Good-bye and Hello to the Geisha Mamehana of Gion Kobu

Mamehana of Gion Kobu as a maiko performing the dance Hanagasa

The geisha Mamehana of Gion Kobu retired last Saturday, August 25, one year and nine months after she made her debut as a geiko on November 25, 2010. I met Mamehana on Valentine’s Day in 2009, photographed her for the first time in June of that year, and photographed her for the last time at the end of July this year.

Near the end of The Wizard of Oz, one of my favorite movies when I was a child, Dorothy turns to the Scarecrow and says, “I think I’ll miss you most of all.” Right now, I feel the same way about Mamehana. She has so many endearing qualities, and I’d like to share just one of them here.

We always take a break during photo sessions when we just sit and relax and talk over drinks and snacks. One of those snacks is usually an elegant dish filled with individually-wrapped chocolates. Geiko and maiko don’t eat very much while they’re working, so I usually end up gobbling most of the chocolates (much to the amazement of whichever geiko or maiko I am with at the time). The first time I photographed Mamehana, I reached for a chocolate myself, but Mamehana beat me to it and had it unwrapped and was holding it up for me to take, all in the blink of an eye. I was stunned.

With lightning-quick reflexes like that, I asked her if she wasn’t some kind of undercover ninja pretending to be a maiko, but she swore to me that she was just an ordinary maiko. Geiko and maiko are taught to serve their customers in small ways like this, but it has always made me feel a bit uncomfortable to be waited on, especially by someone I am trying to photograph!

I explained to Mamehana that I was old enough to open up my own chocolates, so she didn’t need to do it for me. I reached for a second candy, and Mamehana had it unwrapped before I knew what hit me. She even took the wrapper from the first chocolate I had so boorishly crumpled and discarded on the tray in front of me, smoothed it out, and tied it into a neat little bow. She did the same with the wrappers of the two or three chocolates she had eaten herself, and she even tied a few more of my own wrappers. This made me feel like a total slob, so I started to hide my wrappers behind my glass or one of the other dishes so Mamehana wouldn’t see them.

At every photo session since then, this became our routine, a battle-of-wills over who would open my chocolates. I never told Mamehana, but by the second or third time I started to look forward to her opening the chocolates for me, even though I still felt the need to protest some to preserve my perceived dignity as a member of the adult male species. And now I can’t help but think of all those chocolate wrappers tied in neat little bows. I never took a photograph of them, but I wish I had.

I titled this post “Good-bye and Hello” because although my time photographing Mamehana is over, my time working with her photos is really just starting. The good news is that my instincts told me that Mamehana would only be a geiko for a year or so, so I photographed her twice as much in 2010, 2011, and 2012 as I have other geiko, and I have several thousand photographs of her as a maiko and geiko. My job now is to edit these photos into a book that will do Mamehana justice. I’m at the very start of the process, but I’ll be posting updates on my progress here from time to time.

Even though I said good-bye to Mamehana at the end of July, I won’t say my last good-bye until the book is finished. That’s when I’ll finally be able to let her go.


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  1. stefan2009 September 2, 2012 at 10:24 pm #

    Hello John !

    Thanks for this fun anecdote, we will miss Mamehana a lot…
    Will you plublish this book or is it just a personnal project ?
    This portait is marvelous *_* !

    • John September 3, 2012 at 4:43 pm #

      Hi Stefan,
      All three of my previous books started as personal projects, and when I was finished with them I started to search for the right publisher. The Mamehana book project will be the same, but the big difference is that the publishing industry has changed so much since my last book was published. Many more photographers are doing limited edition books with smaller publishers or just self-publishing their work now. I’m open to all options at this point, and that’s part of the fun for me — finding out the best way to do this project.

      Thank you for the compliment on the photograph; it is one of my favorites of Mamehana as a maiko and is part of a series I’ve done on the dance “Hanagasa” with several geiko and maiko. I’ll be posting more images from the series on in a few weeks, and then I’ll blog about the stories behind them afterwards.

  2. Marina September 3, 2012 at 10:55 pm #

    wow amazing as always
    i will miss her so much

    • John September 4, 2012 at 11:45 am #

      You’ll always have your wonderful drawings of Mamehana, Marina, just as I’ll always have my photographs. We can both take comfort in that!

  3. modernfoppery September 4, 2012 at 10:12 am #

    What a lovely tribute to Mamehana! I look forward to more photos of her. If you don’t mind my asking, what gave you the impression that she wouldn’t be a geiko for long?

    • John September 4, 2012 at 12:05 pm #

      Thank you for commenting, and I don’t mind your question at all! Most of my reason for thinking Mamehana wouldn’t be a geiko for long was just a feeling, a gut instinct. I get to know the personalities of the geiko and maiko I photograph pretty well, and a little voice inside told me to photograph Mamehana as much as I could while I had the chance.

