Frozen moments from the infinity that is time

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Night Moods (Kyoto)

I imagine that if people were asked to imagine a night-time image of Japan, most people would visualise the bright, in-your-face, high energy images of areas such as Tokyo’s Shinjuku at night. I know I would respond in this way despite my fondness for Kyoto, as Japan’s second city has an altogether different night-time vibe.

Kyoto is always interesting and entrancing, including after the setting of the sun. However, it beguiles rather than beckons; coaxes rather than grabs; and promises rather than teases. In a word, Kyoto is moodier at night, with fewer bright lights resulting in more shadows, though not of the threatening variety. Meandering through Kyoto’s streets and laneways at night is just as safe, pleasant and interesting as during the daytime hours, perhaps even more so as people are more relaxed and the pace a little slower.

There is, of course, one iconic group for whom the pace quickens after dark and I refer to Kyoto’s Geisha, or Geiko and Maiko as they known locally. This is their working time and they are often unexpectedly encountered rushing between engagements as elegant and traditional as always. There were times when I felt sympathy for Geiko and Maiko trying to go about their work under the duress of attention from the public (local and foreign) seeking to capture a Geisha moment. Gaining access to Gaiko and Maiko is difficult and I may never have the privilege of photographing them in a relaxed environment, but I am happy with my memories and the blurred images as they rush by do, at least, accurately depict an often overlooked part of their profession.

I do hope this selection of shots provides a glimpse of Kyoto’s night moods.

(Please click on any of the following images for an enlarged view.)


Looking for Old Tokyo – Mukojima

Mukojima adjoins Kyojima and was, therefore, a logical area to look for examples of old Tokyo. Located on the east side of the Sumida River, Mukojima was fortunate during the 1945 bombings to avoid the extent of devastation experienced elsewhere. Whilst this has resulted in well-preserved shitamachi (low town) zones, there is also much evidence of an area in transition as new developments have followed the opening of the nearby Tokyo Skytree in 2012.

There was a second agenda to my walk through Kiyojima and that was to find geisha, given that Mukojima is one of the few areas in Tokyo where real geisha train and work. I could have joined an organised tour and been guaranteed success, but I much preferred to simply wander and trust in luck and instinct. As can be seen from pics 11 to 14, the mission was accomplished.

After wandering the streets for some time I came across an area that just felt right and decided to wait on a corner and play “paparazzi”. Well, after a short time I heard the familiar clip clopping sound of footsteps and the jangling associated with the hair ornamentation worn by trainee geisha on their way to engagements. A short while later an older woman came by (pic 14) carrying her shamisen, a stringed instrument used to accompany geisha during performances.

This post marks my 50th post and although it has taken longer than I had expected, I would like to thank those people who follow, read and comment on my blog. Your participation is most appreciated and I hope you will continue to find the blog interesting.

(Please click on any of the following images for an enlarged view.)


Geisha Blur

Blur is not a word one normally associates with geisha, yet it aptly describes my most valued sightings of geisha from dusk onwards when their focus is getting to their next appointment. This is their busy time and in an evening with several bookings, time is money and they are ladies in a hurry. Sightings can be a “where did she come from?” experience as they pass in a blur of colourful elegance, appearing to float above the pavement with their short, quick steps.

Pics 1 to 3 are examples of geisha blur, all shot in Kyoto’s Gion district. Sadly the Geiko shown in pics 1 and 2 show signs of unwanted attention and it was disappointing to witness the lack of respect shown by many people obstructing their path and popping flashes to get the souvenir shot. Nevertheless, their grace shines through. I did not travel with a flash unit and was happy to record the blur, nor did I elect to join in chasing, which is why pic 3 shows a Maiko moving away. It is unfortunate that a frontal shot was blocked, as she was the most beautiful Maiko I saw. However, there is a certain pleasure in accepting blur as the trade-off for retaining one’s dignity. (I guess a career as paparazzi is out of the question.)

To stay with this theme, one must understand that geisha are celebrities with a difference. Their celebrity is an inheritance from being the current custodians of a traditional entertainment form unique to Japan. Indeed, in my opinion, geisha represent Japan’s most recognisable icon. Unlike western celebrities who seemingly crave attention, geisha go about their business in a quieter, more refined manner. However, their time-honoured practice of walking to appointments means that they are frequently exposed to an adoring and curious public.

Much has been written about the world of geisha, yet so much remains unknown. Retaining an element of mystery and intrigue is essential, but I would like to touch on one aspect that tends to be somewhat overlooked.

A general perception of Japan is that of a male dominated society and there is much to support this perception. Yet the geisha culture challenges this perception. The world of geisha is female dominated, with men occupying specific roles such as dressing, where strength is required to perfectly arrange a geisha’s apparel. The okiya within which geisha live and train under the guidance of an Okasan (mother) is exclusively female and most importantly, the Tea Houses (ochaya) where geisha entertain have traditionally been female owned and operated. I find it fascinating that this most feminine of Japanese cultures has emerged from a male dominated society and whilst geisha do not openly associate with feminism, their achievement is significant.

