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Meet John Paul Foster: Kyoto Photographer of the Floating World

geiko photo by John Paul Foster

Mamefuji © John Paul Foster

Meet John Paul Foster: Kyoto Photographer of the Floating World

My Japan Journey Interview 6:

John Paul Foster: Photographer and author of Now a Geisha

and Geisha & Maiko of Kyoto

John was kind to me, recommending how to get a good seat for the dances at Yasaka Shrine during the Gion Matsuri last summer. Of course, I’m fascinated by his work and story: over twenty years he has taken the most beautiful photographs of the world of the Gion Hanamachi: the geiko and the maiko.

Every photo is a work of art, inspired by the portraitists of the past such as Utamaro and Yoshitoshi.

A strong sense of colour, soft shadow, architectural design, and texture means that these photographs reward lingering study to create the most breath-taking impression.

Through John’s photography and writing you can follow the journey of a maiko to geiko through her erikae; gaze at the dances; study the kimono and kanzashi; and gain an insight into this shadowy world.

John shares his art through his fascinating books and prints, as well as his informative blog on his personal website and on his stunning Instagram. If you are not a follower already, do take a look!

What really comes across in John’s writing, is the sensitive, thoughtful, and appreciative approach that he continues to take photographing daily life for the geiko and maiko of Gion. 

It has been a tremendous experience catching a fleeting glimpse of this floating world with John. Do come with me as I talk to John in Kyoto.


Cathy: Hi John! It's amazing to see you! How are you? 

John: Good, good! It's a Sunday evening, a chilly day here in Kyoto, and a cloudy dark day but you know, that's January. 

Cathy: I’ve only been to Kyoto once in January and it was so beautiful. I always remember the frost on the mountains in the distance and the little flakes of snow that start to fall!

John: I go for an early morning walk and just down the block from me there's a little orchard of fruit trees. And of course, there are no leaves or fruit now, but the sun was coming up. It was backlighting the stark trees and there was frost on the ground. The shadows were the long shadows of the trees, and I walked along this shadow pathway. 

I was directly in the line of the rising sun. It's only a little after 7 a.m. when the sun rises, so it's quite dark until then. 

Cathy: Yes, and I think, what's so interesting about what you just said, is that I can immediately detect the eye of the artist and the eye of the photographer, because you're immediately talking about the shadows and the light and the composition!

John: It was luck because I noticed the sun on the buildings as I walked, and the quality was quite warm and beautiful. And then I thought, it would be nice to stand in that sunlight, but it was still high up on the buildings - and then I noticed down the path there was a spot where it was hitting. 

Cathy: I have a lot of questions for you, John, to be honest! I’m so excited to be able to talk to you and I really appreciate you doing this for us.

John: Ahh, no problem!

Cathy: Reading your books sent me down all sorts of interesting avenues. There's so much that I don't know about Kyoto…

John: Ahh, me too, join the club! 

Cathy: … and I’m hoping you might be able to throw some light on it for me!

I have a hunch that you could live in Kyoto for several lifetimes and still not fully understand the city because of the history, and the religion, and the connection of the arts to the history and religion.

I'm trying to piece it all together if I’m honest!

I've absolutely loved reading your books because they’ve opened up this beautiful world of the geiko and maiko in Kyoto that I know very little about, and I think many people in the West will feel perhaps in a similar way.

It's not easy to learn about the world that you're involved with, and that's why your books and blog are so illuminating – they give us an idea of what you’ve been witnessing. 

You've been photographing in Gion for two decades, haven’t you? It’s a long time.

John: Yes, 22 years now! The beginning was the end of 2002: October, November 2002. 

Cathy: Obviously, my first question to you is going to be how? I believe that you studied or you majored, in religion and Buddhism at college?

John: Yes. I was a double major in literature and religion, and so I studied all of the religions but my focus was Buddhism. And my professor, his specialty was religion in Japanese culture so I almost never just studied the religion in isolation, it was in the context of other areas of Japanese culture. 

But absolutely nothing to do with maiko and geiko!

Cathy: I was reading a passage in The Confessions of Lady Nijou (Towazugatari c.1306) last week. The story appears to be a diary written in a style of The Tale of Genji, and part of it details her romances. She writes about the monk Ariake, who is the brother of the retired emperor, and how he is infatuated with her. 