      I think there were other signs, though. Mamehana’s okiya, Ninben, has no senior geiko except Mamehiro, who is quite senior. Also, Mamehana is the only maiko I have photographed during sakkou who did not blacken her teeth with ohaguro. I think these facts gave me the impression that geiko at Ninben don’t often have long careers.

      For instance, the maiko I knew best before Mamehana, Yukako and Makiko, both told me how proud they were to wear ohaguro during sakkou, and their okiya has many senior geiko like Sayoko, Suzuko, and Mihoko. I always felt that Yukako and Makiko would be geiko for a considerable time, and so far I have been right.

      I have been wrong about many things as well, though. The hanamachi are a very unique and strange world, and I’m always learning something new or having to revise my assumptions and expectations. I hope I’ve answered your question!

      • modernfoppery September 5, 2012 at 2:57 am #

        You certainly have! Thanks very much. It does seem telling that Mamehana would decline to wear ohaguro–it’s so iconic. (Incidentally, I’ve seen quite a few photos of Yukako and Makiko together and am touched by how close they seem to be. I’m sure strong friendships help geiko and maiko stay in the hanamachi through the tough times.)

        I do wonder about Ninben: they don’t seem to have had a new maiko since Mamesome, who is nearing her erikae, and both Mamechiho and Mamehana are now retired…

        • John September 5, 2012 at 11:44 am #

          Good to hear back from you!

          When I scheduled my photo session with Mamehana during sakkou, I asked if she would be wearing ohaguro. I was told (through Onaka-san, the ochaya where I usually photograph) that it was Ninben’s custom that maiko do not wear ohaguro during sakkou. So, I don’t think Mamehana herself decided not to wear it. In fact, I’m not sure maiko have a choice about most of the things pertaining to their careers, for better or worse.

          I’ve never looked into why okiya have as many (or as few) maiko as they do. All I know is, some always have quite a few, and others only have one or two or even none much of the time. It’s something I can start to investigate!

  4. Jackie September 4, 2012 at 12:42 pm #

    I hope you will keep us updated on the progress of this book. Mamehana was one of my favorite geiko and, although I wish her well in the future, I have to admit I am quite saddened that she’s retired so soon. I would love to own a copy of this book if you do end up making it available to the public.

    • John September 5, 2012 at 11:52 am #

      Hello, Jackie, and thank you for your comment and interest. I will definitely keep you updated, mostly here on my blog. I know some of my readers are just fans of Mamehana and other geiko and maiko, and others are photographers who are interested in learning how to get a book published. I’d like to make posts that are relevant to both groups.

      My overall goal is to let people who are interested know about my work, but I don’t want to shove things down people’s throats. I’m still working on how to do that! Although I’ve been blogging for a year now, I still feel this is very much a work in progress.

  5. Justine September 5, 2012 at 7:14 am #

    This photograph just floors me. It’s so beautiful that my head goes blank and I forget everything else around me ^^;

    After gathering my thoughts again, I am looking forward to your book on Mamehana-san even more after seeing these new photographs! Your story about the chocolate wrappers was very cute and shows us just how special Mamehana-san was. Did you ask her to wear an iris kanzashi to match her beautiful kimono? I only remember her wearing wisteria kanzashi ^^

    • John September 5, 2012 at 12:11 pm #

      Wow! Thank you, Justine! Your comment is an incredible compliment!

      I did not ask Mamehana to wear the iris kanzashi; it was either her own choice, or that of her onesan, Mamehiro. I always ask to be able to choose the color of the kimono a geiko or maiko is wearing when I photograph them, but I’ve only made a request for a certain kanzashi once or twice.

      Most of the time, maiko wear unique kanzashi when I photograph them. I’ve never asked why, but I think it’s because they know they are being photographed and want to wear something a bit special or different.

  6. Julie June 2, 2013 at 8:17 pm #

    I am now impatient for your next book. I’ll be one of your book’s first buyers.
    Sayaka and Satsuki are both from Nimben too aren’t they? I wonder if that means that they won’t have long careers?

    • John June 4, 2013 at 7:21 pm #

      Sayaka and Satsuki are both from Tsurui, Julie, which is just across the alley from Tama. I believe that Mamesuzu is the only active young geiko at Ninben now. I don’t think they have any maiko or shikomi, but I don’t really keep up with that kind of information.

      • Julie June 4, 2013 at 7:48 pm #

        Ah ha. The reason for my mix up was that I saw Sayaka and Satsuki at Kitano Odori. They turned up in a taxi with Mamehiro so I assumed they were from the same establishment. I’m glad I was wrong as I wouldn’t like to think they’d have short careers.

      • stefan2009 June 4, 2013 at 8:24 pm #

        I think that Mamesuzu is a geiko from Tama :3…

        • John June 4, 2013 at 9:40 pm #

          I meant to write Mamesome, not Mamesuzu.

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