Geisha photo spotting

How I love Kyoto and came to read a famous book about the geisha culture and took pictures of geishas in the Gion quarter of that lovely city. You can expect an exhibition with items from Kyoto at some point in the future…

A few days before my departure for Japan to be visiting professor at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto for four months, I happened to walk by a second-hand bookstore in Copenhagen. Out of the corner of my eye I caught a pair of very red lips – the type of thing that always catches one’s attention – and a white face under which the title was “Memoirs of a Geisha”.

– That must be a sign, I thought. I went in and paid the 3 dollars – spot on, excellent for the 12-hour flight over there.

However, on that flight I had to some academic stuff to read instead but the Memoirs were consumed, a little day-by-day during my visit. So, there in Kyoto where the story is set, I kind of lived with little Sayuris, the main character in the book. I followed her from being the child of a poor fisherman, then her life as a maiko (young apprentice geisha), then becoming a real geisha in Kyoto’s famous Gion quarter and, finally, her setting up herself as a tea house owner in New York after the Second World War.

From the first page, the autor, Arthur Golden, makes you believe that this is a well-researched documentary story. However, since I always browse a little before starting to read something like this, I found the magic words on page 494 that the whole story is “completely invented.”

Kyoto is a gem, one of my absolute favourite places. It’s enigmatic, grand, intimate, a mind-boggling mixture of new and old, it’s a place I could live in the rest of my life – which is not the case with Tokyo or Nagoya where I have also stayed during shorter intervals, up to one year. I got the opportunity to jump on my bike many an afternoon and evening, park somewhere around the bridge over to Gion and then wander around with my camera, hoping to shoot some photos of maikos and geishas.

It’s the only place in the world where this is still possible.



@ Jan Oberg 2010

If you have the patience and place yourself in one of the narrow lanes of old wooden houses and you do it at the right time of late afternoon, you may be lucky to see geishas stepping quickly back and forth between these houses where they entertain business people who have arrived earlier in their black limousines with uniformed drivers.

And how could one avoid being excited in these historic areas, as intense as tiny as they are?

Small wooden houses, alleys so narrow that only a few people can pass each other, tourists’ people-watching, restaurants of all kinds, busy people running to and fro under the yellow street lamps; the magic atmosphere of food and drinks, partying, eroticism and paparazzi? Through it all runs a small river, mirroring the lights inside the houses, small bridges over and cranes standing on one leg under, waiting for what you wonder? This is where people meet across all cultural, class, age and gender divides.

I am intensely aware that I belong to the privileged who is allowed to experience it. In a few years it could all be gone, an epoch end. Camera in my hand, I feel I am experiencing something absolutely unqiue.

If you are lucky you may sometimes see, through doors opening and closing fast again, that these tea and eating places that look like very old from the outside are super modern, minimalist inside with white marble, fountains, incredibly artistic orchid arrangements and other elements of the typical Japanese beauty and simplicity.

As with such much else Japanese, things are not what you may believe at a first glance.

The geisha profession is dying out; I have read that there may be fewer than 100 hundred left, in all of Japan. One would believe that it is terribly difficult to make these okiyas – geisha houses – survive. But on the other hand, much money is circulating through these quarters every evening.

The culture of “geiko” – Kyoto dialect for geisha – remains one of the most enigmatic in the otherwise enigmatic Japan, from a Western viewpoint at least. Extremely few foreigners get anywhere closer to this world than I do here, walking the streets, spotting a maiko or just relaxing to imbibe the charm with no particular purpose.

In the best of cases you may, like I did, be lucky enough to spot a geisha in the distance and then rapidly move closer, but not too close, to catch her eye, shyly and fast tripping by, from one house to another, from one party to the next. And then there is the book of Memoirs and surely other books and anthropological studies. However, being here is the real thing for me, for me as photographer.

“Memoirs of a Geisha” is a beautiful book, it absorbed me. Apart from the moving story itself, it is also a tale about the untold, the suppressed, the infinite patience, adapting, rank ordering and about the everlasting, traditional “Japaneseness”. It about the always conflict-filled – but harmoneous-looking – contextuality. A Japanese, and a geisha in particular, must think, act and even be not in relation to her- or himself but to the context, the situation, the roleplay. Out of that each the Japanese must piece life together, try to make some sense, insider and outsider at once to their own lives. In the niche society.

Undoubtedly, many will see the geisha phenomenon as the extreme expression of oppression of women. As slavery. But this has, I think, to be seen in a larger context too. But for sure, geishas probably become geishas because few other doors, if any, were open to them and because they might be born with a face or expressions which, in the eyes of the Japanese (men) embodies sublime beauty. I can’t say it is fair in any sense of that word, but then again, I am drawn to this vanishing culture and its representations here and now.

In the book, Sayury has her dreams, like any child and teenager. But she learns to hide them to perfection, discipline herself in what is, most of the time, a fearful, even cruel environment. The man she comes to love – much older and of much higher class – is the one she accepts to wait for for years before she can be alone with him, before he can give her a first little kiss.

Surprisingly, one feels, toward the end of the book she does somehow liberate herself. On her first trip out of Japan she accompanies this man to New York. After some repeated trips over there, she decides to never return to Japan. And it is there, as the owner of a famous Japanese tea house at Fifth Avenue, that she tells her story to the author. For the first time, she believes, she is happy with life, exactly because of being outside Japan but interacting every day with Japanese in her teahouse and thus keeping a non-compulsive relation to her native culture.

My photo equipment isn’t that of a paparazzi. Flash would be disturbing, but many use them, I tried too. But it makes the geisha’s white faces and shiny silk cold, bluish. While the late afternoon and early evening light is too weak, it is the only time you can hope to  get pictures of geishas and, so, a tripod would be the best. But that militates against the need to follow, even run after or in front of, the geishas you happen to see tripping fast down the alleys. One afternoon a film crew were shooting a movie with geishas coming and going but that did not work either; one, they said they would not accept passers-by taking photos and they meant it; secondly, you don’t know whether these are real geishas or actors. So…

I got a few acceptable shots – literally out of hundreds. They are not sharp or “perfect
” but they have character, movement and balance. In one case, I ran up a young geisha, perhaps a maiko, and seeing me she slowed down, stopped for a few seconds, smiled and bowed elegantly only to trip on high-speed, high-sandals clap-clap. It all took 8-10 seconds, and it isn’t easy to be prepared for anything like that between two faint, yellow-lighted lampposts. Perhaps it only worked because she was young and no “diva” geisha because they certainly don’t even notice you.

I hope to return to Kyoto, if not to teach at Ritsumeikan then to just visit. I love that city, it suits me wonderfully in a number of respect, including being able to bike from end to the other within an hour. I can always hope to shoot better images, hope for the marvellous magic moment when “it” occurs and everything is right and gets right.

Sooner or later, I will create a series of images from Japan, Kyoto in particular.

Apart from thousands of raw photos, I brought home Japanese handmade papers to make experimental prints on. I also ploughed through flea-markets around certain temples and found kimono stencils, i.e. thick papers through which the colour of kimonos are pressed into the cloth. They have been used many many times, some worn out, mostly brown, full of notes, colour spots and beautiful patterns. I sense how they will make exquisite background materials for some of my photos – unique pieces that I hope will embody much of what I love about Kyoto.

And I really hope the Japanese will preserve Gion, the amazing open-air museum for an absolutely unique cultural phenomenon and a society of the past, also way after the last geisha has disappeared and – perhaps, who knows? – has written her true memoirs.

Arthur Golden
Memoirs of a Geisha
Vintage 1999, 498 pages

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