When I moved to Japan last summer I remember spotting a woman dressed in a kimono on the train and thinking to myself “I’ve spotted my first geisha! But why isn’t she wearing her makeup?” Later I was informed of my rookie mistake. In fact, she was no geisha, but rather an ordinary Japanese woman on her way to a festival. Another media-influenced preconception I had was that all geishas had white faces. I was surprised to learn that the girls with white faces were in training to become the well-known geisha, but they are actually called maiko.
Much to my disappointment, this country isn’t overpopulated with geishas, or maikos for that matter. But a percentage of Japan is made up of tourists and natives alike who are curious about what goes on behind the white face paint.
It’s easy to play dress up here, just look at the evidence provided by the rising cult of cosplay and what not. So if it’s easy enough to walk around in a maid’s outfit and call it your job, then it’s no surprise that you can transform yourself into a geisha in the making. And what better place to undergo this extreme makeover than Kyoto, the birthplace of these Japanese icons!
We easily booked and found the popular Shiki Sakuraten Studio, which is located directly opposite the Kiyomizumichi bus stop. The day was a rainy one, typical of June in Japan, which unfortunately meant no frolicking around Kiyomizu Temple in geisha gear.
The formalities were settled as we entered and optional extras were arranged. We began the process by stripping down to our underwear and covering up again with a thin, light robe to protect our modesty. We were lead to 4 make-up chairs with only white and red powders and creams waiting for us. A make-up base was applied generously, followed by a red balm. Then came the real deal. Thick, blindingly white face paint was layered onto our faces, necks and upper backs. Then quite softly, the whiteness was spread evenly. The next part was the best. My eyebrows were modified with red pencil, red eye shadow cornered my eyes and finally the signature ruby red lips were painted on. A touch of mascara and black winged eyeliner was all that was left to complete the face of a maiko. Now for the dress up.
I chose a long, heavy, elaborately designed, purple kimono for my photo shoot to come. First, my chest was padded so that there was no shape to me, then I was tied tightly into an assortment of robes. In the end I was having a hard time breathing normally and sitting on a chair was stressful as I was carrying a large draped obi on my back. Kimonos are very beautiful items of clothing but they sure are heavy and not particularly comfortable! I felt more like a sumo than an elegant, graceful entertainer. But the show had to go on and all we needed now was the wig. The glossy, perfect hairpiece was the most painful part! It was heavy and weighed down even more by the numerous accessories dangling off it. It was definitely an experience to have one sitting firmly on my head.
Now for my close up! The photographer positioned us for our individual photos in very peculiar ways, all exceedingly fake and wooden; holding a fan in one photo then a parasol in the other. We were itching (not just because of our wigs) to take photos of our own, so once the official shoot was finished we ungracefully tumbled into a tatami room and proceeded to juggle cameras so we could post the perfect pic on social media.
After returning the wigs and kimonos, the laborious task of removing maiko makeup came upon us. An unfathomable amount of baby oil was used to reveal our real faces again.
A good two hours was spent being pampered by our own makeup artists, dressed in traditional robes and then it was all topped off with the photo shoot; a very successful girls’ day out. And for you guys out there thinking you’re missing out, there’s a samurai session to keep you busy too.