One rainy day in Japan, I became a ghost of white from another time. I floated through sliding doors and knelt in layers of red silk with a small smile on lips of the same color. I held a fan up delicately into the air and gazed out the window at the rainy sky of Kyoto. When one thinks of Geisha, an era of times past comes to mind and yet the tradition lives on here still. Geisha are the embodiment of Japan. They are walking history, grace and beauty. They hold tight onto tradition as does the rest of this land. I was a mere imitation of the real thing I admire so much during my maiko makeover, yet happy just getting to pretend for a few hours.
For my makeover, I was transformed into a maiko, which is an apprentice geisha. A maiko is usually between 15 and 20 in age and wears a more dramatic kimono with longer sleeves. The collar of a maiko is red and a geisha’s is white. A geisha wears much shorter shoes when compared to a maiko who can be seen hurrying along in their towering wooden okobo.
Luckily I didn’t have to walk in okobo, but did wear the traditional split socks that geisha wear. They divide at one’s big toe and allow you to wear them with the traditional wooden shoes. I picked out my red kimono and golden obi with some other colorful accessories. Then I stood as a woman who appeared to be part ninja tightened everything around me. She would take a wide stance, tighten, then twist with a giggle in between. Some obi can be 7 meters long so she had her work cut out for her. Upon completing a section, she would stand back and smile saying, “Kawaii”, which is the Japanese word for cute.
This all took place after my makeup and hair was done in another room below. I walked through the doors of the traditional machiya townhouse and ducked under the entries that were not made for western heights. A wig was placed on my head and my own hair was combed over it to blend the two together. Black hairspray turned my brown locks into an onyx shine. Modern day geisha wear wigs and maiko have to style their own hair. So much work and artistry goes into one’s appearance just to walk out the door. The weight from the wig and wardrobe made me appreciate what skill they have to be able to entertain, dance and sing while wearing such an ensemble.
I stood before a wall of mirrors with my arms raised and watched floral patterns weave around me. With my kimono outfit complete, my photo shoot was a breeze while the photographer shot several poses. They captured me as a maiko and gave me my ultimate souvenir from Kyoto, a collection of prints and a CD to take home with me. I may have been a tourist getting a maiko makeover, but I felt immersed in a culture I’ve long fantasized about. To watch myself become the image of a geisha I’ve had in my imagination was a treat and something I’ll always remember from my time in Japan.
The photo shoot:
Packages range from around $100 to $300+ USD. Mine was the basic studio plan and I was completely happy with it. I paid a little extra to have my images burned to a disc. The whole maiko makeover process lasted around 2.5 hours. For complete package information and pricing you can visit the Aya website here.
Getting a glimpse of an actual Geisha: Geisha can often bee seen in the streets of Gion around 5:30 and 6pm on their way to evening engagements. Pontocho is another area I viewed one slipping out of a building and down the narrow alleys that line the area. Please act respectively when you encounter them. I think the best way to view them is catching the spring concert, Miyako Odori. It’s truly a magical experience. Reserve tickets early.