Sakko and Kurokami in Miyagawa-cho

The maiko Toshikana performing the dance Kurokami a week before she became a geisha

A Fleeting Event

The one occasion in a maiko’s career I always get excited about photographing is when she wears the sakkō hairstyle before her debut as a geisha.

It’s a thrill because it is such a rare occurrence. A maiko’s career lasts about 4-5 years, and she will wear sakkō for only the last few weeks of this time if she is going to become a geiko (the term for geisha in Kyoto). Not all maiko become geiko, so some maiko never get the chance to wear the ornate hairstyle.

The sakkō hairstyle is one of several unique traditions connected to the time just before a geiko’s debut, which is known as her erikae in Japanese. If you’re interested in a in-depth look at all of them, you can check out my book Now a Geisha, which covers the erikae period in great detail over 191 pages.

In this post, I’m going to focus on the traditions of Miyagawa-cho, one of Kyoto’s five geisha districts.

Sakko in Miyagawa-cho

In both Miyagawa-cho and Gion Kobu (Kyoto’s largest and most famous geisha district) , maiko wear a formal black kimono called a kuromontsuki and a gold and white obi during the sakkō period. The one major difference is that in Miyagawa-cho, maiko wear bright red collars with their kuromontsuki, whereas Gion Kobu maiko have white collars with silver embroidery.

Maiko in both districts also perform the dance Kurokami (Black Hair) during the sakkō period, but while they dance to the same song, the choreography is quite different.

Toshikana, Sakko, and Kurokami

I have photographed 3 maiko from Miyagawa-cho in the last decade plus, but Toshikana was the first and only maiko from the district I photographed with sakkō. The other 2 ended their careers as maiko, and Toshikana once told me that only about half the maiko in Miyagawa-cho go on to become geiko.

In contrast, I photographed 8 maiko from Gion Kobu in the same period, and 6 of the 8 went on to careers as geiko, some only briefly, but some for a long time.

Since I know maiko from both Miyagawa-cho and Gion Kobu will be wearing black kimono during sakkō, planning is somewhat easier because I can use any color background I like (black goes with any other color). So, I choose the background based on my interpretation of the woman’s personality.

I chose pink for Mamehana, red for Mameharu, and green for Manaha because those are the colors I associate with each of them. Don’t ask me why; it’s just my instinct. You can see an image of Mameharu dancing Kurokami in front of the red background here.

I chose deep purple for Toshikana because I thought the color fit her personality, but also because I knew that the deep purple would make her red collar, lipstick, and naga-juban (the under kimono you can glimpse in her left sleeve) stand out even more.

An added bonus was that Toshikana also changed her eye liner and eye “shadow” (for lack of a better term) for sakkō. She lengthened her eye liner and accented it with a large dab of red at the corner of each eye, which made her features pop even more against the deep purple seamless.

As soon as Toshikana stood in front of the seamless I knew the results were going to be even better than I had hoped, and then she started dancing the Miyagawa-cho version of Kurokami. I almost started jumping up and down behind my camera I was so excited, and it takes a lot to get me excited after photographing geiko and maiko for 17 years.

Almost every pose looked like it was made to be photographed, especially those where Toshikana’s hands or kimono sleeves acted as a natural frame to her face, as in the portrait I have posted here.

I called Toshikana my top model in a post from several years ago, and she definitely earned that title while I photographed her dancing Kurokami. Many of the kata (forms or poses) of the dance required her to be leaning back, which put a great deal of strain on her back, especially since she was wearing a heavy kimono and had an even heavier obi pulling her backwards as well.

I wanted to have her head in the top left of the frame for a pleasing composition in most images, which meant I had to focus on her eye, hold focus, recompose, and then make the photograph. Since Toshikana was leaning back, her body could not help but sway slightly, which became magnified since I was using a long telephoto lens. Getting the composition just right took more time than I would have liked.

In other words, making these images was not as easy as I hope they look, especially for Toshikana! I told Toshikana what I tell every geiko and maiko I work with: if holding the pose puts too much strain on them, they can break the pose, take a break, and reset.

Toshikana did not break a single pose even once. I would ask her if she was okay at the beginning, but I stopped when I realized she wasn’t going to take a break and I was just wasting time by asking.

Photographing sakkō and Kurokami is a rare and special event, and Toshikana-san was a very rare and special maiko for me personally. Every once in a very long while the stars align and moments like this happen.

And I cherish them!