I’m familiar with this idea of consuming passion and romance from Genji-era literature, but Lady Nijou’s lover Ariake goes on to talk about the Paths of Darkness, and a footnote in the book says: which is a metaphor for the passion and attachment that keeps one chained to this world.

The passion he feels appears to be a torment to him, he doesn’t want it, because it keeps him from his focus on the afterlife. 

It made me reflect on Genji and all the love affairs that he has in the beginning of the book, and how it’s a very different story when you understand the Buddhist element.

Basically, what I’m trying to say, John, is it made me realize that having such a minimal understanding of Buddhism is shutting off a big light in understanding Kyoto. And what I'm saying to you is, because you have that background and that understanding of Japanese religion, it must help hugely in your understanding of the city and the arts. Is that right? 

John: In some areas, yes. With maiko and geiko in particular, no. 

I don't know any religious people in Japan today. In fact, I seem to know more about Buddhism than many of the people I meet here. There are different sects of zen Buddhism, there is Rinzai-shu and Soto-shu, and they might know the names, but I don’t think many really know the meaning. 

So, when I go to temples, yes, the knowledge helps, and of course it's all part of the background. But in another sense – actually, that was one of my disappointments I guess with Kyoto. When I first came, I thought that everyone here would be interested in kabuki and zen. And there are not many people who are, actually. But, for me personally, yes, it does inform me, and I do photograph temples and things.

Cathy: I think what I’m going on to say is something that you talk about in your blogs and your book, the traditional arts - are they suffering a little bit? And the interest from the West and the tourists, is that helping in any way to preserve these traditional arts in Kyoto?

John: I would say it’s a double-edged sword. I would say it's both helping and hurting. I mean there's no doubt that the coronavirus pandemic really affected the world of geiko and maiko. You have intimate parties in small rooms and of course, during the peak of covid, things like that just weren't possible.

But a few groups I know did Zooms with geiko and maiko so that helped get a little income. They're called satsuekai - photography groups where groups photograph a single or two maiko and geiko. Things like that still went on during the pandemic because of course, with photography, you could social distance. So, in that way, yes.

But for traditional business, customers are getting older and there aren't really that many young people. I mean, I’ve always been about the youngest person and I’m now over 50. I don't see many 20- or 30-year-olds in the bars or at ozashiki. And the over-tourism and the way the maiko and geiko are treated on the streets - in the past seven or eight years, really has gotten out of hand.

Cathy: And that's Instagram, is it?

John: Yes, social media. I would say from about 2013, so it’s almost a decade now. When I started out in 2002, yes, there were tourists on the street sometimes, but there weren't the crowds there are now.

I just saw a video of Shigyoshiki in Gion Kobu. There's always a crowd in front of Ichiriki, the biggest tea house in Gion, but it's usually across the street, and this time it was blocking the street so there was a wall of photographers. And they don't let the maiko and geiko walk through until the very last second. 

Cathy: Oh, my goodness. So, these photographers, are they professional photographers? 

John: I don't think many professional photographers are involved. People come from all over Japan, camera clubs and groups.

And yes, there are some newspaper outlets but only a handful of professional photographers. Most are just people who want the photos. And now, there are people, of course, for Instagram. So, they put up a video that's getting more likes, and in a way, they’re using the maiko and geiko without paying them, to get clicks and marketing to their Instagram. That's going on now, too. 


geiko photo by John Paul Foster

Toshikana and Wisteria © John Paul Foster

Cathy: I think I read in your book that they are not allowing photography at dances, like the Miyako Odori now. Is that right?

John: Yes, when I photographed Miyako Odori, they have a dress rehearsal on March 31st, and it's for family and people in the community, not the general public. I’ve been to that and photographed that a few times, but even there, there are conditions on how you use the photos. 

And yes, at Kyo Odori in 2009, they stopped allowing photographs. And Gion Odori and Gion Higashi, which is the November dance, they stopped photography a few years later around 2013, 2014 - don't quote me on that - but they let it go on a little longer. But I think people were just snapping away and snapping away. 

