Image courtesy of Robert van Koesveld.

One Photographer’s Immersive Study of the Geisha

Portraits of Kyoto’s “Geiko” & “Maiko” Culture


Fine art photographer Robert van Koesveld is enraptured by artists known as geiko and maiko. He describes a typical performance as akin to a dinner party appearance by a charming celebrity, who further delights your guests with song or dance. The history and nuance of Japanese omonetashi is unsatisfactorily translated as “hospitality,” but years of arduous training allow the apprentice maiko to gradually transform into the mature geiko. While they are often represented to Western audiences via the orientalist distortion of the “Geisha,” van Koesveld sought to produce a curious and sensitive portrait of the women and their art; he does not propose to offer an expert interpretation, but observes his gracious subjects from his own perspective.

For Polarr, Emily von Hoffmann spoke with van Koesveld about the work and what he’s learned.


Emily von Hoffmann: Your new book explores the traditions of Geiko and Maiko culture. Can you share a little about your inspirations for this project? How did your first trip to Kyoto plant the seeds?

Robert van Koesveld: I have had a lifetime interest in cultural traditions and, more recently, in the ways communities preserve and adapt their special traditions. My links to Japan began through my father who was a Dutch businessman in Japan 1917–1920 (decades before I was born!). So I was primed to be curious about this living tradition well before I finally visited a few years ago.

I have also distilled a ‘personal mission statement’ from reviewing my own photographic work: I am interested in making images that communicate ‘spirit of place’ and portraits of people with ‘presence’. Geiko and maiko (apprentice geiko) embody the spirit of traditional Kyoto, formerly Japan’s capital for a thousand years and often these highly committed artists possess a strong sense of presence. So I eventually came to see that there was an obvious fit, although initially I just knew I wanted to photograph these extraordinary traditional artists more.

Image courtesy of Robert van Koesveld.

EvH: For the readers who may be unfamiliar, can you share a few of the things you’ve learned through observing the practitioners of this tradition, if that’s the correct term? What are the performances like?

RvK: One can think of their performance in a layered way: What is most known — and misunderstood — is the role of entertainer and host of exclusive small dinner parties, usually held in traditional rooms. They are called ozashiki asobi, a reference to the tatami matted rooms where they are held. Here they ensure guests feel welcomed and at ease, beginning with pouring drinks while making conversation. They will also dance and sing traditional works and perhaps involve guests in light-hearted games. Imagine having a charming famous professional singer or musician attending your private dinner party that is specially catered, and then enliven the evening with their skilled artistry and warmth.

The misunderstanding arises in part because for us foreigners there is no equivalent in language and cultural practices. So the Japanese concept of omonetashi with all its history and nuances, gets inadequately translated as ‘hospitality’ and the role as ‘hostess’. The relationship between geiko, maiko and guest is subtle, generous and based on mutual respect.

Image courtesy of Robert van Koesveld.

Geiko and maiko also perform in odori. These are large annual stage performances with ornate sets and a full orchestra of shamisen players, singers and hidden drummers. Each of the five traditional districts (kagai) in Kyoto has its own traditions, classes and special theatre. The older Japanese used by the geiko and maiko can be rather like a ‘Shakespearian Japanese’, but the enthusiastic audience finds ways to follow the stories and songs, often traveling from all over Japan to see these elaborate displays of music, dance and theatre.

Lastly, these refined artists may be seen hurrying along the cobblestone lanes to their evening appointments or participating in community festivals. In these public situations, they continue to embody a kind “geiko-ness” in all their actions and interactions. After many years of arduous training, each geiko finds their individual way of maintaining this centuries old art form.

Image courtesy of Robert van Koesveld.

EvH: You mentioned in your Kickstarter that you found people in Kyoto really preferred the terms Geiko and Maiko to that of “Geisha.” Can you tell us more about that? How else does the reality of the culture differ from the limited Western understanding of the “Geisha” character?

RvK: Kyoto people have their own dialect, so while written words may have the same character, the spoken word may be quite different. ‘Geiko’ is the Kyoto word, whereas ‘Geisha’ is used elsewhere in Japan. One okasan (geiko teahouse mistress/manager) told me she thought the words ‘Kyoto’ and ‘Geisha’ should not appear in the same sentence. This is possibly because for some centuries, ‘Geisha’ has come to represent the orientalist fantasies of the west. Foreigners often think that the book ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ is actually a memoir; it is actually a 95% fictional account by a western male writer.

Image courtesy of Robert van Koesveld.

EvH: Can you please tell us about one or two of your favorite images from the collection, and the situation surrounding them?

