices. There were different brands, all apparently made by master Japanese chefs, and different flavors (chicken, beef, shrimp, vegetable).

I didn’t know what Mamefuji liked, and the salesclerk wasn’t much help. I ended up buying several boxes of two different brands in all the flavors except shrimp. Mamefuji could choose what she liked.

I went back to Onaka-san, and her father helped me write a note in Japanese to go with the curry, and we delivered the package to Tama-san.

passing in the night

A few weeks later I was walking up Hanamikoji, the main street of Gion, on my way to the Sanjo subway station. Two maiko and several customers were on the opposite side of the street, and as I waited at the traffic light, they started to cross to my side of the street.

One of the maiko was Mamefuji, and she saw me and waved. I waved back, but I didn’t approach her since I saw that she was with customers. It would have been bad form. The light changed, I crossed the street, and Mamefuji and her companions passed behind me.

I didn’t look back, but as I walked away, I heard Mamefuji call out, “Curry, ookini!” In English, “Thank you for the curry!”

And that was the last time I ever saw Mamefuji. It strikes me as more than a little odd and funny that her last words to me were about curry, so I can at least laugh at myself.

If I knew then what I know now, I would have at least looked back or even stopped for a minute, even if it had been a breach of etiquette on my part. Of course, I didn’t know that would be the last time I ever saw her. At the time I was simply content to know that she had appreciated the curry.

I went back to New York to visit my family in late February and early March, and when I returned to Kyoto I found out for certain that Mamefuji was going to be leaving after Miyako Odori concluded at the end of April.

I could have had one final photo session with her in late March, but maiko are already extremely busy between rehearsals and attending regular parties in the evenings. I didn’t want to add to her already full schedule.

Of course, I don’t known what Mamefuji was thinking when she looked at me so intensely at our last photo session, but I like to think that she was saying goodbye without saying goodbye.

I never did officially say goodbye to her, so I’ll say it here.

Goodbye, Mamefuji.

Wherever you are, I hope the curry is delicious. And I hope, like me, you don’t spend too much time thinking about what might have been.