When I did it, I was there to photograph only the maiko and geiko in my books, so I only photographed them when they were on stage. And the friends and families were there, so I said to the people around me, ‘Look, I’m here to photograph. I'm only going to be photographing one geiko and I won't do it very much, so please excuse me.’ And I said that before the show and then started to photograph, and everyone was fine with it. 

And of course, I wait - if there's a silent moment in the dance where the music stops and all is still, I take very few, if any, photographs. And when the music starts up again, you can’t hear the click of a single camera shutter over that. 

Cathy: That's very sensitive of you. 

I must admit, I’m going to the Miyako Odori for the first time this spring - I bought my ticket as soon as they came on sale!

I think you mentioned in your book that there's a side stage which you can sit near, and see the geiko and maiko enter the stage? 

John: Yes, it's called hanamichi, the flower path. Hanamachi is the flower town, that’s the name for the five districts. Hanamichi - the flower path, michi is path, is, in kabuki theatre, the walkway that goes down the side of the stage. 

Cathy: That's really lovely! I think I'm set back just a tiny bit from that so I’m hoping I should get a nice view. I'm looking forward to it enormously, to be honest! 

I'm interested because it sounds like there are very few photographers that the okiya would allow in, and what really comes across from your book, which is really delightful, is you obviously approach this very, very sensitively. Certainly, in the early days - I love it when you're talking about being a photographer on the streets of Gion, and it sounds like you were standing there for hours, just waiting to have the chance to say hello, in a very kind and unintimidating way, and gradually, very slowly, building up your relationships with the maiko and geiko.

John: Yes, it took me a while because the first time I ever saw a geiko was at about 7pm. So, I went back after that at about the same time figuring that was a good time to see them, and that's literally one of the worst times to see them, because their first engagement of the evening is usually six to eight or six to nine.

So, at 7pm, I just caught someone going late or to a later engagement, which is very rare. You almost never see anyone at around 7pm. And of course, at this time, the internet wasn't what it is today, so I just learned by observation. And, finally, I saw them from four-thirty to six in the afternoon, and then maybe from eight to nine-thirty in the evening. So, I would go at those times, have dinner in between, and then go back. 

But I set up all sorts of rules for myself, so I wouldn't be a nuisance to people. For example, I knew that in certain areas where I stood, I would see more maiko and geiko. I didn't even realize this at the beginning, but that's because their okiya was close by. 

I would see the same geiko and maiko. I would only go once a week usually.  And if I photographed someone one week, I wouldn't photograph them the next time. Sometimes I would say that to them, and some of them would kind of look at me and would nod and understand that I was saying that I saw you last week so I’m not going to photograph you today. 

I also talked to them when appropriate. So, when I felt it was appropriate, not all the time, I would say something and a few of them - and literally only a handful, four or five or six - became friendly with me, and it just went from there. 


Cathy: And so, we were talking about that you were at college and you were majoring in religion and literature. 

But what specifically got you to Kyoto? And also, what specifically got you interested in geiko and maiko as your subject? I mean, I can understand why you're interested, it's obvious really because the floating world is so stunningly beautiful! But what was the motivation for you?

John: Well, Kyoto was the heart of Zen Buddhism, so I always wanted to live in Kyoto to study Zen Buddhism. But when I first came to Japan I was living in Kumamoto, which is several hours away by shinkansen. I was living in the US, and I saw a chance for a job at a university in Osaka - it isn't Kyoto, but it is only about 30 minutes away.

And I said, well, if I’m ever going to live in Japan, and I was 32 at the time, it's now or never basically - if I don't do it now, I’ll never get there.

A few years before, I was working in New York City, and I was working down in Chinatown and Little Italy, and I would bring my camera and photograph. So, when I came back to Japan, one of my secondary goals was also just to photograph more. 

And that's why, when I first started, I didn't even know that Gion was a geisha district. I had been to Gion early in the 90’s, but again, during the day at two or three in the afternoon. I just knew it was a traditional district and walked through it. I didn't see any geiko or maiko, and again at that time you're not likely to too often. But I remembered the red lanterns and I really liked the movie Raise the Red Lantern. It's a Chinese movie directed by Zhang Yimou.

