This is a guest post by Robin Yong.
This is one of my favourite places of all time, Kyoto, the old capital of Japan. Famous for its many beautiful temples, gardens, old streets, fine restaurants, tea houses and of course the very iconic geishas–more accurately known as Maikos (apprentice geishas) and Geikos (full-fledged geishas).
I enjoy coming to Kyoto for many reasons: sightseeing, food, shopping, photography, but recently it has become a sort of family affair as well. Mum comes along for these Japan trips and we get chauffeured around in a private vehicle by a local driver who is very popular amongst the Hollywood A-listers. We would typically start the day in the morning, touring the rice fields, the flea markets, and the gardens before our driver guide then takes us to different restaurants for lunch. Most of the places we go to are meant for local tourists rather than foreigners. In the afternoon, we have another companion: a Maiko or a Geiko who will tour the temples and the gardens with us. Our driver guide takes us to a different one each time. There are hundreds of temples and many more gardens in Kyoto and of course each afternoon becomes a perfect opportunity for my travel portraits.
I got to know my Maiko and Geiko friends through another American photographer. He thought that I would get along well with those ladies, and maybe I had a very different style of photography from his. In Kyoto, all my photos are done very casually. As usual, and like my other travel portraits that I did in Venice, Cuba, Thailand, Indonesia and Ethiopia, they are supposed to be a special gift for my model friends. Everywhere I go, this is how I get my models: recommendations from friends or other top photographers about locals who don’t mind being photographed. This time I did my photos in black and white because it is my second time photographing the Maikos. I wanted something a little different from my previous styles and a little different from all the other recent Maiko photographs done by other photographers.
It is not easy to get an appointment with a Maiko or a Geiko. There are only about 200 of them left in the whole of Japan. They are extremely sought after and generally only entertain clients with good track records and they prefer to deal with regular customers. Usually, a recommendation from a previous client is required.
We will stroll the gardens together or have tea in some private rooms at the temples. I would click away as my model friends move with grace. It is all very informal. These ladies are well-trained in arts, dance, music, and conversation. They know exactly where to place themselves in the room. I never have to tell them the location or pose. Every afternoon here is so leisurely delightful. Over tea, we would chat about the latest kimono fashion trends and my Japanese friends will be eager to check out my latest travel portraits done in other countries.
For me, a must-go destination during each visit is my ancestral temple, Sennyu-Ji, a temple rarely mentioned in maps or guide books for foreign tourists, though it appears large in maps meant for local Japanese. The temple is dedicated to Yang Gui-Fei, a Chinese concubine in the Tang Dynasty, and apart from the royal family, few people come here nowadays. I come here to pray each time I come to Kyoto. The Goddess is kind and grants me many wishes. She is famous for her beauty and bestows blessings especially for wishes in relation to beauty. It is here where I come to pray for beautiful photos. And upon coming here, my Maiko and Geiko friends pray for everlasting beauty as well. No wonder they look more beautiful each time I come.
About the author
Robin Yong is a travel photographer from Singapore and a doctor specialising in travel medicine. He spends most of his time in Australia and Singapore, with frequent travels to Cambodia, Japan, Ethiopia, France and Italy. He particularly likes to do portraits, especially of people in their traditional costumes. His favourite subjects are the Venetian masked models, the Indochinese Apsara dancers and the very elusive Japanese geishas and maikos – all very mysterious people to most photographers. He then turns these photos into picture books and gives them to the models, much to their delight. The best way to follow Robin’s work is on his Facebook page.