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  • Writer's pictureRobin Yong

The Story of the Chinese Bellflower 風鈴草の故事

A long awaited blog entry of a multi-award winning photo taken not too long ago.

The maikos were Tomichie and TomiHoshi. A pity both of them are retired now. The pandemic soon hit 3 months after this photo was taken and much of the world was in a lockdown. The geisha community was hard hit during the pandemic and quite a few maikos retired.

As can be seen on the beautiful kanzashi on TomiHoshi's hair, the month is September and the flower - the Chinese Bellflower. The bellflower is called kikyō (桔梗) in Japanese. Traditionally, it is one of the Seven Autumn Flowers. In addition, the "Bellflower Seal" (桔梗紋, kikyōmon) is the crest (kamon) of some clan.

The hairpins known as kanzashi originated in the Heian period of a thousand years ago, when women started wearing their hair in elaborate coiffed designs, rather than the long, straight taregami style favoured until that point.

Mentioned in The Tale of Genji and poetry through the ages, kanzashi have a long history and culture behind them. They became particularly popular in the later Edo period from about the 17th century, when more people had access to them and new styles were created.

The kanzashis on the maiko's hair change strictly every month. According to the months, it is basically:

  • January – The design of January kanzashi usually has an auspicious New Years' theme. Shōchikubai is a popular choice – a combination of pine (shō), bamboo (chiku) and plum blossoms (bai) in green, red and white. Other popular motifs are sparrows (suzume), spinning tops and battledore paddles (hagoita).

  • February – Usually trailing deep pink or red plum blossoms, said to symbolise young love and the approach of spring. Another less common theme is the pinwheel and the flowerball (kusudama) that is worn for Setsubun.

  • March – Trailing yellow and white rapeseed flowers (nanohana) and butterflies, as well as peach blossoms (momo), narcissus (suisen), camellia (tsubaki) and peonies (botan). A rare kanzashi featuring dolls that are used to celebrate the Hina Matsuri (Girl's Day Festival) can also be seen during this month.

  • April – Trailing soft pink cherry blossoma (sakura) mixed with butterflies and bonbori lanterns, signalling the approach of summer. Cherry blossom viewing at this time of year is a major cultural event in Japan. Kanzashi consisting of a single silver (or sometimes gold) butterfly (cho) made of mizuhiki cord are common.

  • May – Trailing purple wisteria (fuji) and flag irises (ayame), usually in blue or pink. Irises denote the height of spring while wisteria is a flower often associated with the Imperial Court (wisteria viewing parties have been celebrated by Japanese nobles since the Heian period).

  • June – Trailing green willow (yanagi) leaves with carnations/pinks (nadeshiko), or less commonly hydrangea (ajisai) flowers. This month is the rainy season in Japan, and therefore willow (a water-loving tree) and blue hydrangeas are appropriate.

  • July – Kanzashi featuring a display of fans (usually round uchiwa fans, but occasionally folding sensu fans) are featured. The fans refer to the Gion Festival which takes place at this time. The motifs featured on a maiko's fan kanzashi vary each year, in line with the festival. There are common themes such as dragonflies and lines denoting swirling water. Other kanzashi worn during July are fireworks kanzashi and dewdrops on grass (tsuyushiba).

  • August – Large morning glory (asagao) or susuki grass. The susuki grass appears as a starburst of spines made of silvered paper. Senior maiko wear white-backed silver petals and junior maiko wear pink-backed silver petals.

  • September – Chinese bellflower (kikyō). The purple tones are traditionally associated with autumn. Often these will be mixed with bush clover.

  • October – Chrysanthemum (kiku). These are well loved in Japan and are a symbol of the Imperial Family. Senior maiko will wear one large flower while junior maiko will wear a cluster of small flowers. Typical colours include pink, white, red, yellow, and purple.

  • November – Trailing autumnal leaves that are usually composed of the very popular Japanese maple. Maple viewing is the autumnal equivalent of cherry blossom viewing in Japan. Ginkgo and liquidambar leaves are also seen.

  • December – The Japanese make mochi at this time of year, and often decorate trees with them to represent white flowers. It is thought to be good luck to wear kanzashi featuring mochibana, or rice-cake flowers. December kanzashi also feature two maneki, name plates used by kabuki actors, which are initially blank. Traditionally, maiko visit the Minamiza Theatre and ask two of their favourite kabuki actors to autograph them with their kabuki nom de plume. Kanzashi for senior maiko feature green bamboo leaves while junior maiko have a colourful assortment of lucky charms.

  • New Year – At this time of year all maiko and geisha wear un-husked ears of rice in their hairstyles (maiko wear it on the right while geisha wear it on the left). These kanzashi also feature eyeless white doves. The maiko and geisha fill in one eye and ask somebody they like to draw the other for good luck in the coming year.

As seen by the length of TomiHoshi's kanzashi and the painting of only the lower lip, she is just a 1st year maiko. The length of the kanzashi shortens as a maiko progress in ranks. Tomichie was then a year 3 maiko so her kanzashi is much shorter. Bellflower kanzashis are less commonly seen in photos because compared to some other months, September is considered a low travel season month in Kyoto.

In Japan, the bellflower is known as the “Flower of Happiness.” It is believed that if you give someone a bellflower, happier times are coming.

Legend has it that Kikyo flowers were used by samurais to communicate with their loved ones. The samurais would send Kikyo flowers to their families as a sign of their safety and well-being. The flower was also believed to bring good luck and protect the samurais from harm.

In China, the bellflower symbolizes unchanging love and honesty with its beautiful bell-shaped blooms. Its delicate petals represent the transparency and purity of feelings in a relationship. With its long-lasting bloom, the bellflower is often associated with everlasting love and loyalty.

I will miss these 2 maikos very much because we have so much little things to talk about each time we meet. Tomichie was a medical student before she decided to become a geisha and had previously asked me if she made the right decision to become a maiko. She was frequently worried about her own dance moves as not being as sleek as the other girls and if she was not as beautiful as the other maikos. I told her medicine can wait and she can always go back to medical school anytime should she change her mind, but being a maiko in Kyoto, there's only a certain age and time when one can start. My photo skills are not as good as many photographers, I am slow in taking photos and frequently fumble with my camera settings. Beauty wise, she's the maiko that my teacher Jim Zuckerman said he would wish to photograph most and up till today, Tomichie is the maiko that has won me the most photo contests. Tomichie tells me she enjoys going to those pet cafes in Japan, particularly the ones with snakes and that she's a big fan of my reptilian photos. She says she will go to them on her off days but apart from TomiHoshi, none of the other geishas want to join them. I told Tomichie most girls I know will freak out when they see snakes and I was very frightened of those snakes and reptiles when I was photographing them....

TomiHoshi seems to have a lot of food luck with us whenever we meet up.We went for lunch together and on her debut, the temple where we took photos served us tea and mochi.

I wish the young ladies good luck in all their future endeavours, maybe we will see each other again sometime, somewhere. Thank you once again for the beautiful memories and friendship.

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