Photos of a Woman Trying to Make It in Japan’s Rope Bondage Scene

Milla Reika is the rare woman in the male-dominated world of 'shibari.'

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Jul 19 2016, 6:00pm



I first met Milla Reika in Osaka, Japan, 2009. New to the country, she overheard me bragging to my friends about a Japanese rope bondage show that I had been invited to. Upon hearing the word shibari, this Australian skater girl practically begged me to take her with me. I did.

Seven years later, when we caught up for a drink, I found myself staring at the self-assured woman with a cigarette in one hand and a coffee in the other, marveling at what she has become.

Reeling from the intense exhilaration of that first shibari show, Reika threw herself into learning the art with the sort of enthusiasm that only comes with youth. She spent hours studying the knots, ties, and history of shibari, and we even tried our hands at photographing the art, but things only really took off when she walked through the doors of renowned S&M Club Matrix. After talking with the mama-san about her interests, she was offered a job right there. Too busy to teach Reika herself, the mama-san recommended her to other rope masters in Osaka. Only a few months later, with coaxing from her mentors, she began performing locally around the city.

A year later, Club Matrix had closed it doors. The mama-san would not reopen the club, no matter how much Reika argued for it—but instead, to her surprise, the mama-san turned the keys over to the younger woman and told her to take over. Reika gladly accepted.

The male-dominated scene was jolted by the arrival of this young Australian girl not only topping, but running her own club. Her presence generated equal amounts of interest and reservation, and as well as navigating the shibari scene and learning Japanese business protocol, Reika had to earn the respect of the community.

Reika quickly began to receive attention for her performances, even from respected Riggers. Her performance skills, however, didn't help the business of running a club. With limited industry experience, no networks, and no history in the scene, Reika struggled to keep the Matrix afloat, and in 2015, the club closed its doors for the second, and final, time.

Recently, Reika and I met at a cafe in Ame-mura, Osaka's American village, after she returned from a six-month trip to Australia to reset and regroup. She looked commanding and ready for a comeback.

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Milla Reika

Not all rope is created equal. Jute is the most popular rope in Japan for shibari. Rope artist consider their rope to be an extension of themselves; they take a great deal of care in selecting it. Reika bought this bundle in bulk so that she could cut and treat it herself.

After cutting and stretching the rope, Reika uses an open flame to burn off all the frayed bits for a clean and smooth length.

Reika finishes treating her rope by working in a little bit of horse oil for the desired feel and texture.

The streets of Shinsaibashi Osaka are layered with a rich selection of bars and restaurants. Reika and her model 此羽(Konoha) double-check the address of the event space that they will be performing in.

The connection between bottom (the person being tied) and top (the person doing the tying) is paramount. Without that emotional connection, a performance would feel cold and mechanical. Shibari very much is like a dance between top and bottom.

A combination of pain, pleasure, and sensory deprivation

Mila untying her 此羽(Konoha) after a performance

Reika runs a rope salon twice a week where people can come to socialize, watch performances, learn, and practice. Here Reika is demonstrating a variation of a box tie for one of her patrons.

Detail of a carabiner, which are often used in suspensions where you suspend part or all of the model above the ground

Reika closely inspects her model and her rope during a performance at a local club in Umeda, Osaka.

The final act of Reika's performance this evening is a nyotaimori (often translated as “female body arrangement”—the practice of eating sushi off a woman’s naked body). In this case, she used little desserts instead of sushi and offered them to the crowd.

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