So, when I first came back, I didn't want to stay in Osaka, I wanted an excuse to go to Kyoto, and I remembered the red lanterns, and I loved the night photography, so I said, well, I’ll go at night and I'll photograph the red lanterns there.

So, that's what I was doing when I saw the geiko there. It was about 7pm and I said, wow, that's much more interesting than red lanterns!

And that was it. I just started, and I knew nothing about them. I was starting from literally a blank slate and learned as I went along.

Cathy: But that was possibly, in hindsight, to your advantage, do you think? That you were going in with no preconceptions or anything.

John: Yes, in terms of Japanese books, I only looked at them at first to see that I wasn't doing the same thing that they were. I learned from watching and doing, like I write in the book, minarai that's ‘look and learn’, and that's what I was doing basically. 

Cathy: And in that way you can learn how to be when you're around them - you can learn the polite way to be in their space, and the respectful way of being. 

John: Yes, and I did make mistakes. At the beginning I didn't realize that when they're with customers, you shouldn't photograph them. Once or twice in the beginning, I did do that. But I could tell by their body language that I was making them uncomfortable, and that was the last thing I wanted, so I stopped. Unfortunately, you have to learn through mistakes sometimes. 

This summer in August, I was again photographing the lanterns on a summer night. Because it's so hot in the day, I do a lot of photography at night in August. And I had my camera on a tripod and all of a sudden, I heard konbanwa, ‘good evening’. It was a geiko I know, and she was with a customer, but she addressed me first, otherwise I wouldn't have said anything to her, and I didn't stop her and have a conversation.

I just said, ‘Good evening, I’m photographing the chouchin.’ And that was it. There's kind of a cone of silence around the maiko and geiko and their customers. 

I've been in a bar where a geiko I know is sitting right next to me - she'll come in and she greets me, but after that if she's with a customer, you know her attention is focused on them. You know you don't interrupt.

Cathy: Are there many photographers in your position that are welcomed into this world and are able to photograph them and create books and prints, or do you occupy quite a rare space?

John: I'm the only person I know who on a regular basis photographs them inside ochaya, but there might be others who do. I just don’t know who they are. I’m certainly not the only one, you see their photographs of maiko and geiko at  temples or in traditional houses.

Cathy: But that's clearly one of the things that they like about you, I think?

John: Well, it's been now 20 years, so people have a good idea of what I’m like. 


Cathy: Here in the West, we get very little insight into the world of the geiko but every so often, very occasionally there's a drama that we're able to watch - obviously, I'm thinking of The Makanai on Netflix, in particular. 

I think a lot of people over here were fascinated by that. There is also an asadora that was called Dandan which centred around the world of the maiko and geiko.

John: Ahh, yes! That was an NHK morning drama! It was quite a while ago. 

Cathy: That's right! One twin wanted to be a singer, and the other twin wanted to be a geiko in Kyoto. I wonder do the dramas ever, in any way, capture what it's like, or is it very different to how they portray it?

John: I think The Makanai does it well, but I think it's a very idealised view, too. For example, I liken it to American family dramas of the 50’s and 60’s. Yes, they were about an American family, but it's an idealised view of the American family at that time.

And I think The Makanai takes a very idealised view of this world. I enjoyed it, it's great, but it's not a documentary, it's a drama.

Cathy: Is it a lot harder for maiko and geiko than was shown? 

John: Of course, I’m not in there myself, but I think the way they showed the geiko always practicing their dancing and things like that, I think in that sense they did a pretty good job. Do you leave to get married? Do you stay? What decisions do you make? How long do you stay? Yes, I think with all those things they got the feeling quite accurate.

Cathy: Some of the geiko, they don't stay too long, do they? I must admit I was thinking of Mameharu, who you photographed in your book Now a Geisha. And obviously she's hugely successful now as YouTuber Kimono Mom, with her adorable little daughter. I do watch her videos, and I always love it when she goes back to Kyoto and revisits her geiko past.

Is it quite common that geiko leave so soon?

John: There tend to be four patterns. Some geiko leave after about a year or a year and a half. Some never become geiko at all, but that's more common in Miyagawacho than in Gion Kobu. Those are the two districts that I know the best. 

In Gion, they usually become geiko - some only for a year, or a year and a half. Mameharu and Mamehana, one of my favourites, she was the same way. 

