Mamefuji and September Shadows

The maiko Mamefuji of Gion Kobu on a late September afternoon

September in Kyoto is a schizophrenic month.

It still has all the heat and humidity of summer on most days, but those days are noticeably shorter and darker, making it clear that winter is just around the corner. Japan does not have Daylight Savings time, so today sunrise was at 5: 49 a.m. and sunset at 17:42 p.m.

It’s pretty much dark by dinnertime.

For these reasons, I rarely photograph geiko and maiko in September, and, as a result, I have more than enough images of maiko in October, November, and December, especially November.

I decided to do something different with Mamefuji a few years ago and arranged to photograph her on warm September afternoon.

Towards the end of the session, we moved onto the tea house’s veranda, which overlooks a small garden.

I have photographed on this veranda countless times over the years, but on this day it was different and darker, much darker. I realized it was because the background, the shoji-covered sliding doors that would usually be a few meters behind Mamefuji, had been replaced by sliding doors made of bamboo, which are used all during the summer, from June to September.

Bamboo is much darker than shoji. And in the summer it is so hot that I rarely venture outside the air-conditioned ozashiki with a maiko or geiko. I had always photographed these bamboo doors from the inside, never the outside!

It was approaching 5:00 p.m. when this portrait was made. I had Mamefuji start farther away from me and move closer to see how the light danced across her features. When I liked what I saw, I asked her to stop.

I decided to emphasize the deepening shadows of the late afternoon by having her turn away from the light more than usual. This was done mostly in silence, with me turning my head and Mamefuji mirroring my actions, much more gracefully than I performed them!

A slight tilt of her chin produced the tiny sliver of light beneath her right eye, and we were on our way.

Mamefuji was the most popular maiko in her brief time in Kyoto. One of the many reasons for this was that she was a wonderful ham, always ready with a funny facial expression.

But there was another side to Mamefuji, a side I found much more captivating. A more somber side, a side that fit with shadows. A side that revealed that the darkness of her eyes was even deeper than shade surrounding her.

I can gaze into those shadows — and those eyes — for a long time.