My favorite event of the month-long Gion Matsuri in Kyoto is Hanagasa Junko (The Flower Hat Procession), which is held towards the end of the festival on July 24.
However, I never attend the event hoping to photograph maiko or geisha. In fact, I usually ignore the young women I often photograph and focus on the many other participants of the procession.
I first attended Hanagasa Junko back in 2005, and I remember being surprised when the geiko and maiko of Ponto-cho and Gion Higashi arrived about ten minutes before the parade was to begin.
Before the women could even get into the covered floats they would be riding in for the next few hours, they were swarmed by photographers. These photographers surrounded the float from every side and took photo after photo of the trapped women, who could do nothing but stare blankly ahead.
It wasn’t something I wanted to participate in.
I did not make any photos of the maiko or geiko that day. I attend Hanagasa Junko about once every three years now, and until 2012, the year I made this portrait of the maiko Takahina, I followed the same routine.
I would arrive before the parade started and photograph only the participants who gave me permission to photograph them through eye contact or a nod of the head. I would then photograph the procession as it left Yasaka Shrine, and by 10:30 a.m., only 30 minutes after the parade began, I would be on my way to the air-conditioned Starbucks down the block for a venti ice vanilla latte.
I would have made some nice photographs and beat the brutal heat of summer in Kyoto before it even started. I was quite pleased with myself — until the year this photo was made!
In 2012 I was looking forward to following that same pleasant routine. In fact, I had stopped even checking to see which maiko would be participating even though I knew I might know some of them since in even years the maiko come from Gion Kobu and Miyagawa-cho, the two geisha districts I photograph most.
By 10:20 a.m., most of the procession had already passed, and the day seemed even hotter than usual. I could already feel the ice vanilla latte cooling me off. I almost left, but I made myself wait just in case I knew one of the maiko.
The float holding the maiko of Gion Kobu came around the curve, and I knew right then and there I could kiss my ice vanilla latte goodbye.
Not only did I know one of the maiko — I knew two! Takahina was sitting on the right side of the float towards the front, and Manaha was sitting in the back left corner. I would not be escaping the heat at all. I would be diving right into it!
If you’ve ever seen the movie Heat starring Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro, you might remember the scene were the bank robbers methodically make their way down the street and escape from the police, stopping and firing their machine guns and covering each other with military precision.
At first, I was the same, only with more panic and less precision. I would run for a block or two, make sure I was still ahead of the float carrying Takahina and Manaha, and look for an opening in the crowd I could slip into.
In some spots, the crowd was too thick, and there were no openings. In other places, the crowd was thinner, and I would say to someone in Japanese, “Excuse me, but I know the maiko in that float there. Could you make a little room for me, please, just for a minute?”
Almost everyone said yes, but I’m not sure if it was out of kindness or pity for the sweaty and deluded foreign guy who claimed to know a real maiko!
Neither Takahina nor Manaha spotted me at first, but the second or third time I photographed them they finally saw me. I think Manaha saw me first and burst out laughing. I must have already looked in pretty rough shape. Manaha called up to Takahina, and she began to scan the crowd until she saw me.
I pantomimed to both of them my brilliant plan. I would make a photo, run, get in front of them, and make a photo again. “Okay?” I gestured. “Okay,” they nodded.
And that’s what I did. The procession made it’s way from Yasaka Shrine down Shijo Dori, and then turned right onto Kawaramachi, one of the main north-south arteries of Kyoto.
Shijo Dori was packed with onlookers, and I don’t think I made any good photos there. On Kawaramachi, though, the audience was more spread out, and I could easily find good spots.
As promised, Takahina and Manaha both looked my way whenever they saw me (or whenever I waved to them to let them know I was there.)
Photographing Takahina was more difficult because she was on the far side of the float, and there were only a few seconds when I had a clear view of her and not the other maiko in front of her or to her left.
Since Manaha was in the back and on the near side, it was easier to make a photo of her — except when the man pushing the float from behind would stick his head into my frame! And he would even smile at me sometimes! The nerve!
By noon I was pretty exhausted. The procession stopped for a break, and I happened to be near a row of vending machines. I ran over and got a bottle of Pocari Sweat, the unusually named Japanese equivalent of America’s Gatorade.
I chugged the bottle in no time flat and then looked up. Manaha was watching me. Ever the polite gentleman, I offered her a bottle. I pantomimed that I would buy her a bottle, throw it to her, she should catch it, and then she could drink it.
It took her a few repetitions of my gestures to get the meaning, and then she started laughing and waved her hand at me to let me know my kind offer was unnecessary.
I knew that I would be asking too much if I continued to photograph for the entire parade, so when the procession stopped at the intersection of Kawaramachi-Sanjo I pushed through the crowd one last time. This time, I didn’t make any photos. I gestured at the sun high in the sky, gestured at my watch, put my hands together in a sign of thanks, and waved goodbye.
I did catch up to Takahina and Manaha again as they returned to Yasaka Shrine, but the best photos of the day came on Kawaramachi, where the photo posted here was made.
I ended up staying until about 2:30 p.m., four hours longer than I had intended. Rain clouds formed overhead a few minutes after the last dance ended, and the crowds cleared out quickly.
It started pouring, and I didn’t have an umbrella. So, it was another 30 minutes until I finally made it to Starbucks and my venti ice vanilla latte! I think I had two!