RvK: The image of the maiko with the red umbrella [Ed note: shown above] is one of only a few in the book that were shot in the street. Momokazu has since retired, but the image really was a key inspiration to begin the project. Looking at the image I saw something beyond her beauty — a sense of timelessness and exquisite grace. What I experienced as ‘presence’. I think of it as something that we may become aware of even before we see the person; a confidence and authenticity that is not gender specific. Few beginning maiko possess this quality, but over time, all the practice of dance and other traditional arts produces the 360 degree awareness of themselves in space that dancers learn. This, combined with an ongoing focus on developing a social and cultural sensibility, all helps develop presence.

Photographing maiko in the street is increasingly problematic. They are walking fast and not looking up because they rushing from one appointment to another, but will unfailingly stop and very politely acknowledge more senior geiko and kagai community members. However they are also walking fast because, sadly, visitors to Kyoto may mob them if they stop, sometimes pulling on their $15,000 antique kimono or acting as if they are Disney characters. (Some also mistakenly photograph fans dressed as maiko for the day.) These days, particularly in busy areas, I am more inclined to just stop and enjoy the glimpse, without the camera. Anyone keen to experience Geiko culture should check to see if there is an odori performance on during their visit to Kyoto.

Image courtesy of Robert van Koesveld.

The image in blue of Tsunakazu dancing on stage [Ed. note: shown at bottom] is another favorite. I think it was captured during my third odori production from that particular kagai, but the first I was allowed to photograph. Tsunakazu is a senior independent geiko and usually performs as as jikata (shimasen player) and she is a natori (master) in singing. Yet her first love is dance and she works incredibly hard to reach a high standard in her solo performances. She has a wonderfully warm and gentle personality and was delighted to be photographed for my book. Her inclusion in the book also means that it features a range of maiko and geiko from each of the five districts and along the continuum from novice to master of their art.

EvH: In your subsequent trips, how did you go about identifying key people to help you in your studies of the tradition? Were people eager to talk with you?

RvK: Those who maintain traditional cultures must have a certain caution or conservatism in dealing with others. The visitor’s agenda is not necessarily the agenda of the community, nor should it be. In addition, the people of the kagai have double the usual caution in dealing with the press who all to often come with their story pre-written, and in the case of Geiko, all the orientalist distortions around ‘Geisha’.

Image courtesy of Robert van Koesveld.

So no, not every one was eager to talk to me and that’s quite reasonable. In general however people I met were very polite, so there were many encounters of generosity and warmth. Relationships and trust can develop though, and sometimes things just open up. I work with a skilled guide, interpreter, protocol officer and photographer’s assistant, and she was critical in slowly building connections. I also was happy to pay for private shoots when I was able to make the appropriate connections. Some meetings were only possible after many visits. Some meetings are not possible, yet.

EvH: Can you share one or two interactions you had over the course of the project, or people you met, who left a particularly strong impression? How have they changed your life or work?

RvK: At one time, I met with a 98 year old tea master and also chatted with his grand-daughter. In various ways both taught me about the deep tradition of hospitality involved in omotenashi ‘selfless and unobtrusive attention to a guest’ and the roles of host and guest. There is also an allied notion of ‘one chance one meeting’ (ichi-go ichi-e). I think the introduction to concepts from within the culture, combined with the associated experience of warm and playful hospitality, helped me begin to give up the search for maps that explained ‘Geiko’ in terms of my own culture.

Image courtesy of Robert van Koesveld.

My son also pushed me to extend myself. Looking at an early draft of the book his response was pretty much — “Hmm, not terrible work Dad, but why not make this absolutely as good as you can.” So I think that the project itself became a great teacher. It produced questions like: What is missing? How could it be better? Who do I need to consult with?

I am under no illusions however that the work is the work of an ‘expert’ on anything Japanese. I am a westerner primarily addressing a western audience and making photobook from the perspective of a curious and hopefully respectful outsider.

EvH: So, for those Western audience members interested in immersing themselves as you have, what are some resources that you can recommend?

RvK: The best book in English is definitely “Geisha” by anthropologist Liza Dalby, originally published in 1983. I also like “The Gei of Geisha: Music, Identity and Meaning” by Kelly M Forman. http://geisha-kai.tumblr.com is a quality fan style blog with great information run by a person who is also involved in academic research in the area.

Image courtesy of Robert van Koesveld.

Somewhat tangentially, “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down” by Anne Fadiman is wonderful at teasing out the cross-cultural collision of two cultures and also has a set of eight questions for cross cultural enquiry that can inform cultural engagement. A good starting point (although you will usually fail) is to keep struggling to abandon seeing another culture as like or unlike your own. Instead, be warmly curious about its history and the meaning inside the culture itself.


Interview by Emily von Hoffmann and Polarr — Pro Photo Editor Made for Everyone. Follow Polarr on Twitter and try our products.

Robert van Koesveld is a Perth, Australia-based photographer. Follow him on Twitter.