A chance sighting of an exotic costumed woman beneath a red umbrella one night in Kyoto, Japan, has resulted in an award-winning book by Perth photographer Robert van Koesveld.
The woman he spotted was a traditional Japanese performer known as a maiko.
“These exquisitely costumed women offer the refined artistry of traditional dance, music, hospitality and conversation to their guests and the wider community,” Robert explains in his book.
After many visits to Japan, Robert, a retired psychotherapist and passionate lensman, won the confidence and trust of these extraordinary artists. The result: a striking collection of photos in his newly published Geiko & Maiko of Kyoto.
It tells of the life journey of the women from young enthusiasts through to supremely skilled, elegant performers, who uphold one of Japan’s most structured and beautiful social art forms.
Highly respected by the people of Kyoto, the geiko and maiko go through years of rigorous training to perfect their artistry and high etiquette.
Robert’s book introduces us to the Kyoto community and the skilled teachers, managers and traditional artisans who make it all possible.
The Starfish caught up with him for a chat about his impressive project.
Robert, a book like this takes serious dedication. You must have a real passion for the subject?
This is people continuing a tradition that is hundreds of years old, and they are still geiko and maiko, doing what they have done for centuries.
They are walking a very complicated line between an ancient tradition and keeping something alive in the modern world. That to me is powerful and fascinating.
The traditions of geiko and maiko are not well understood in Australia, or in other western cultures. What must a Japanese woman do to get involved in the lifestyle?
The women start out at 16 with a pre-apprenticeship, where they will live together and will learn what the life is like. It also allows their teachers to assess them. If they are accepted, they will keep training. It’s like a college education and is quite is difficult, with lots of lessons every day.
Once they are up to a certain standard they will make their debut as a maiko. They might go for five or six years as a junior maiko, and then a senior maiko before transitioning to geiko All their costumes are regulated by tradition and certain outfits are worn at certain stages.
It sounds very involved and complex.
It is. There are many elements to it. For example, there’s a tradition that the bottom lip is only painted for the first year. Eventually, if they are ready for it, and they want to carry on, they might become a geiko. About a year after that they will start to live independently. Which can be challenging because you have to support yourself through your work.
So it is a kind of staged progression?
Correct. Historically women would stay in it for life. Now more people are leaving at a certain point and marrying. I’m sure there are still people in their 70s or 80s who are still playing the shamisen, which is like a three-string lute.
A classic performance would be one maiko, one geiko and one shamisen player. The shamisen player is the foundation, or MC of the proceedings.
Why did you start going to Japan in the first place?
My dad spoke Japanese. He was born in 1898. He worked in Japan in 1917, and he studied textiles. After the war, he started importing from Japan. So my family had lots of Japanese visitors and connections associated with business and culture.
I was very familiar with Asia but I’d been going to the more earthy Asian locations before Japan. It has this reputation of being expensive, but it isn’t as costly as people tend to think. When I finally went, I liked it and started going back. I think I have been to Japan about 10 times now.
Was there any culture shock?
No, I fitted in well. It’s a very interesting place. It feels European, although it is not at all. But it is certainly different to the rest of Asia.
How does an Australian photographer get access to what seems like a closed circle? You must have had some good contacts?
It can take you 30 years to be on the inside. You build more credibility being an older person, and over time you are accepted to a degree.
There are five districts and there are about 250 active maiko and geiko women. Normally you would only have contact with one tea house in each district. And that’s usually by special introduction.
I gained introductions mainly through a specialist guide. In one case, it was through someone I met in the street. You know how chefs stand in the street smoking? I just took this guy’s picture, because I like taking pictures of chefs standing the street smoking. We smiled at each other and he pointed me towards a doorway. So I went in to what was an ex-teahouse. The owner spoke English and I got talking to him and he had a contact within the district. Hence I had another introduction.
I was able to get photographs of one of the big dance performances that occur in five different districts. They each have their own theatres and performances. This is in many ways at the height of what they do.
You must have a very good rapport for them to let you pull out your cameras?
I think people managing a tradition by nature are conservative and guarded. But slowly a rapport grows. By the way, it should be remembered, I’m also paying my way for access to performances and activities. These are highly trained working artists.
For example, I wanted to photograph the theatre performances but initially they said it just wasn’t possible, because mobile photography had just taken off and now everyone is a photographer. Which can be intrusive.
But then, one day I was coming to a performance, and someone rang me up and said would I like to take some photographs and I was allowed to shoot from a discreet place.
How did the book itself evolve?
As a cultural travel photographer, taking portraits of interesting people starts not to be enough. I wanted more of a story, more of an in-depth piece. So I was in the market for a longer narrative – ready to do a bigger project.
After the first shoot I did, I then photographed in two districts then through chance I was able to photograph a third district and the project just kept on growing.
I worked on the publication for three years and made lots of trips to Japan. I then self-published and launched it through crowd funding on Kickstarter, which worked out well.
And the book won an award?
Yes. It won the Australian Institute of Photography (AIPP) Photographic Book of the Year Award. I was thrilled. That has helped open a few doors and boost my profile in photography.
You also had an exhibition of your photographs in Japan?
Yes. After the book I did an exhibition in Kyoto in a mid-Edo, two-storey heritage style building. It coincided with Kyotography, a photography festival staged there once a year.
It did really well and I even had some geiko and maiko perform in the space, which is very unusual and a real privilege. One of them making her initial debut as geiko visited and had a number of photographers trailing around after her. I was really happy with the works in the show.
The book is selling quite well in Kyoto and is available in couple of places in Tokyo.
What cameras do you use?
I use a range; I’m a camera junkie! But cameras only make 10% of the difference with images. The rest is seeing. Yet that was one challenge with the book, because I used different cameras, and attaining image uniformity was harder. But in the end it worked out fine.
The other issue is lighting. In the teahouses you can only shoot the subjects in subdued light. They are controlling the way they look, so you don’t want to be getting the pictures wrong. It is almost theatrical and is fairly dark, so I started off with less light but slowly added more. So I was carrying a lot of gear to try and get it just right for the interior shoots.
But you’ll see that some outside images were shot in natural verandah light.
Was it difficult to communicate what you wanted to your Japanese subjects?
Some of the pictures I was able to direct through my interpreter to get the desired expressions. I might say, “Imagine you are looking at a new born baby, or imagine you are saying goodbye to someone you really care about.”
But some people are just really class acts and know what you are after, and a number of these women were like that.
Do you think Japanese women will continue the tradition?
Those that do it, take it very seriously. I asked one if she would continue as a geiko, or would she get married? She said, “A man would have to be very special to take me away from dance.”
The older women are amazing, too – of course, you never ask their age. One of the older subjects had never been photographed in a portrait session before. She dances on the stage, but people mainly photograph the younger performers. Yet she is exquisite. I’m really pleased that the book and photographs follow these women from the younger to older.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on some smaller projects now. One’s in Kolkata. I’ll be interviewing a bunch of people there in January. There’s a very interesting marketplace – like a world of its own, a lot of things happening – and it has magnificent light. It probably won’t be a book, more articles. You could go to India every year for your whole life and still find something to shoot or stories to tell. It’s full on, but wonderful.
I’m also working on a project based on tea ceremony in Kyoto. So there is a bit of variety. Presently my favourite countries are Japan, India and Bhutan. The book Bhutan Heartland co-authured with my wife Libby Lloyd means we have a deep connection there. Plenty more to see and do!
Robert’s book Geiko & Maiko of Kyoto is available in most good bookshops in Australia. It can also be purchased from his website – www.robertvankoesveld.com/shop