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  • Writer's pictureRobin Yong

Tsubaki 椿

Tsubaki (Camellia Japonica) is is one of Japan’s most famous flowering trees.

It is not uncommon to see this tree in flower when snow is still falling. This cold weather flowering habit has earned it one common name, rose of winter. The flowers of this tree fall intact, such that the ground beneath can become literally covered with their blossoms.

Pink Camellia is often associated with love and romance. Traditionally, the camellia was perceived as a union between two people. To explain further, the calyx part of the flower represents a man, while the petals symbolise a woman. Normally, the petals and the calyx separate when a flower dies. In the case of the camellia, the calyx and petals fall away together. For this reason, this beautiful blossom is believed to signify undying love.

I have photographed the geisha Tomitsuyu for about 8 years now. We would meet up every time I am in Kyoto, I come here 2-3 times a year at least. I meet up with my geisha friends each time and we take souvenir photos during our walks in the parks, temples and teahouses.

I have always been fascinated by geisha culture - all their grace and beauty, the patterns on their kimonos and the hana kanzashi (hair ornaments of flowers that vary according to the months and seasons). As a young photographer years ago, I was most attracted by their hana kanzashi, but only maikos (trainee geishas) wear these. When maikos become geikos (full fledged geishas), their kimonos become more elegant but there is no more flower ornaments on their hair anymore.

So I thought of a new idea, to photograph Tomitsuyu with a real flower instead, and to choose a flower that matches the season, and preferably one that is not often featured as a kanzashi. Tomitsuyu has always preferred indoor photo shoots because her kimono can be quite heavy - 10kg to be exact, and she has to hold it out whenever we are outdoors, so carrying an umbrella and a basket in one hand and holding on to her kimono with the other hand can be really tiring. The idea actually fits nicely for indoor shoots.

For our first flower geiko flower series, we picked the Camellia flower since it's late December and we wanted a winter flower that is significant with Japanese culture. Surprisingly, it was quite difficult to find a florist that sells them - most shops sell mochibana (willow branches decorated with pink and white balls of mochi wrappers) instead in preparation of the upcoming new year.

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