Years ago I stumbled upon a novel, one with which most of us are probably familiar, in which a young Japanese girl is taken from her family and thrust rather unwillingly into the life of a geisha. I devoured the story, rushing through page after page, fascinated by the mysterious world of these rather misunderstood artists. As soon as I finished the novel I promptly purchased the memoirs of the geisha who inspired this novel. And I have been intrigued by the geisha ever since.
Many westerners are pretty confused about what a geisha actually is. The most that the average westerner knows about these women is that they are employed to entertain groups of people, mostly men. So…are they escorts? Prostitutes? What are they? I can understand the confusion because we don’t really have a similar category to which to assign this concept outside of Japan. Although they are indeed employed to entertain people, a geisha’s role is not traditionally related to the “pleasure” industry. Their primary purpose is to develop themselves as an artist. Geisha must all be performers. Some will specialize in dance, others in vocal performance and still others in instrumental performance. Beyond their specialty, geisha are meant to master all of those skills at a general level, as well as skills such as the Japanese tea ceremony. Beyond these skills, what makes them so desirable as company, a geisha should have an extremely cultivated skill in conversation. People hire their company because their company is very enjoyable. So in some regards, yes, they are similar to an escort…if that hired escort could also play an instrument to concert performance level and also lead a conversation about current affairs in a way that was simultaneously intelligent while also not offensive to anyone in the room.
But because of the geisha’s role in hosting and entertaining people, she has come to be a commonly identified icon of Japan. The rest of the world is very curious about geisha and, for that matter, considering their increasingly small numbers, so is much of Japan. Thus, the geisha have become a tourist attraction.
Visitors to Gion district in Kyoto, traditionally the home to the greatest concentration of geisha, all crane their necks down each alleyway hoping to catch a glimpse of a real geisha. Unfortunately, when geisha have been spotted, some inconsiderate tourists have been known to chase them or block their progress in order to beg a selfie. Not cool, guys. The real geisha these days, poor things, tend to hide. Most frequently, the “geisha” tourists spot around Kyoto anymore are just more tourists who have gone out for a day of “henshin”, or being professionally dressed as a geisha.
Naturally, considering my own interest in the complicated nature and history of geisha, I was of course hooked from the moment I saw the brochures. Sign. Me. Up.
Now, before you immediately cry “cultural appropriation!”, let me say that I did give that question some good thought. As an international traveler, walking that thin line between cultural engagement or curiosity and cultural appropriation is often on your mind. So I did spend some good time in internal debate about what it actually meant to participate in “henshin”. I concluded, and you are free to disagree, that in this case, this activity does not meet the criteria for cultural appropriation. Many arguments can be made about the role that westerners may or may not have had in exerting dominance over the Japanese and their culture, but considering that Japan remains one of the most culturally independent countries in the world, I think it would be fair is saying that the Japanese have not been culturally oppressed by outside cultures, certainly not to the extent that other distinct cultures and groups can claim to have experienced. Further, I am in Japan and the activity is being offered as a tourist activity by Japanese locals and is enjoyed by Japanse and non Japanese tourists in equal measure. Japan has a thriving economy and has no reason to “sell itself out” to culturally external pressure. Their choice to engage in “henshin” is entirely based on entertainment. And finally, the experience was one in which I set out to, and did, learn more about and appreciate another person’s experience.
Now, if I throw on a cheap synthetic kimono and some bad white face paint and start parading around Halloween parties as a “geisha”, then we have an issue. But for now, let’s just enjoy a day of really cool dress up and walking in another’s very wobbly shoes.
There are a variety of organizations of varying qualities which will do “henshin” around Kyoto. I chose a highly recommended, high quality organization right in the heart of the geisha home district: Gion. Tucked down a little side street inside of a vary traditional building with sliding doors and low ceilings, the Maiko Makeover Experience AYA offers visitors a plethora of packages and experiences. Most guests are, unsurprisingly, women, but men have a few options as well to dress in traditional (male) attire and be photographed.
After filling out some initial paperwork, I was invited back into a changing room where I was shown a locker and provided with the appropriate clothing. Guests change into a very simple under robe and traditional Tabi split toe socks. You must leave all jewelry and extra attire in the lockers, however we were given little cloth bags in which to put our phones or cameras. No need to skip the selfies!
