“Stop laughing. You need the right attitude if you want to look like a geisha of Gion!” I said to Rebecca and Marie, head turned away to hide my own smirk. We shuffled 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 several inches, although it felt more like a foot. The sloped front made it a struggle to keep our balance and from tumbling off them and onto the pavement. Laden down with the heavy layers of a formal kimono, that would not have been a pretty sight. The short trek 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 flock to catch the elusive glimpse of a geisha or maiko, a geisha in training. A geisha is a professional Japanese entertainer who is carefully trained in traditional arts, dance, music, and communication, who acts as a hostess at special events – a 300-year old tradition.
Gion offers another 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 to live as a wannabe, if only 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. They did not speak much English, but we had a photographer/translator with us so communication was not a problem. We found these three ladies to be really hospitable and happy to join our giggling as the session progressed.
After removing our western clothes and donning slip-like garments that looked more like elementary school outfits, the white foundation masque was applied to face, neck, shoulders, and back. It starts out quite watery but quickly dries to a chalky consistency. The goal is ultimate beauty, in an ancient, ethereal sort of way. Red eyeshadow is painted on the outer eyelids, eyebrows are penciled, and a cherry-red lip stain is applied – not in the small, bow-like Chinese style, but in a line that is distinctly thinner than your actual lip lines. That surprised me!
After getting my long blond hair stuffed inside a heavy black wig with kanzashi (bling and flowers), I was instructed to choose from a closet packed with kimonos in a wide variety of colors and patterns; I chose an attractive reddish-orange. There are several layers involved in getting dressed by the attendants, the last being a cord and the obi (sash) which is wrapped as tight as a corset. My, oh, my, the completed outfit is H-E-A-V-Y!
The photos inside were fun albeit very, very silly. Once outside, however, we turned our share of heads as we strutted and hobbled along the street to the shrine, especially Marie, born in Cambodia, who really looked authentic. I may have been blond under the wig, but I still insist that I nailed the geisha attitude best. The more people stared at us, the more geisha-like I became. I’m a bit of a drama-queen that way.
We opted for the most expensive plan, around $150 for three hours and included the makeup, kimono, embroidered collar, obi, geta, wig, professional photo, parasol walk to the shrine, and then makeup removal. They also allowed us to take as many photos with our own camera as we liked. I highly recommend going all-out for this once-in-a-lifetime geisha of Gion experience – it was the highlight of our entire trip to Japan!
My Geisha Makeover was first published in Girls Getaway, November 2013
Related: Kyoto: Three Girls, Three Days