Pics 5 to 7 are of a young Maiko in Kyoto during the cherry blossom season. I gained the impression that she was somewhat uncomfortable in the public spotlight and perhaps she had not yet realised her powers.

Pics 8 and 9 are of a Tokyo geisha, shot in the late afternoon on her way to a nearby ochaya. Tokyo geisha are more elusive than their Kyoto counterparts and these shots were my reward for several hours spent wandering the streets of Mukojima. It was an enjoyable time as Mukojima is one of Tokyo’s older areas and although my primary focus was to see geisha, the area is interesting in its own right. After wandering for some time, I came across an area that simply felt right and decided to hang around for a while. (Maybe there is a bit of paparazzi in me after all.) A short time later, I heard the distinctive clip clopping and jangling sounds and there she was coming in my direction. My satisfaction with the day’s shoot was heightened after speaking with some Tokyo residents who advised that many people live for years in Tokyo without ever seeing geisha. Maybe I got lucky.

The final photograph (pic 10) of the older woman in kimono was taken shortly after pics 8 and 9. The wrapped object the lady is holding is a shamisen, a stringed Japanese instrument, which she plays as accompaniment for geisha performing dances. I would have liked to know if she had once been geisha, but alas, my Japanese language skills were inadequate.

It is always a special experience when one encounters geisha, whose numbers are unfortunately declining. One hopes this decline can be arrested and their place in Japan’s traditional art forms can be forever ensured. There are traditions that should never be lost. Geisha is one such tradition.

(Please click on any of the following images for an enlarged view.)





I have heard Kyoto described as “old Japan” in contrast to Tokyo being seen as “new Japan”. Like many generalisations, such descriptions may be seen as unkind and incomplete summations of each city given that each sits comfortably in the 21st century and embrace, in that very Japanese way, the old and the new. Nevertheless, differences in the relative emphasis assigned by each city to the old and the new tends to support these broad classifications, as is supported by the preponderance of world heritage sites in and around Kyoto.

Through previous posts I have shown several of Kyoto’s world heritage listed sites and will show more in future posts. Today, however, I wish to focus on the area that has been Kyoto’s gathering place through the centuries and continues to be so today. The place I am talking about is, of course, Gion.

Its history is too deep to cover in this brief discussion and I will leave readers to pursue their own enquiries, preferring instead to talk of my own experiences.

My first morning in Kyoto was spent in Gion and perhaps it was the chance meeting with a Geiko (Kyoto term for geisha) that cast its spell over me. From then, the place was like a magnet and it seemed that at some point of each day I would find myself somewhere in Gion. This was not always planned, but Kyoto is a great city to explore on foot and many paths lead to and/or from Gion.

In its heyday Gion was a maze of narrow streets filled with traditional wooden buildings and home to many thousands of geisha. If time travel were a reality it would be at the top of my time travel bucket list. Times do, of course, change and with tourism comes commercialisation. However, old Gion remains. The streets and alleys are still narrow and if one can ignore the modern additions such as power lines, a sense of the old maze and its charm can be felt. It is not a place to visit with a guidebook and a list of sights to see. It is a place in which to wander, get lost and keep wandering until you find your way.

The selected photographs attempt to show old and new Gion, though I openly admit they do not do justice to the place. The tea-houses by the canal (pic 1) attract an up-market clientele where geisha entertain. In fact, pic 2 shows a Geiko and Maiko (apprentice geisha) on their way to the tea-house in the foreground of pic 1. One can only wonder how many Geiko/Maiko have and will continue to walk this street. For me, pic 2 is a reminder of a lost opportunity. I was lost in concentration setting-up another shot with the camera mounted on a tripod when I became aware of movement behind me. On turning around I was greeted by the graciously smiling white painted faces of a Geiko and her Maiko sister en route to their appointment. There was only time to settle for exchanged greetings as they passed, hence the shot of them walking away.

Pics 3 to 5 show other examples of the warm, welcoming atmosphere created by the elements of old wooden buildings, cobbled streets, trees and water. To round off the older style images, pic 6 shows the Minamiza Kabuki Theatre, Kyoto’s premier kabuki theatre located in an always bustling section of Gion.

As mentioned earlier, Gion is a major tourist attraction and pics 7 and 8 give some indication of its popularity. Pic 9 shows the same street with fewer people, but what is interesting is how the young Maiko is the focus of attention. Although the kimono worn by regular Japanese women do not match the finery worn by geisha, one does see more kimono worn around Gion than elsewhere in Japan (at least in my experience). Typical examples are those of the kimono clad women in pic 11 enjoying a stroll through one of Gion’s many winding laneways and the young women (pic 12) disappearing into an alley, framed again by those typically Japanese building elements of paved stone and wood.

For those readers who have visited Gion I hope these images may spark some pleasant memories and for those who have not visited in person, I hope this little glimpse may spark some interest.

(Please click on any of the following images for an enlarged view.)