Clad in my thin, basic robe, I next moved into the makeup room. My make up artist, and full experience handler, was a quiet but very friendly and accommodating young woman named Namiki. Settling me onto my makeup chair, Namiki explained how she would be putting on my makeup and gave me a few pieces of information to get started. My hair was restrained back into a special net, leaving my face as an open and blank canvas. And then the transformation began!
A geisha’s transformation is very meaningful. The makeup that they wear is more than just an artistic statement. Each element represents or alludes to something specific. For example, while the majority of a geisha’s face is covered with white paint, a thin edge around the forehead and behind the neck is purposefully left unpainted. This isn’t just makeup artist error. This is meant to subtly remind a geisha’s patrons that what they see is just a mask. At all times, a geisha is only performing, nothing is real. Similarly, the unpainted stripes on the nape of the neck are meant to be a hint at sensuality. Unlike other cultures in which the instinct is to show more to be evoke sexuality, here the idea is that it is better to only tease at an idea. Every single line of a geisha’s makeup is careful thought out.
When most of us picture a “geisha” we are picturing the full image of colorful kimono’s, full makeup, complicated hair styles and precariously teetering hair bobbles. Basically, we are picturing a “maiko”. Geisha is the world used to refer to all members of this artistic career. More specifically, however, a maiko is a geisha who is in her early years of the career. The slightly over the top makeup and attire is meant to represent her relative youth and innocence. More mature geisha, or “geiko” tend to have much more subdued attire and makeup. For that reason, regardless of age, most tourists looking to do “henshin” wish to be dressed as a maiko and I was no different.
Namiki began my transformation by applying a wax based primer level which is meant to help the thick white paint adhere to my skin and basically stay put. Having smoothed on the primer coat, it was time to bring on the white! The creme is smoothed on carefully with a special brush and it is cold!! Namiki spread the makeup in smooth strokes across my face, neck, chest and upper back, leaving untouched those few areas meant to remind people that I was really someone else behind that mask!
Next came the application of the distinctive black and red eye makeup. The application of all of the details is very time consuming and complicated and one wrong move would necessitate the removal of everything and starting over, so Namiki worked in quiet focus. She used a special sponge to rest between her hand and my face so that nothing would smudge as she drew in the delicate red and black lines around my eyes and into my eyebrows. I had assumed that, particularly on my gaijin blue eyes, the red would look bizarre and unattractive. Red isn’t exactly a color we think of using in our western eye makeup. But to my surprise, the look created an intensity that was bizarrely effective. Then, with a quick swipe of the striking red lip color, I had the full face of a maiko!
The makeup is applied first due to the time consuming nature and precision required, but also because you absolutely do not want the oils and greases in the makeup to dirty the expensive kimonos or wigs. Having finished the makeup, I was ready to complete my look with some proper geisha hair. Again, while a mature geisha will wear more subdued styles, a young maiko wears her hair in an elaborate design with a variety of meanings and innuendoes. Traditionally, a young woman must go regularly to a stylist and have her natural hair carefully coiffed into these towering shapes. The stylists would use thick wax in order to coax the hair into these styles and would secure the hair with varying picks, combs and ribbons. Once her hair was styled like this, it must last for days or weeks even. Thus, the girl could not even risk damaging it while she slept and so geisha women were required to sleep with their heads propped uncomfortably on little braces. These days, apparently even in real geisha, wigs are used instead. Namiki removed a few key chunks of my natural hair around the front and sides before plopping on a very heavy and towering wig and securing it to my head with pins. Then, she wound my natural hair back into the wig to create the illusion around the edges that it was all my real hair. Since my natural hair is auburn brown, she completed the look with the application of black spray. Voila, I thus wore the traditional peach designed hairdo of a new maiko!
