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    Posted October 19, 2015 by
    Kyoto, Japan

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    My Personal "Unicorns" of Kyoto

    In a hushed voice, the interpreter told me that it was a very special and unusual privilege to enter the building we were now in. She said that it had been a private complex reserved for girls and women of the "hanamachi" district, literally, "flower town" for about two centuries. The interpreter seemed to be awed and humbled to be in the private quarters of the most expensive, traditional entertainers in the country. This was a training space for "Geiko and Maiko." These terms refer to women and girls (also known as "Geisha", outside of Kyoto) who are supposed to be the epitome of the perfect "companion and entertainer", one who is skilled at making a guest feel as welcomed and relaxed as possible.

    I was in Kyoto to take photos and report about the Kyoto International Art and Film Festival, held from October 15 - 18th. The largest entertainment agency in Japan, Yoshimoto Kogyo, had taken over the management of the festival which is now in its second year, and had managed to have the "Red Carpet" entrance and press conference of the domestic and foreign actors, producers and directors, held at this beautiful example of ultra-traditional Japanese architecture, in the dead-center of the Gion Kōbu district of Kyoto. The Gion Kōbu area is regarded as the center of the art of the "Geiko" (geisha) in Japan. It is regarded as the most expensive and refined place to enjoy this fascinating part of Japanese traditional culture (for those who are wealthy or privileged enough.)

    As the celebrities were about to arrive, one dozen Geiko and Maiko (apprentice Geiko) suddenly appeared in a graceful, colorful parade from a nondescript side door of the building and took up stations on both sides of the Red Carpet, there to give programs of the day's events to the dignitaries who were about to run the gauntlet of the press photographers and reporters waiting hungrily, just inside the entrance of the building. I was hooked.

    Even though I live only about two hours away, by express train, from Kyoto, I rarely visit there, saving my infrequent excursions for special events, or times when I'm fully able to immerse myself in its wonderful and rich architecture and history. I approach Kyoto with reverence and appreciation of its immense importance to Japanese culture--it was there, during the brief time that the city was the imperial capital of Japan (Heian period, starting in 794) that the time of "beauty, refinement and art" took firm hold with the city's elites. It truly is the cultural "heart" of Japan.

    As the Geiko and Maiko (non-pluralized nouns) usually have little reason to leave the Gion district, which is only a few square blocks, spotting one is nearly impossible unless you are lucky enough to see one, making her way to a teahouse to entertain well-heeled patrons, or going to pay a "visit" to one of the establishments in the area to bring a gift or a greeting from her own "okiya" (the place in which she lives and trains along with the other girls and women.) They don't enjoy being photographed and foreigners will often try to stop them on the street to pose for photographs, which is considered very rude and gets in the way of the women from reaching the place they are going, without being late--which would be considered "taboo" in their culture.

    In my twenty-five plus years in Japan, I think I may have only seen real, true Geiko or Maiko on about two occasions, and that was from a fair distance away. Now, suddenly, there were a dozen of them standing only about 15 feet away from where I had staked-my-claim of a one and a half foot square piece of floor in which to shoot the "stars" as they walked up the red carpet! I instructed my camera assistant (who had to stand, as there was limited space) to guard my spot while I gingerly picked my way through the other members of the press waiting on the floor, and then out the entrance to where the "elusive" women were standing. I had about 8-10 minutes to shoot as many photos as possible of them before the celebrities were about to arrive. I knew that I may never have this kind of chance again, so I made the most of it! All of this time, company presidents and corporate sponsors were arriving and receiving programs from the women and I had to snap photos "guerrilla-style"--bobbing and weaving continuously from the fringes to get camera angles while my finger was busy bouncing up and down on the shutter buttons of my cameras. I was disappointed when the first car carrying a "star" finally appeared and I was forced to race back to my position to do my "real" work. During momentary lulls in the arrival of celebrities, I tried to catch a few "grabs" of the women, using a telephoto lens, from my position in the press area. For me, the Geiko and Maiko were almost like Unicorns--elusive, mythical, unreal entities that I'd heard about, but beings that I knew I may never have the chance to capture with my camera--the movie stars and directors were "common", being a member of the press gave me access to them on any number of occasions. And then, just like that, they were gone. I got on with my work, not daring to check back through my photos, lest I be disappointed with the results.

    Later, at the Grand Opening Ceremony, held in a theater space where the Geiko and Maiko put on very rare shows for the public of their singing and dancing (usually only once or twice a year), a few suddenly appeared, through sliding doors in the wall, near the side of the stage, in an area that would normally be reserved for the highest-ranking dignitaries and guests. I was mesmerized by the sight of them, elegant but relaxed, enjoying light banter amongst themselves between speeches and presentations on the stage. At this event, only foreign correspondents were allowed in the hall, and we were situated on the upper balcony, separated from the public. I had one camera permanently trained on the stage, and another on the women far below us. It was very dark in the hall as the stage was the primary illuminated area, but I continued to shoot both the presentations and the women. And then, again, they suddenly disappeared as fast as they had materialized.

    Later that day, in the early evening, our interpreter led us to the hotel where the opening party was being held. There were small performances, drinks and dinner for the celebrities, the sponsors and selected guests. I and my assistant were two of the very few members of the press to be invited to this private party. We were not there to take photos or interviews, we were there to personally meet the "movers and shakers" of the film and art industry, the actors, comedians, producers, directors and their private and corporate sponsors--to shake hands, bow and exchange business cards. The Geiko and Maiko from the afternoon ceremony were there, too! They were available to talk to anyone who wanted their company or conversation. I had had no problem shaking the hands of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's personal assistant, or the CEO of one of the most famous electronics companies in the world, earlier that evening, but I was genuinely hesitant to approach the first Geiko that made eye contact with me. I started our conversation by being a "real" foreigner, by asking if I could have my assistant snap a photo with her on my cellphone camera. That broke the ice and we were soon joined by more of women as they, also, wanted the chance to talk to someone not normally in their "circle" of guests or acquaintances. I had died and gone to heaven! They were intelligent, witty, playful, elegant, charming, relaxed, beautiful--possibly the world's leading experts at making men (or women) have a wonderful and enjoyable time! I and my assistant are both totally fluent in conversational Japanese, but a few of them tried hard to speak English for us. I had finally met my "Unicorns" and now, reluctantly, I'll have to put them back in their special place in my imagination and wonder if they had been real, at all...
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