Take A Peek At The Enigmatic World Of Geishas In Kyoto At This Exhibit | CoolJapan

When I was a young boy, before I had even heard of the country of Japan, my parents had a framed print of a woodcut on the wall by the bookshelf of the home we lived in. I only have a glimpse of it, now, only as a memory.

It had the classical perspective of a floating, isometric view, as if the viewer was standing on a nearby mountain gazing down. I took it all in; the muted colour, the sparse rooms, the men and women of another time sitting serene in angular kimonos. I felt the immanent mystery of their world. What, exactly, were their lives like? What were their hopes, their dreams?

Print Of Utagawa Kunisada II

Utagawa Kunisada II's The Fifth Month from the series The Five Festivals Represented by Eastern Genji dated 1855. (Photo courtesy of Nakau Collection)

I do remember very clearly the sense of mystery that the print left me. Very recently, during a visit to the Asian Civilisations Museum, I found myself a trace of that feeling looking at the ukiyo-e woodblock prints, surrounded by the collection of the museum’s relics — cups, scabbards, statues — all things that have a hint of adventure at a time other than now.

Russel Wong Photograph of Kagai Life

Kagai life in Miyagawa-cho, Kyoto, Higashiyama Ward photographed in 2010. (Photo courtesy of Russel Wong)

The prints are part of a double bill exhibit, titled, " Life in Edo | Russel Wong in Kyoto ". This exhibit is in commemoration of the 55th year anniversary of Singapore-Japan diplomatic relations. The exhibit has prints on one end and photographs by Russel Wong on the other.

Life Of Geishas

(Left) Geiko Sayaka helping Maiko Satsuki with her kanzashi (hair ornaments) in Kyoto photographed in 2011. (Photo courtesy of Russel Wong). (Right) Kitagawa Hidemaro's Young couple with goldfish dated 1804-18. (Photo courtesy of Nakau Collection).

Russel Wong has, for over a decade now, been capturing the faces of those that are captivated by the mystery of tradition, young women who make their journey towards certain streets in Gion, Kyoto, to begin their journeys as geishas.

Being a geisha is multi-disciplinary. They play musical instruments, dance and sing, but they are also simply performing by being geisha. This is to possess the fragile spirit of mystery itself. One, as a geisha, must be elegant in a moment, and also, all the time.

Photo Of A Geisha In Kyoto

Geiko Sayaka in Kyoto dated 2014 in large format, combining 4 x 4 prints in ōban size. (Photo courtesy of Russel Wong)

Russel Wong gives a glimpse into their complex, hierarchal ceremonies and esoteric rules. There are also candid moments taken from a respectful distance — a smile here, a glance there, flickers of an expression that belong to a deeply personal journey beyond the mask of their performative lives.

Russel Wong Photo of Sanjo Bridge

Sanjō Bridge in Kyoto, Higashiyama Ward photographed in 2020. (Photo courtesy of Russel Wong)

The corridors of photographs meet in the middle with Russel Wong’s photograph of Sanjō bridge and Hiroshige’s print of Nihonbashi bridge. Beyond that, we see the woodblock prints of the Edo period (1603-1868).

The fame of Hokusai’s great wave, the one we’ve all seen, has its natural grandeur that threatens to eclipse everything else. When we think of Japanese art as a tradition, we think of it and think of nothing else. This print is not on display here. Instead, we get scenes of cats tugging on dresses, famous courtesans and temples framed by cherry blossoms. We also get to see the actual woodblocks that make up Hokusai’s Red Fuji. All of these prints are skilful. Some of them are scenic, beautiful.

Katsushika Hokusai Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji

Katsushika Hokusai's Fuji view plain in Owari province from the series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, dated around 1831. (Photo courtesy of Nakau Collection)

It is interesting to know that during the Edo period, these prints were commonplace. They were seen and appraised by people in a manner that is analogous to the social media of today. It is amusing to think of a museum, a hundred years from now, filled with curated screens of images from social media.

Utagawa Hiroshige Print

Utagawa Hiroshige's Peeping into the bath boys and Fighting from Hiroshige’s Comic Prints, dated early 1840s. (Photo courtesy of Nakau Collection)

So, it is a surprise that some of them betray a comic sensibility that is spontaneous, in the way social media can be spontaneous and funny. When we see a print of two men spying on the interior of the bathhouse, we know that they too are captivated by the secret of it, the sensuality and mischief. What interesting people they must have been.

Asian Civilisations Museum Exhibit

Life in Edo | Russel Wong in Kyoto on at the Asian Civilisations Museum currently till 19 September 2021.