On January 5, 20013, I was sitting inside my friend’s ochaya in Gion Kobu getting ready to photograph the maiko Toshikana of Miyagawa-cho making her New Year’s greetings.
It was going to be the first time I had ever photographed the event in Miyagawa-cho, called go-aisatsu in Japanese. In fact, I had only started photographing Toshikana in November of 2012, so I didn’t know her very well yet.
My friend handed me a postcard. “Here’s Komaya’s nengajo,” he said. In Japan, people send nengajo, postcards with New Year’s greetings on them, not Christmas cards.
Some nengajo just have a written greeting, and others have photos on them as well as a brief text. Komaya is the okiya where Toshikana lives, and Komaya’s nengajo had a photo of all the geisha and maiko connected to the house, seven at that time.
“That’s a lot of maiko,” I said. There were actually six maiko and one geiko in Komaya. I recognized the geiko Toshihana, who I remembered from my street photography days; Toshikana; and her friend Toshimana. I had no idea who the other four maiko were, and I wasn’t really interested in any of them — yet.
When I arrived in Miyagawa-cho, it was pure chaos. There were more photographers there than I could count, and the main road in Miyagawa-cho, Miyagawa-suji, is very narrow.
As soon as maiko and geiko started making their appearances, clusters of camermen converged on them, creating massive rugby scrums in the middle of the street.
Toshikana and the other women from Komaya made their appearance, and the crowds converged on them, too. I soon realized that I was going to be in for a very long day. I was facing two main problems.
The first was that Toshikana was fourth in seniority at Komaya then, so there were always three women in front of her and three behind her. It was very difficult to get a clean view of only her, without any of the other women in the frame.
The second was that even when I did manage to have a clean view of Toshikana, there were so many cameramen around that it was really hard to avoid having them entering the frame or my own personal space.
The only option to avoid the former problem was to squat down as low to the ground as possible to keep from having the photographers behind the geiko and maiko in the frame.
However, when I was squatting down, bad things started to happen. The first is that I would get hit in the head by someone’s backpack. I realized that this was not intentional, but it’s still not fun to have someone’s bag shoved literally right into your face because they’re not aware of their surroundings.
It’s also one of the reasons I try never to bring my camera bag with me to one of these big public events. I realize there are going to be a lot of other photographers, and out of respect for them I don’t bring a bag so I take up as little space as possible. I had left my bag at my friend’s ochaya before I went to Miyagawa-cho.
The second was that people started using my head or shoulders as their tripod! I would be squatting down waiting for Toshikana to exit a building, and someone would literally place their camera on my body as if I were a rock or other inanimate object.
Even more surprising, when I would move my head or shoulder in a silent message to remove their camera, they would ignore it and leave their camera where it was.
As a result, I started sending stronger messages, both verbally and physically, that I should not be used as someone’s human tripod. It wasn’t long before my feelings were clear, and people were giving me a much wider birth.
That’s when I encountered Toshimomo. I was in a crouch, and Toshikana had just passed me. And in my distracted frame of mind, I came up out of my crouch quite vigorously, but I forgot that there were several maiko behind Toshikana.
In other words, when I stood up, I almost crashed right into Toshimomo.
Fortunately, I stopped myself before I got too close, but I was both surprised and mortified. I uttered an embarrassed and apologetic, “Oh!” I was too stunned at my thoughtlessness to say anything coherent.
Toshimomo was as surprised to be face-to-face with me as I was with her. She mirrored my response with an “Oh” of her own. I was intrigued because she didn’t seem worried about the possibility of being run over by a man more the twice her size. She didn’t even seem annoyed.
In fact, she seemed a bit amused. I don’t remember if I apologized verbally or not, but I hope I did. We nodded to each other, and she went gracefully around me.
I didn’t know her name, but I liked Toshimomo immediately.
For the rest of the day, I made sure to stay more aware of my surroundings, and every once in a while I would make a photo of Toshimomo after I made one of Toshikana.
When I was finished, I went back to my friend’s ochaya in Gion Kobu to pick up my bag, and I remembered Komaya’s nengajo.
I told my friend the story, and he got a big kick out of it. I looked at the postcard again, and there was Toshimomo, the second maiko from the right in the photo.
I asked my friend to call Komaya and find out the name of the maiko who was standing second from the right in their New Year’s card and to arrange a photo session for me.
A little more than two weeks later, I was photographing Toshimomo officially for the first time. I told her how she had come to be there that day, and she burst out laughing. I apologized to her again, and all was forgiven. I don’t even think she remembered our near collision.
Even now, two years later, Toshimomo remembers that she’s “the second maiko from the right,” and we share a good laugh over it.
This year, Toshikana is the most senior member of Komaya, so she was first in line as the ladies of that okiya made their rounds. And Toshimomo is now third, not sixth as she was in 2013. Times change quickly!
No one tried to use my head as tripod this year, either.