A Tayu, an Hour, and Cherry Blossoms

I have had many memorable experiences photographing geisha, maiko, tayū, and more here in Kyoto, but if I had to pick my most magical hour, it would be the one I spent with Kikugawa Tayū amid cherry blossoms.

Like most of my early photographic encounters with Kikugawa-san, I felt a sense of mystery and tense excitement about what was going to happen. The world of tayū was pretty new to me, and I was flying blind most of the time, as I wrote in my first ever post about her.

A Cherry Tree in Shimabara?

All I knew on this Saturday was that I was going to have an hour to photograph Kikugawa beneath a cherry tree in a park— but I had no idea where the park was! I was told only, “It’s very close to Shimabara.”

I arrived in Shimabara an hour early, hoping to find the park. I had been to the former entertainment district several times already and didn’t remember ever seeing a park, let alone one with cherry trees.

I had no luck. I walked all around the neighborhood but couldn’t find it.

When Kikugawa and her okasan, the former Takasago Tayū, arrived in a taxi, it was just after five p.m. Kikugawa was full of energy and enthusiasm, as she almost always was.

“I’m sorry we’re late,” she told me in Japanese. “Do I have time to go inside for a minute?”

I told her she did. “How are we going to get to the park?” I asked her.

“We can walk. It’s not far,” she told me.

I was starting to worry. There wasn’t too much light left, and I hadn’t found any park within walking distance. I imagined Kikugawa in her gigantic black clogs. It would take us forever to get there even if the park were close, and as far as I knew, it wasn’t!

Kikugawa came back out, and much to my relief, she slipped into a pair of zori, Japanese sandals that are much easier to walk in than a tayū’s clogs! Those were in a small shopping bag, which I, ever the gentleman, offered to carry for her.

And we were off!

I made small talk with Kikugawa-san as we walked, but my mind was racing. How big was the cherry tree? Was there only one? Would it be in full bloom? How many people would be in the park? Would they leave us alone, or would they crowd around Kikugawa and I the way tourists in Gion Kobu would?

I had questions, but no answers!

We walked through the main gate of Shimabara and followed the street that led towards central Kyoto for about 50 meters before turning left.

Into the Past, Into the Floating World

Much to my surprise, there was a park there, with one lonely cherry tree and almost no people, just a man and two children kicking a soccer ball around in the far corner. They were far enough away that I could barely hear their voices, and they didn’t seem very interested in us.

There was one cherry tree, and it was in full bloom. The branches were not as thick and plentiful as I would have liked, but I couldn’t do anything about that.

I stared at the tree for a time, wondering what we were going to do.

And then I had it.

I walked up to the tree and slipped under the branches. The lowest ones were about up to my chest, which is pretty high.

“Can you put on your geta?” I asked Kikugawa. The ground around the tree was almost like sand, and I was worried she wouldn’t want to get the black clogs dirty. She didn’t hesitate.

In her geta, Kikugawa was almost as tall as me. If she rested her hand gently on one of the low branches, it would dip just enough to give me a clear view of her face.

At this point, I almost stopped to pinch myself. I was literally living a dream.

I had stepped into the floating world.

I was reminded of some lines from Asai Ryôi, who was the first to name the floating world:

...Living only for the moment
turning our full attention to the pleasure of the moon,
the snow, the cherry blossoms and the maple leaves;
singing songs, drinking wine, diverting ourselves
in just floating, floating...

For the next hour, I floated among cherry blossoms with Kikugawa Tayū. As far as I was concerned, we were the only two people in the world, and we had stepped back in time.

I photographed her from every angle and side as we danced deliberately around the cherry tree.

The spell was finally broken by the owner of a shop just outside the park who came to put out an electric lamp for customers who would soon be coming to enjoy some cherry blossom viewing of their own.

The sun was near setting, and my hour was up.

I walked Kikugawa-san back to Kushigiku, the former Takasago Tayū’s home, and we said good night.

I did not walk away. I floated. And my body was literally buzzing, as if a warm electric current were working its’ way through my muscles, bones, arteries, and veins.

As the shadows deepened into early evening, I still did not know if I was awake or dreaming.

And I did not care!