April 2023 | Exhibition

Photographs by Nicolas Datiche

April 14 ~24, 2023 @ FujiFilm Photo Salon Tokyo

It was purely by chance that I discovered there were geisha in parts of Japan besides Kyoto. During a press trip organized by the Foreign Ministry to Niigata, I had the chance to meet three geigi from the city. They were very friendly and keen to share their culture. 

Slowly, the idea of digging deeper into the story of these “unknown geisha” (especially for a Western audience) made its way into my head. Luckily, it was around this time that I came across an okiya geisha house named Hana no Ya in Aizu-Wakamatsu, Fukushima Prefecture. I heard about its history and about Mai Watanabe and the three generations of women who have worked there. I started documenting the life of the family-run okiya in late 2019, knowing that I would only succeed if I established a relationship of trust – and even friendship – with the subjects. Almost three years later, it is still a pleasure to document Mai’s life and to socialize with the older geisha. I realize I am incredibly lucky to be able to pursue this project.

© Nicolas Datiche

Mai, 35, is part of a traditional family of geigi (as geisha are known in this part of northeastern Japan). At 18, she decided to follow in the footsteps of her mother and grandmother and become part of this celebrated but often misunderstood way of life. Yet with rural Japan experiencing depopulation, and not having any children of her own, there is the very real possibility that Mai will be the last member of her family to work as a geigi. Even so, she strives every day to keep alive the traditions she holds dear.

I first met Mai during a typically humid Japanese August. She had invited me to a matsuri in Higashiyama-onsen in Aizu-Wakamatsu.

It proved to be the perfect opportunity to learn more about her job and her life. We have met many times since, and talked a lot about her life, her work as a geigi and the female family heritage in which she has been immersed since childhood. Mai agreed to let me document not only her professional life but also her private life, and I have been doing this since the end of 2019.

© Nicolas Datiche

Mention the word geisha and most people immediately think of Kyoto. But the culture of hanamachi exists beyond the ancient capital, despite the exodus of people from rural parts of the country. You could say that Mai doesn’t have a profession as such; more a vocation through which she lives her life - a young Japanese woman trying to be worthy of her mother's teachings and proudly representing Hana no Ya, which her grandmother founded.

Inheriting the House looks at Mai maintains her family's legacy and tries to keep geigi traditions alive.

Fujifilm Square Tokyo

Nicolas Datiche is a French photographer who has been based in Japan since 2013. He started out as a photojournalist, but recently started doing more documentary work, leaving room for greater narrative in his stories.