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  • Writer's pictureRobin Yong

Peacock and Peonies 孔雀と牡丹

Aoi Tayū  never ceases to amaze me with her beautiful kimonos.

In ancient Japan, highly ranked courtesans (oirans and tayū s) were basically traditional idols embodying the dream wife and the tastiest fashion trends. So they were wearing very flashy and sophisticated garments with up to 5 layers of kimonos.

Tayū (太夫) are the highest class of traditional entertainer in Japan. Though technically the highest class of geisha, a general term for the highest-ranking entertainers, tayū were distinguished historically from other geisha by the quality of their intensive training from a young age in numerous traditional artforms, and that they lived and worked in Kyoto, the capital of Japan, which remained the center of culture when the capital moved to Tokyo.

Tayū differed from lower ranks of geisha by the social class of their customers. Traditionally, tayū catered for the uppermost echelons of society, including the nobility and the imperial court. Tayū were recognised as a group in the beginning of the Edo period. Due to the limited size of their clientele, they were never numerous; during their peak there were approximately 40 tayū working in Kyoto in the Shimabara district.

Tayū have survived into the modern day in Shimabara, Kyoto, having been allowed to continue practising the cultural and performing arts traditions of their profession; they were declared a highest level of geisha.

The most fascinating part of the Tayū 's costume is the Uchikake (打ち掛け). This is the formal attire for Tayū  (geisha of the highest rank). Uchikake often feature heavy, highly-formal decoration and may be padded throughout, if not solely on the hem. They are designed to trail along the floor, and the heavily-padded hem helps to achieve this. They are decorated as if pictures were painted on the entire clothing, ornamented with not only embroidery and shibori (tie-dyeing) but also surihaku (impressing of gold or silver foil on fabric) or nuihaku (embroidery and impressing of gold or silver foil on fabric).

Because it is the new year and geishas were traditionally wore black kimonos on the first few days of the new year, Aoi Tayū  picked a black uchikake for this outing as well. The theme on this uchikake is the Peacock and Peonies - a classical art theme in Japan and China.

In Japanese culture, the peacock symbolizes beauty, pride, protection, and good fortune. The bird’s colorful feathers are believed to bring happiness and prosperity. Japanese peonies represent prosperity, honor, and good fortune, reflecting wealth and accumulation.

So while most photographers are fascinated by the kanzashi (hair decorations) of the maikos (trainee Geishas) that change according to the flowers of each month, I think the Tayūs and their very elaborate and expensive uchikake are another truly amazing photo subject.

The photos were done using natural lighting only and today's photo shoot was done at Joju-Ji Temple (淨住寺).

Joju-ji, established in 810 at the will of the emperor of the time, is a Buddhist Temple dedicated to the protection of the nation and prosperity of the Imperial Household. One of its most distinctive features is the beautiful, crimson-colored pathway that leads up to the temple precinct. Joju-ji was destroyed by a fire in the 1500s but was rebuilt in 1687 as a temple of Obaku Buddhism. Obaku is a sect of Zen Buddhism introduced from China during the Edo period. These Chinese origins have influenced Joju-ji's unique structure and layout.

The temple is considered a private temple and a national treasure and not normally open to the public. Their Hojo hall and garden are open to the public only on specific days during the Kyoto special viewing of privately owned cultural properties.

This is my 35th trip to Japan and I am so blessed to have so many Japanese friends who take time to show me fascinating places each time I come.

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