“No giggling allowed!” I said to Rebecca and Marie, head turned away to hide my own smirk. “We need the right attitude to pull this off.” Shuffling our feet an inch at a time, we painstakingly made our way towards the shrine looming at the end of the cobblestone street, less than a quarter of a mile away. The wooden platform of the Japanese geta on our feet was only three inches high, although it felt more like a foot. The sloped front of these so-called shoes made it a challenge to keep our balance and keep from tumbling off them and onto the uneven pavement. Laden down with the heavy layers of a formal kimono, that would not have been a pretty sight. The short trek to the shrine was going to take longer than expected.
Gion, popular for its abundance of shops, teahouses, and exclusive restaurants is also Kyoto’s famous geisha district where tourists gather in wait, hoping to catch an elusive glimpse of a geisha or a maiko, a geisha in training. Contrary to disreputable stereotype, a geisha is a professional Japanese entertainer who is carefully trained in traditional arts, dance, music, and communication, and acts as a hostess at special events – a 300-year old tradition.
Gion offers a unique experience, although it is not highly publicized – a three-hour makeover in which you are transformed into a maiko. Unlike the actual hard work involved in a real apprenticeship, the makeover experience allows you a brief experience as a geisha wannabe for a few incredible hours.
We arrived at the Maiko Café in mid-afternoon and were served green tea while the process was explained. There were three Japanese women attending to the three of us, including one very young apprentice maiko. Their English was limited, but we had a photographer/translator with us so communication was not a problem. It’s really quite remarkable how universal some actions and expressions are! We found these three ladies to be really hospitable and happy to join our giggling as the session progressed.
Read the rest of Becoming a Geisha: A Japanese Makeover in Pink Pangea.