You know those really special moments that will stick with you for a lifetime? This truly is one of them! From kimonos to kanzashi, I’ve been researching Geisha culture for many years and dreamed of a day that I’d get to do something like this. Let me tell you about my trip to Japan in December and how I made one of my bucket list dreams come true, experiencing a portrait photography photoshoot with a Kyoto Geisha…
Well, a Maiko, to be more precise. which is the name given to apprentice Geisha in the Kyoto region of Japan. Becoming a fully trained Geisha in Kyoto – again more specifically known as a Geiko – involves an intense five-year training period that typically takes place between the ages of 15-20 after they have finished their compulsory junior high education. As well as learning traditional Japanese cultural art forms, including dancing, singing and playing instruments such as the shamisen, they must also become experts in the art of conversation and making guests feel comfortable at social gatherings (this can also include drinking games). All of this is done under the watchful eye of a geisha mother, whilst living in an okiya (a Geisha house), who provide the Maiko with housing, food, training, and clothing.
So why did I choose to photograph a Maiko instead of a fully trained Geiko / Geisha? Well, it honestly was all about the outfit choices! Geisha are fully trained in the art of hospitality and as such they are said to be able to rely on their skills to entertain, which is reflected in their less elaborate hairstyles and less colourful makeup and clothing choices. On the other hand, Maiko are said to wear brightly coloured kimonos, taller sandals (okobo) and ornate hairstyles with brightly coloured hair ornaments (kanzashi) to distract from their underdeveloped skills. And truth be told, I am a complete magpie that has already added three kanzashi to my personal collection, so the hair jewels and the vibrant clothing won on this occasion. Though I did spend a day out taking photos with a fully trained geisha in Tokyo. More on that another day…
Organising a Kyoto Geisha photoshoot involves having a significant reputation attached to your name within the local community, of which I currently have very little (probably bordering on none if I’m completely honest!), so it was a real privilege that the lovely Peter was willing to use his several decades’ worth of connections and put his own reputation on the line to help make this dream a reality for me, arranging a session with 小はつ-さん in the Miyagawa-Cho district of Kyoto.
And I was even more grateful of Peter’s presence on the shoot day when I realised that 18 months of Japanese lessons wasn’t quite enough to get my through a full photoshoot. Turns out I could have conversations with the incredible 小はつーさん about her beautiful kimono, her hometown and her plans for her upcoming birthday… but I’d completely forgotten to learn how to ask her to switch her feet for the shot! My new word of the day was 逆 (pronounced ぎゃく or gyaku) which means ‘reverse/alternate/switch’.
Give me 18 months to improve my vocabulary a bit more, and then maybe we do it again?!
These images (apart from the behind-the-scenes ones kindly shot by my husband James on his Fuji X100T) are all shot on my Hasselblad x1Dii 50C with either the 45mm f4 P XCD lens or 90mm f2.5 II XCD lens, which turned out to be the perfect travel companion for the trip. Small and lightweight enough for it not to feel like a burden on a long trip, but powerful enough to pack a mighty punch during those once in a lifetime moments. I’ve not been able to do a proper review yet because so many of the projects I’ve shot with my Hasselblad are not for public eyes, but I’m getting to the point where I should have enough content soon, so watch this space!
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I also edited these live as part of an Adobe Live session earlier this year, so if you want to hear more about the shoot and the rest of the trip, watch it on demand on either Behance or Youtube.