Then there's another group that stays till about 30 or so, and then leave. And then there are those that stay and make a full career of it. They are in their 40’s, 50’s, and older and they are still geiko. That is by far the smallest group, maybe 10 percent. 

Since corona, there has been a lot more coming and going, there are maiko who came and went and I never even met them. There wasn't a lot of work, so a lot of them just stopped.

Cathy: That's such a shame. So, are there fewer geiko and maiko now than there's ever been? Because I know the numbers have been diminishing. 

John: In November, I was doing a workshop with a photographer, and the maiko with us, she's already in her fifth year. And I said, ‘So are you going to become a geiko next year?’ And she said, well, there aren't that many maiko these days. So, she might stay as a maiko longer just because there aren't as many of them right now. 

Cathy: One of the things I was able to watch on YouTube - I'm sure you've seen it - there's a documentary about the Inoue dance school in Gion, the geiko dance school, which has been passed down through the female generations of one family. 

The documentary is filming during the passing from one generation to the next – from Inoue Yachiyo IV to her granddaughter Michiko, who will become Inoue Yachiyo V.  

You get to see her grandmother, and it’s astonishing that at the age of 95 in this documentary, she's still desperate to dance. You see their commitment to keeping this tradition and this incredibly beautiful art of geisha dance alive. 

The daughter who is destined to inherit the school begins learning at the age of about three and will be trained up throughout her childhood. 

The grandmother, Yachio IV, when teaching her granddaughter, was very strict with her, even though she was quite frail. She was asking her granddaughter, who was in her 50’s, to perform one of the dances that was a difficult dance, and the grandmother was saying, no, you still haven't got it right!

And, of course, it was necessary that her granddaughter did perform it right, as she was soon going to inherit the full responsibility of teaching at the Inoue school. 

It was wonderful to see Yachiyo V teaching with tremendous skill and confidence and dedication, just like her grandmother before her. 


Cathy: Another thing I am really interested in, John, is when you are talking about the actual technicality of your photos. I should explain, I'm a children's book illustrator, so that's my background. And that's why I’m always really drawn to art and tuned into you talking about colour and light and things like that, because in a certain sort of way that has been my life too.

I should ask you who your inspirations are. I understand that you have written about being inspired by portraitists like Utamaro, and I could really appreciate that influence on your portraits. But who else inspires you?

John: My favourite woodblock print artist in the past was Yoshitoshi, because of the supernatural and ghosts. Now I like shin hanga. I got a great new book that just came out.

It's bilingual Japanese and English and it's called Nostalgia, it's about Kawase Hasui, who was active in the 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s. I love his colour, and I also love Yoshida Hiroshi. Just the way that they use colour, and the night scenes they do. I really like them. The colour inspires me. 

Cathy: I’m fascinated, because what I would take away from Kawase Hasui, are the beautiful flat planes of colour. And I think that's what you create in your photographs of maiko and geiko.  Because, you don't seem to have a lot of shadow in your photographs?

John: Until the pandemic started, no. Actually now - and I haven't put many of my newer works out - but now I do a lot more with shadow. But, especially then, I tried not to have shadow because I wanted the image to be bright. And I think also because I wanted to see clearly, and now that I have seen clearly, I can put in the shadows again because I don't need to see everything anymore.

Cathy: What I love about your photos is the way you can sit with them and there's so much to look at. Particularly the textures on the kimono are exquisite, especially when they've got little bits of embroidery and detail, and obviously the kanzashi in the hair. Like you say, because you haven't got shadows the detail is very clear to see, and you can spend a lot of time with the photograph taking it all in. 

A recent photo where you’re now adding shadow, would that be the one called kagami mochi? The dance of the geiko in the violet kimono? That is very shadowy and atmospheric. 

geiko photo by John Paul Foster

Performing the Dance Kagami Mochi © John Paul Foster

John: Yes, right. It is a new year dance. I wanted to add shadow here because that's more what a tea house looks like. That tea house where the photo was taken, that's where she dances.

And for a light, they just have - you know, when you were in college, you had a night light reading lamp that you could add to a bunk bed – it was just a little nightlight with a 40-watt bulb in it? That's what they use to light the dance with. It just clips on to the railing above, and that's what shoots down, so it's much darker and simpler. So, that's what I was trying to recreate. And when I do the full body shots, I don't like it if it is bright because then I want the shadow, it's just more interesting.