Finally, I was ready for the part about which I was admittedly the most excited: the kimono! Real kimono are pieces of art. Made from expensive silks and careful embroidered with elaborate and yet subtle designs, a true kimono costs hundreds or even thousands of dollars. For real practicing geisha, developing a collection of kimono which would have been sufficient for the needs of each season and occasion would have cost a fortune and been impossible. Thus, geisha, particularly new maiko, tended to live their lives associated with a “family”. In this secretive, matriarchal society, the families were run by a female house mother, usually called mother by all house members, and she was in charge of running the business. The home and all of the kimono and accessories belonged to her. The working geisha would earn the money, which would go directly back into the okiya (family) to pay for her keep as well as for things like the communal collection of kimono.
My experience that day was with an organization which would have made for a very fine okiya collection. I was brought into a room and told to choose my kimono from the row of dozens of racks, each burdened under the heavy weight of a richly designed kimono. I selected a blue green design and choose an obi, the wide colorful sash, from the shelves of options.
Getting dressed as a geisha is kind of a team job. There is no way that a geisha can dress herself. It would simply be impossible. Once I had selected my varying pieces, Namiki began the arduous task of strapping me in to them. There were under robes and over robes, collars, and a plethora of robes and straps to tie everything into place. At each layer, petite little Namiki would pull the waist as tight as she could. It wasn’t long before I was gasping for breath and cringing under the weight of all the heavy brocaded layers. And I am a relatively tall, strong and fit girl. I tried to imagine what it would have been like for those of the more diminutive stature more common to this area to move around, and move around so gracefully, in attire like this. Beautiful, absolutely. Comfortable, not so much.
Finally, my transformation was complete. With the final additions of a few hair ornaments, a wicker and cloth basket “purse” and the bizarre sandals traditionally worn, I was ready to make my maiko debut on the streets of Gion. At the gate of the okiya house, I took a hesitant step forward. The traditional sandals are designed as a raised platform. However, the surface area which touches the ground is significantly smaller than the surface area of my foot. In other words, my toes and heel were unsupported and each step forward was like tottering on stilts. I tripped and tumbled up the stairs and out into the sunshine, desperately holding my trailing kimono off the ground and trying not to keel over on my stilts. Graceful I was not.
It is amazing what a mask will do. Suddenly, when you are safe behind the guise of someone else, you can be a different person. People will notice this phenomenon especially at masquerade parties. Even when people are wearing nothing more than a skimpy slip of an eye mask that in no way hides their real identity, just the idea of that mask emboldens people and changes their behavior. Similarly, secure behind my thick white “mask”, I felt like a different person. I could completely understand why this contrived mask helped geisha create their illusion of being something “other”. My lack of grace aside, I slipped into this fantasy and had a marvelous time posing for my photographer. For half an hour, I was someone else. And it was fantastic fun.
However, the photo shoot ended all too quickly and then it was time for my illusion to end as well. I was escorted back into the dressing room where my layers of silk, brocade and straps were meticulously but efficiently stripped away. The geisha was gone.
Back in the changing room, I was faced with the more grueling task of removing the rest of my guise. Full white face cream is no joke! Originally, geisha wore a lead based paint which set better and wore longer. However, once they realized that the lead in this paint was causing some serious skin and health issues, they switched to a rice based paint. I am definitely thankful for that. But even the rice based paint was a definite challenge to remove. Not to mention the black hair spray. Luckily for me, the okiya provided plentiful sinks, soaps, wipes, shampoos, hair brushes, hair dryers and everything else you could need to reverse your transformation.
While I was busily stripping away my geisha guise, my handlers were busy preparing my photography. In just the time it took me to get cleaned up, they provided a fantastic spread of printed photography for me to take home. And, because it was my birthday, they even threw in a free framed print with the Japanese birthday greeting scrawled across it. How thoughtful!
From that first moment when I read about the intriguing lives of these mysterious artists, I had secretly wanted to be one. To be so accomplished in so many beautiful arts, from instruments and dance to flirting and diplomacy, seemed such a cool thing to me. If only I had the focus and talent to become so skillful! Alas, with very limited exceptions, that road remains a pretty closed one. The path to becoming a geisha is extremely selective and one I am not likely to ever walk. However, even if it was only for a day and even if it was only in appearance, it was pretty cool to at least dip my toe into elusive world of the geisha.
(Note: All professional studio shots of me as a maiko were taken by Maiko Makeover AYA Experience’s excellent photographer, Yuki. Thanks for a great photo shoot, Yuki!)