Models, Photojournalism, Portrait

Japanese Masters: The Last Maiko in Gifu

Although I am primarily a photographer based in Tokyo, you’ll often find me traveling to random cities and towns to find artisans and craftsmen to photograph as part of my ongoing personal project to document as many as possible. Since the beginning of 2017, Zeiss has partnered with me to produce a series of videos, photos and text for their newly updated Lenspire blog. Now with this year coming to a close, I’ve decided to post the start of the series on my blog to show you folks where it all started. Please visit the original piece here where there are many more links to nearly a whole year’s worth of master artisans. Anyway, here’s the article below, enjoy!

The Last Maiko in Gifu from Irwin Wong | Photographer on Vimeo.

It’s twilight in Gifu, and the lights of the city sparkle prettily on the Nagara River. My assistant Will and I are standing on the bridge closest to where the boats dock, and as we watch, several pleasure boats peel lazily away from the harbor and float downstream. Bright lanterns cover the outside of the boats which will play host to revellers eating, drinking copious amounts of sake and watching the cormorant fishers ply their trade. It’s a beautiful night in Gifu for being out on the river, which is one of the pillars of the tourist trade here, and it’s oddly calming watching the boats sedately cruise down the river. From my vantage up on the bridge I try to spot the lucky boat that is carrying Gifu’s last maiko.

Tokyo Photographer, Videographer Irwin Wong (26)

The city of Gifu was, at one point, the most important city in Japan. At a time in history when all of Japan was a battleground contested by numerous feuding warlords, Gifu was seen as the base from which all of Japan could be unified. Powerful warlords used Gifu as their seat of power, and as a result Gifu’s commerce went through the roof. Artisans, craftsmen, swordsmiths, traders and so on made their base in the city and flourished; Gifu’s economy became rich, and where there is riches there is entertainment, and where there is entertainment, there will be Geisha. It is from these roots that the culture of geisha found its way to Gifu and has survived here to this day…barely.

Tokyo Photographer, Videographer Irwin Wong (19)

Tokyo Photographer, Videographer Irwin Wong (20)

Tokyo Photographer, Videographer Irwin Wong (21)


Meet Kikumame, or Mame-chan to her friends. The first time I visited Gifu just over a year ago, she was one of three maiko who were residing there. Now she is the last one left.

Tokyo Photographer, Videographer Irwin Wong (22)

Tokyo Photographer, Videographer Irwin Wong (23)

Maiko are apprentice geisha, and they wear the white face paint, girlish kimono and hair accessories that are most often mistakenly associated with fully fledged geisha. Maiko are generally less uptight and more playful than their geisha counterparts, making them more approachable. They dance, they laugh, they engage you in spritely conversation, they play drinking games with you; to be entertained by a good maiko is a singularly awesome cultural experience that I can’t recommend enough. For the maiko however it’s a tough life – one that has its rewards but requires your complete devotion to honing the craft over a lifetime. Constant practice and training leave little time for other pursuits. The attrition rate is high in the already ailing industry.

Tokyo Photographer, Videographer Irwin Wong (11)

Tokyo Photographer, Videographer Irwin Wong (14)

Tokyo Photographer, Videographer Irwin Wong (15)

Tokyo Photographer, Videographer Irwin Wong (16)

Tokyo Photographer, Videographer Irwin Wong (18)

There are perhaps only 10 places remaining in Japan with Hanamachi, or geisha districts. The most famous of these is Kyoto, the former seat of the Emperor. Geisha from Kyoto are known to be the most expensive and exclusive in Japan. Gifu on the other hand, is the only place in Japan where you can party with a maiko on a boat. During the spring and summer months,

If you’re very lucky, you can book a very limited spot on a boat with Kikumame to go watch the cormorant fishing take place. Because of this Gifu maiko are different to those of other provinces in many ways; the way they dress is different, the way they dance is different, and the drinking games they play are different. Take the most visible difference a Gifu maiko shows; the obi – the wide sash that is usually tied around the back into elaborate patterns. A Gifu maiko who has to walk up and down the cramped confines of a riverboat cannot afford to have a bulky silk knot whacking customers in the back of the head. That’s why their obi are tied higher up in a style called yanoji, a style which is completely unique to Gifu. And with Kikumame being the only maiko in the city, it’s safe to say that she’s the only one the world wearing kimono in that style.

Tokyo Photographer, Videographer Irwin Wong (2)

Tokyo Photographer, Videographer Irwin Wong (3)

As I watch Kikumame go through the ritual of putting on her traditional white makeup, I note there are many ways in which she still seems an apprentice; she mutters and scolds herself when she makes a mistake putting on makeup, and she has to come and go several times to retrieve things that she’s left in her room. I didn’t know it, but at that time she had only been a maiko for less than half a year, which seems like such a short time in a lifelong profession. Once the makeup is completed however, there’s a palpable difference in the air. Gone is the shy girl who greeted me at the door; someone else with different mannerisms and gestures has taken her place: a maiko, a entertainer from older times.

The next day Will and I board Kikumame’s boat to see her perform. Through deepening twilight, the boat churns through the water, laden with merrymakers, booze and food. Kikumame sits with customers, keeping cups topped up and engaging in lively conversation. Her mentor, a famous male geisha called Kikuji* shows off his drinking prowess. The boat, having arrived at its destination, drops anchor and shuts off its motor. Stillness descends over the river. There’s still time before the cormorant fishers arrive so Kikumame stands up and goes to the front of the boat and starts to dance.

Watching her it is hard to believe that she has trained for less than half a year up to that point. There is no hesitation in her movement; the graceful, serene figure twirling in front of me is without a doubt the future of Gifu’s geisha industry. She’s seen two of her sisters quit the profession in the short time since she joined, but it’s clear to me and everyone on the boat that Kikumame was born to be a maiko.

Tokyo Photographer, Videographer Irwin Wong (25)

The night ends with more drinking, more dancing, more merrymaking, culminating in the procession of the cormorant fishers cruising by with their spectacular flaming lanterns. A collective sigh goes up from the boat as they recede into the distance, and we make our journey back to port. It’s been a long day for everyone, not least of all Kikumame, who for the first time looks a little pensive. I reel a little as I realize the enormity of the lonely road ahead of her; days and months of training until she is a fully fledged geisha, and then many more years training her own apprentices. The weight of the mantle upon her shoulders boggles my mind. She must be tired and yet she bows deeply as she sees us off, waiting until the last of the passengers is out of sight before looking up again.