At the end of my last post on the double misedashi (debut) of the maiko Yuriha and Tatsuha in Gion Kobu, the two girls had just been dressed in their kimono and given some advice by Tama-san, their geisha mother.
Everyone left the room and went downstairs except me. It was a lonely feeling, especially after the room had just been full of so much energy and such good feelings.
I took a minute to get all my gear in order, proceeded to top of the staircase, looked down, and stopped. There was literally no place for me to go.
The young maiko from Tama, (Mameharu, Mameryū, and Mamekinu) were at the foot of the stairs, and they were surrounded by a sea of people. I thought I’d better stay where I was rather than try to force my way into the crowd.
The three maiko noticed me waiting, so we just started chatting. I remembered from a photo posted on Flickr by Rekishi no Tabi that Mamekinu was from Kumamoto, and I had lived in Kumamoto my first year in Japan, way back in 1991. So, I asked her where she was from and told her a little about my time in Kumamoto.
The girls made some room for me between them at the foot of the stairs, and I slowly made my way down Tama’s very steep and very narrow staircase. It was only a few meters from where we were standing to the okiya’s entrance, but there was a wall of people blocking my way.
I think it was Mameryū who said to me, “They’re going to be leaving soon, you should go over.” I motioned at all the people. She opened a small path for me, motioned me forward, and said in Japanese, “Totte, totte, totte!” In English, “Take a photo, take a photo, take a photo!”
Grateful for Mameryu’s encouragement and path-clearing abilities, I made my way over to the entrance and was right behind Tama-san as she sent Yuriha and Tatsuha out into the bright afternoon to greet Gion Kobu for the first time as maiko.
The crowd started to disperse, and Tama-san asked me if I would like a cup of coffee. I told her I would, but I had better go out to photograph Yuriha and Tatsuha. I told her I would like to come back later to photograph the mokuroku, the celebratory posters that announce the debut of a maiko or geiko, in the entranceway. She said I could.
I left Tama shortly after, but I had to bring my light, stand, and camera bag back to my friend’s tea house before I went looking for Yuriha, Tatsuha, and Kojima-san. I dropped off my gear and started looking for the crowd of photographers that would show me where Yuriha and Tatsuha were.
I couldn’t find them.
I walked all around the main part of Gion Kobu, which is south of Shijo Dori, one of the main thoroughfares of Kyoto. There were no crowds and no maiko. I didn’t think I had been so far behind them. Could they already have walked to the north side of Shijo?
They had. I knew I had finally found them when I saw Tatsuha’s family. I was surprised when they greeted me like an old friend. “Where’s all your gear?” Tatsuha’s mother asked me. I think she expected me to bring my light and stand all around Gion Kobu with me, but I just had my camera.
A man with a camera heard me talking to Tatsuha’s family and guessed who they were. He asked if he could take their photo, and they said okay. Just before the man took the photo, Tatsuha’s grandfather asked him to wait a moment, took me by the arm, and had me join the family photo, his arm still wrapped in mine. I was touched that they would want to include me in their family memory.
After photographing a misedashi inside an okiya, photographing it outside is very anticlimactic. And since I approach photography in a very different way than most of the people who attend misedashi or erikae, it is not a very enjoyable experience for me.
I might make 500 photographs or more, but I feel fortunate if even 1 or 2 are truly unique and different, that go beyond just telling the story of maiko going into and coming out of tea houses.
Tatsuha’s family stayed with her the entire way, and I noticed Yuriha’s mother at times, too. Chatting with them every once in a while was the highlight of the outdoor portion of the misedashi for me.
After the typical 2 hours, Yuriha and Tatsuha returned to Tama, and I returned to my friend’s tea house. He was not there, but his wife was. She took one look at me and said, “Do you need something to drink?” I did. Besides the cup of coffee and rice (and an energy bar) I had eaten at Tama around 11:00 a.m. I hadn’t had anything to eat or drink since about 7:30 a.m.
I gulped down the bottle of tea I was given and devoured my remaining energy bar. Then I just sat for a while. It was already after 3:00 p.m., so I needed to go back to Tama and photograph the mokuroku. I checked my light and stand and brought them back to Tama.
I never want to overstay my welcome, so I wanted to get in and out quick, in five minutes or so. I did not expect to see Yuriha and Tatsuha again. When I stepped into the entrance and announced myself, an elderly woman who helps at the okiya came out to greet me.
I hadn’t remembered seeing this woman during the misedashi, so I started to quickly explain who I was. Some people at okiya and ochaya literally go into a panic when I enter even though there is a valid reason for me being there. They see a foreigner and just freak out, basically.
In this case, I didn’t need to worry. Before I could even finish speaking, Tatsuha burst out of the kitchen. “John-san!” she greeted me very cheerfully. Yuriha joined her a moment later, and both of them sat in the entrance to talk to me.
I was stunned. Who were these girls?
In just a few hours, Yuriha and Tatsuha had undergone a complete transformation. They had both been rather tense and nervous that morning, rarely smiling. Now I would have to describe them as being gleeful, joyful, and giddy.
It was wonderful to see. All the tension had disappeared, and they were just beaming.
It suddenly occurred to me to ask them how old they were, so I did, in Japanese.
“Sixteen!” they both replied proudly in English.
Sixteen? I could only laugh. I can barely remember what I was doing at sixteen. If it was a Friday night, I was probably at Ciro’s Pizza in my hometown with my best friends Jeff, Rich, and Chris. I couldn’t have imagined being able to do something like what Yuriha and Tatsuha had done when I was sixteen.
I knew Yuriha and Tatsuha were probably eating in the kitchen, so I didn’t want to keep them. I wish I could have bottled some of their energy and enthusiasm to take with me, but sadly, I couldn’t.
Before we said goodbye, they both gave me their senjafuda, a kind of sticker that serves as a name card for maiko and geiko. I noticed they were bright red with gold writing, something I had never seen before, but I didn’t think much of it.
Yuriha and Tatsuha returned to the kitchen, I photographed the mokuroku, and I returned to my friend’s tea house. He had finally returned. He asked me how it had gone and if I were hungry.
Was I hungry?
My friend had many snacks remaining from New Year’s and I gobbled down most of them as I told him about the day. When I showed him the red senjafuda, he said to me, “You’re very lucky. Those are special, only given out on a maiko’s first day. Not many people get them.”
By now it was 4:30 p.m. It was way too late for lunch, so I decided to go home, order a pizza, and start downloading all the photos I had made that day.
More than any of the photos, though, I will remember Yuriha’s and Tatsuha’s gleeful faces when they proudly told me they were sixteen.
It is a very happy memory.
If you have read this far, you are probably a regular reader of my blog, and you are probably wondering where I have been since my last post in late February.
The answer is now one of my saddest memories. My mother passed away quite suddenly not too long after my last post. I was very fortunate to have been able to make it back to New York in time to say good-bye to her, but I am still getting used to life without her. I needed a break for a while.
I will be back to my regular schedule from now on. I thank you for your patience!