Baikaisai

  • Baikaisai 梅花祭
  • Date: February 25th
  • Time: 10 AM – 3 PM
  • Cost: ¥1,500. Only 3,000 tickets sold.
  • Place: Kitano Temmangu
  • Area: Kamigyo-ku, Kyoto City, Japan

Baikaisai 梅花祭, held every February 25th, is a special event where maiko and geiko from the Kamishichiken geiko district perform tea ceremonies for 3,000 guests in Kitano Temmangu’s plum blossom grove. It’s very rare for the public to see and have access to maiko, so I had to go this year since it landed on a weekend.

Tickets cost ¥1,500 and are limited to only 3,000. You have to go to the temple to buy the tickets. I went the weekend prior to buy the tickets. However, there were still tickets available the day of (this year, at least).

Depending on where you’re arriving from, there are a few ways to get to Kitano Temmangu. Most require taking a bus there. Since everyone was going to Kitano Temmangu, there was a huge queue at the bus stops.

We waited and waited but there was no way we’d be able to get onto the buses. So we decided to just walk to Kitano Temmangu. Actually, a lot of people did the same. We just followed the progression of people.

Took us 40 minutes to get there! We finally arrived at Kitano Temmangu by 10:30.

The place was packed!!  I learned that there were two events going there today. Besides Baikaisai, there was the monthly flea market. There were soooo many people!! We walked to main temple gate only to realized that among the crowd was actually a very long queue stretching to the front entrance of the grounds (near the streets) for the Baikasai. Some people even dressed up in kimono for it. So we headed back through the crowd to find the beginning of the Baikaisai queue.
Baikaisai '17 007.jpg

While queuing, I took out my ticket. On the back, it was stamped No. 1285. WTF? Why so low?! Why aren’t these tickets more popular?!

We finally reached the entrance of the paid area of the temple by 11:15. There, they were also still selling tickets to Baikaisai. Peeking over at those tickets, one ticket read No. 2600. Seriously!? WTF?! Why aren’t they even sold out by now?! “It’s not everyday you get to have a tea ceremony with actual maiko. Why aren’t they sold out?!!!” I screamed inside.

The ticket was actually three tickets. One ticket for a Japanese confectionery set that we can either take home or eat at the tea ceremony, one ticket for the actual tea ceremony, and one admission ticket for the exhibit in the Treasury Hall.
Baikaisai '17 001.jpg

Later on, the queue split into two queues. You can either choose to seat in a chair at the tables or seiza on the floor. The table queue was shorter and faster but we chose to do seiza since we wanted the more traditional and authentic experience. When we got closer to the front of the queue, I was able to get a better view of what was going on. The seiza group were ushered in and out as a group. Each ceremony took about 10 minutes. For the table group, each person got seated whenever someone finished. While waiting to be seated next, I switched over to my 70-200 mm and tried to snap as many pictures as I could through the crowd. Baikaisai '17 032.jpg
Baikaisai '17 046.jpg

We finally got ushered in for our tea ceremony by 12:55 PM. I was the 3rd person from the front of the group which I thought was great at first. But soon realized that it wasn’t a good spot to be in. We all sat in a U-shape, all facing in. Because of that, I couldn’t see anything to my immediate right where a geiko sat and the entrance where the maiko come in and out of. I couldn’t see anything unless I break protocol by getting up or moving from my spot (which I couldn’t). It was a bit frustrating to be so damn close to a geiko and maiko but yet my views blocked. Baikaisai '17 069.jpg
Baikaisai '17 071.jpg

I also noticed that the maiko serving the seiza group and table group were different. I assume the maiko serving the tables were the junior maiko, judging by their headdress and hair accessories. They wore more flowery accessories. Baikaisai '17 041.jpg
Baikaisai '17 051.jpg The maiko serving us didn’t have any of the flower petal accessories. I assume they’re the senior maiko and have more experience, so they’re allowed to take part of the tea ceremony. Baikaisai '17 096.jpg
Baikaisai '17 102.jpg

Even though the seiza group stays longer since we enter and leave together as a group, picture-wise, the table seats are better, I think. Unless you get super lucky and end up being in the middle of your tea ceremony group, you can’t get a clear view of what’s happening. And even if you are in the middle, you can’t see the junior maiko behind you serving the table guests. At the tables, even though you’re ushered in and out quickly, you can, at least, take pictures of both groups of maiko ― the one serving the tables and the ones serving the tea ceremony. And also, you have two chances to take pictures of the maiko as they pass by to serve other guests down the table and when they walk back. Another bonus is that since it’s less formal (in mood) than the seiza seating, the maiko were willing/happy to stop and pose for you. Besides getting lucky on where you get seated, another main problem is choosing the right focal length. A telephoto is great for candid shots of the maiko coming and going and serving other guests. But you also need a wide angle since they’re also very close to you when they serve you. Pick your poison. There’s no time nor opportunity to swap out lenses. I decided to use my 60 mm since I couldn’t really swing my camera around where I sat. Some people at the tables used their 70-200 mm.

As for the tea, it was quite thick. I’ve been to a few tea ceremonies before but this was the thickest tea I’ve had. Also, it didn’t taste like any of the matcha I’ve had before. As for my confectioneries, I decided to take it home with me as a souvenir.

We queued for three hours but when we went in there, the 10 minutes flew by in a heartbeat. I was barely able to take any decent pictures. When they were next to me, passing by me, my view was blocked by the guests flanking me. For the maiko serving the tables, they were too far for my 60 mm to get a nice shot.

We got ushered out by 1:10 PM. Seiza really killed my ankles. I was the last to get up.

I was happy that I was able to experience being served tea by actual maiko. It was great and so very intimate since you’re so close. So, culturally speaking, I was satisfied. However, as a photographer, I was quite disappointed. Again, despite being sooo close to them, I wasn’t able to get that many pictures. And most of my shots were blocked with people’s heads or shoulders. The maikos that I wanted to take pictures of (with the flower petal hair accessories) were serving the outer row, the tables. I wanted close-up photos of their hairpieces.

Next time, I think I’ll just chose the table seats for better pictures…

For more pictures, please check out my album.
https://flic.kr/s/aHskUumFFy

Here’s a map/chart that I made for my fellow photographers. It took me a long time to make so please don’t use that without my permission! Baikasai photo spots.jpg

TL;DR: Tea ceremony with maiko and geiko under plum blossoms.

Website: http://kitanotenmangu.or.jp/annual_events.php

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