Portrait of a geisha as a young woman,
Geisha are intriguing, enticing, and ultimately…frustrating. Enticing because there is something almost ethereally and sublimely beautiful about the painted white faces, shimmering kimonos and sheen of elegance; about the very concept of a woman who is trained to be a perfect artist and companion. Frustrating, because books like these are the closest most of us are likely to get.
The world of the geisha is closed. Not by distance, however. One could live in Japan for a very long time and never be granted access, and indeed most Japanese people have never seen an actual geisha much less been entertained by one. It is a world of wealth and connections that one must be invited into. They are a symbol of the country, but an elusive and vanishing one. In modern times, the geisha have “exclusived” themselves out of business. People want to see them, want to share in the tradition, but the entrance fee is too high, and rather than lower the prices and become “cheap”, the geisha would rather just die out.
This is why a book like “A Geisha’s Journey” is such a treasure. Aside from being a brilliant photo book (and it is brilliant), it offers a glimpse into the mind of the type of girl who would struggle though the long years of training and separation from society in order to preserve a valuable tradition and struggle against the unstoppable tide of modernity. To be a geisha is to live in the past, perfecting ancient dances, using outdated language, living in old-fashioned clothing…all for a slowly vanishing audience.
This geisha in question is a girl named Ruriko who decided at age 15 that she wanted to be a maiko. A Japanese girl growing up in China, she had always cherished her Japanese heritage more than other children her age, and she was constantly reminded of her “Japaneseness” while living in the foreign country. So she moved from her parents into the hanamachi district of Kyoto, and was re-named Komomo (“Little Peach”) and began her training.
Photographer Ogino Naoyuki also grew up abroad, in Mexico, which also made him curious about “traditional Japan”. A serendipitous partnership was made in these two, both Japanese, both foreigners in their native country, both seeking their roots through art and tradition. Ogino photographed Komomo over the years, recording her transformation from awkward novice maiko to full-fledged and confident geiko. Ogino has an eye for the flower and willow world, and he captures all of its mysterious beauty. Komomo, who supplies the text, is equally open with her life and thoughts, her journey along the way including the times she wanted to give up and live a normal life.
There are many books on geisha out there, but there are few that are so intimate and personal. My favorite photograph is on page 106, which shows Komomo with her hair freshly cut. No make-up, no mystery; just the regular girl underneath it all, who vanishes every night to become a magical creature of paper lanterns and tea houses and old Japan.