I Have Good Old Days?

It’s Been a Really Long Time!

Late Friday afternoon I was wandering around the outskirts of Gion Kobu making abstract photographs of the traditional buildings in the area.

It was the first really hot day of the spring, but the warm sunlight and long shadows made me forget the heat.

I was on a quiet side street just north of Shijo when I looked up and saw a geiko walking towards me. It was Makiko.

I first met Makiko back in 2004 when she arrived in Gion Kobu as a shikomi, a girl in training to become a maiko. I seemed to see her almost every week back then, when I was a street photographer roaming the alleys of a much-less-crowded Gion.

When I started photographing maiko and geiko inside tea houses in 2007, Makiko was one of the first I asked, and I photographed her several times a year from then until 2011.

In the 8 years since then, I have seen Makiko a handful of times, and usually just in passing, a quick smile and wave as we moved in different directions down the street.

Life is like that sometimes. We move into and out of each other’s lives. Sometimes our paths cross constantly, and sometimes we slip by someone without a whisper, without impact. Who knows why? The Fates, maybe. Not me.

It had been so long that I hesitated before even greeting Makiko. I am so conscious of the constant harassment geiko and maiko face these days that I think three times before interacting with them.

I didn’t have to worry. Makiko stopped when she saw it was me, and her smile was genuine.

“John-san. It’s been a long time. A really long time! You haven’t changed a bit!” she said.

“Neither have you!” I replied. And we shared a warm laugh.

We talked for a minute. I was seeing both the young girl I used to know and the self-assured woman she has become at the same time.

“I hear you’re going to have a younger sister,” I said.

“Yes, we’re going to do greetings from now,” she said.

That was my cue. “It’s really good to see you, Makiko. Thank you for everything. Really.”

She smiled again, waved with both hands, and disappeared around the corner.

As I said, it was the hottest day of the year so far in Kyoto, but I was feeling a different kind of warmth then. An old cliché popped into my head as I walked: “Ah, the good old days.”

I stopped suddenly at the epiphany washing over me like the warm sun.

Wait a minute. I have good old days?

When I first met Makiko, I could not have fathomed that I would spend so much time in Gion Kobu that I would see an entire generation of geiko and maiko come and go, let alone be remembered by any of the women I was meeting then.

It was a good feeling. I do have good old days.

Makiko’s Erikae Portrait

One of those days was February 23, 2009, the day Makiko had her erikae and made her debut as a geiko. It was also the first time I was able to make a portrait of a geiko in relative private on such an auspicious day.

I say relative private because Makiko and I were not alone, although you can’t tell that from the portrait posted here. This image was made in the genkan (entrance) of a tea house, which is a very small space.

The owner of the tea house greeted Makiko and Kojima-san, the otokoshi who accompanied her during her erikae, and then quickly went back into the tea house and closed the sliding door behind Makiko so I could have a clean background for my portrait.

Poor Kojima-san was forced to stand in the corner, because there was literally no other place for him to go. I thought he might be annoyed at being stuck there, but he made a phone call while I worked with Makiko.

I had already set up my light (just outside frame right) before the erikae began, so all I had to do was show Makiko wear to stand and start. I had photographed her so many times at this point that she knew the drill.

Three or four minutes later, she was on her way again.

Tomorrow, Makiko’s new younger sister will make her debut as a maiko, and she will be in the same entrance at about the same time. Many things change in Gion Kobu, but many things don’t.

I will not be there to photograph this new maiko, but I will wish her well. Our paths already crossed a few months ago when I met her when she was a shikomi, much as I did Makiko all those years ago.

Will our paths cross again? For now, I’ll let the Fates decide!