Cathy: I've only been once to a maiko performance, but I gasped when she came in.

I just went to a performance at one of the modern hotels in Kyoto because it was an opportunity to see a maiko perform. But when she came onto the little stage, I literally gasped because the lighting they had there, I think it was floor lighting so it shone up and it really illuminated her face. And it wasn't too much of a stretch to imagine what the lighting was like centuries ago, before electric light. Her face was luminescent, and her kimono was dazzling and bright with gold. She seemed otherworldly to be honest, just incredibly beautiful. So, that's interesting what you're saying about the lighting in the tea houses, and you're also bringing back lots of happy memories for me!

When I stayed at Shunko-in, the head monk gave us a tour of the temple. And he was showing us these beautiful paintings and saying that the artist who had painted them was the same artist who had painted the stunning paintings in Nijo Castle. And he suddenly turned the light off and I think he may have lit a candle, to give us an impression of the light conditions that the paintings were originally painted for. The gold leaf took on a different quality making the paintings stand out in relief.

So, when you're describing the geiko dancing under a single light, that’s really fascinating. Lighting is such an important thing, isn't it, when it comes to atmosphere, right? 

John: Well, that’s what I love the most, and that's why I still photograph. I enjoy trying different lighting. Some photographers have one or two setups, and they stick with that and repeat it, but I always try and switch it up every few years. I might try a different light modifier. If I'm photographing a new maiko, who's 16 or 17, then I don't do the dark shadows as much because that age just isn’t what that time of life is about.

But with the geiko and the older maiko, it all depends on the situation. I treat someone who I’ve photographed many times very differently from someone who I’m photographing for a first or second time. I set up lighting that's easier to dance with. 

Some lighting setups, they have to hit a mark quite precisely. So obviously, with someone who I'm meeting for the first time, I don't do one of those lighting setups because that's going to be more difficult. How I light them depends on things like, how many times I’ve met them before, and how experienced they are.

Cathy: In one of your most recent photographs on your blog, a maiko was holding a colour checker?

John: Yes. That's called the X Rite Colour Checker Passport. 

Cathy: So, is that for helping you with the editing afterwards? 

John: With that you can make a colour profile. What that means is you assign what's called a colour profile to an image. The most common editing software is Adobe Lightroom, and Adobe has its own colour profiles. But if you use the X Rite Colour Checker, you can create your own profiles. 

There's a software called LumaRiver where you can customize your own profile, so I've been using that for the past year or two. 

All the camera makers like Nikon, Canon, they have a camera portrait, which is a little nicer on the skin. They have a landscape one that saturates the colours. I like to make my own and you can adjust the settings and get the colour that way.

Some photographers do it too. Some just use Adobe colour as their starting point, so, whatever works for you. I'm a bit of a perfectionist, I like to go a little bit deeper into things.


Cathy: When I was watching those different Kyoto dances on YouTube, I ended up at the Tokyo National Theatre for their performance of the court music gagaku - which obviously was really quite interesting for me because I love Genji and anything that's Heian. I can't help it, I always loved medieval stuff when I was a teenager, and so I'm resigned to living in that world, really!

John: Have you read Ivan Morris’ The World of the Shining Prince

Cathy: Yes! I've got it on my bookcase!

John: When I was writing Now a Geisha, that was part of my research, when I was looking into the origins of ohaguro [teeth-blackening], and things like that. In Japanese culture, there aren't that many historical records, so you have to look in literature a lot to find references.

Cathy: I was looking for the shirabyoushi dance, to compare it with the geiko dance – there definitely seemed to be a similarity in the movement - but it is difficult to find information sometimes. 

I don't know if I’ve said this to you before, but when I fell in love with Kyoto on the first day I was there, I was smitten. I went to bed that night and I couldn't get to sleep because I was grinning so much. I just completely fell in love with the city, and at that point I didn't know anything at all about it. It was a completely upside-down world to me.

