‘Now a Geisha’ follows the graduation of an apprentice maiko

by J.J. O'Donohue

Shelves of books on geisha are already overflowing, but “Now A Geisha” still deserves a space.

Now a Geisha, by John Paul Foster, Translated by Chiaki Iwamura.
192 pages
IBC PUBISHNG, Nonfiction.

This is John Paul Foster’s third photo book on geisha, but it’s his first to focus is on the erikae, the momentous occasion when apprentice maiko become fully fledged geisha.

As Foster writes, “An erikae takes place on a single day, but the road from maiko to geiko (geisha in Kyoto) takes anywhere from three-and-a-half years to six years.” Foster chronicles three Kyoto maiko, two from Gion and one across the river in Pontocho, on their graduation day. It’s a joyous and proud day for the women as well as their teams of seniors, teachers and dressers, and Foster’s photos document those candid moments of happiness.

“Now A Geisha” runs to nearly 160 pages of gorgeous color photos and captions, with chapters anchored around the proceedings and preparations of the graduation day. For the casual reader there’s much to be gleaned, for example a maiko’s hairstyle will signify that the erikae is approaching.

Foster’s camera follows the maiko into the powder rooms, before the remarkable transformation into porcelain dolls. Shots of makeup application, kimono dressing and the moment when a newly graduated geisha steps through the noren curtains give “Now A Geisha” an unstaged quality.

An accompanying essay at the back — in English and Japanese — fleshes out the procedural aspect of the erikae and explains the extensive efforts by Foster to build relationships with the teahouses to document the special day.