I knew it was beautiful but I didn't know why, and I wanted to know why. I was really curious, so that's why I went back to the old literature. So, when you're saying that, that makes a lot of sense to me, because I think most of my information about Kyoto comes from the literature: The Tale of Genji, The Tales of Ise, the Heike Monogatari, The Confessions of Lady Nijou, and the Heian poetry, as well. 

John: Have you read The Ink Dark Moon

Cathy: Yes! 

John: The poetry in there is beautiful. I took a Japanese literature and translation class in college. I first read that then. Some of the poetry in there…

Cathy: It's stunning! I was reading it, probably just the other day. It's a very easy book to just pick off the bookshelf and start leafing through, and I think I was looking for poems on cherry blossoms. And, like you said, you've got Izumi Shikibu writing, and Ono no Komachi, they’re both really powerful poets, aren't they! The emotion that they create is astonishing. 

But to be honest, now that you say that you love that poetry, I can feel that atmosphere of it in your photographs, I really can.

John: Wow! I don't know that I come up to that standard but it's a very nice thought and I’ll take it, thank you!

Cathy: Yes, I can feel it coming through!

John: I was surprised a few times when I go back to New York and there'll be a photo workshop, because it's more of a trade there, where to me, it's more of a philosophy and an aesthetic. I think I approach it much more from a literary point of view, or a filmmaking or aesthetic point of view. 

You don't see me physically in the photo, but any photographer is in their photographs. We're not physically in the frame but we are there in the frame. 

Cathy: So, it's all the things that inspire and that interest you, that's partly what you're capturing? 

John: Right, and also the energy you give off is what you get back, not just in photography but in anything in life. You know, if you are walking down the street and you're grumpy and angry and you bump into someone you're going to get that emotion back. It’s the same in photography.

I'm usually quieter and calmer, so I think they pick up on that energy, and that's often what I get back. A lot of times, I just whisper. One time I remember with Momifuku, I was singing Abba's Dancing Queen to her, to make her laugh. She liked the song and I wasn't getting much of a reaction from her so I started singing. It just depends on what the situation requires at the time. But on the whole, I’m not very like the usual image of photographers. 


Cathy: In the documentary with Inoue Yachio V, she was saying that the kyomai dance was hugely connected to Noh, not only through their family, because I believe the men of the family were Noh actors and the ladies of the family were the kyomai teachers.

I was trying to learn about what Noh is, and the one thing that I was immediately struck by was when they were saying that the stage is the area of the gods, and the audience is the area for the mortals. 

So, I was trying to work it out and I want to ask you, if kyomai geiko dance is so connected to Noh, is there any spiritual quality to it? Or is it associated with Noh purely through the movements which are quite similar?

John: There's the word do, meaning ‘the way’. As in chado, ‘the way of tea’; shodo, ‘the way of the brush’. And I think kyomai doesn't have a do in it, but I think all the Japanese arts do have a spiritual side to them.

I think geiko who perfect their craft over decades would understand this. There are levels and stages to it, of course, but yes, I think that one of the things that attracted me to Japan is that philosophy of arts.

I think you’re definitely right, there are connections. How did maiko and geiko start? Some theories are the shirabyoushi, some are shrine maidens: the miko. All of these things are interconnected, such as kabuki make-up and the make-up of maiko and geiko. 

There definitely is cross pollination through all, the same as there is in arts in England, and in any other culture. Nothing exists in a vacuum, they all influence each other at certain time periods. 


Cathy: John, you’ve been fantastic to talk with, thank you so much for sharing with us your beautiful work and your fascinating insights.

John: Thank you Cathy, it’s been great fun! 


John Paul Foster’s photographic prints can be purchased on his website.

You can read more about John’s fascinating world photographing the maiko and geiko of

Kyoto’s Gion Hanamachi in his books; on his blog; and on his Instagram.

Instagram: @johnpaulfoster

John Paul Foster Books:

Now a Geisha

Geisha & Maiko of Kyoto: Beauty, Art, and Dance

100 Views of Maiko and Geisha

100 Views of Kyoto

Sources and Further Information


All photos are © John Paul Foster


The Japan Foundation: Kyomai, Classical Elegance

Kimono Mum on YouTube.


Haruo Shirane, Traditional Japanese Literature: An Anthology, Beginnings to 1600, (Columbia University Press), p.803.


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