Geisha (芸者) [Geiko (芸子) used for those primarily in Kyoto] have become a much loved symbol of dedication, beauty and skill unique to Japan. Maiko are apprentices, who after years of training, reach the coveted geiko status.
Whilst it is rare to see an authentic geiko or maiko heading to work, both natives and tourists alike can experience getting dressed in a beautiful furisode and have their makeup done – maiko style, in only an hour or two.
In November 2015, I visited Kyoto to meet up with a friend, Grace, who was now living in Shiga. Grace and I decided to try one of the many Maiko Makeover experiences on offer; after all, it's a once in a lifetime thing that you can only do in Japan.
Every company was different, but the main plans offered were for getting dressed as either a maiko or geiko (and in some venues, an orian and a samurai package for men) and having professional pictures either inside or outside, and even a walk around the neighbourhood. All seemed to offer 'free photo time', where you could take unlimited shots with your own camera. After scouring the Internet for various companies and price packages, we decided on AYA – Yume Kubou, who had a location in Gion, Kyoto. Booking only 4 days in advance wasn't a problem, and was all accomplished online on their website in English.
Firstly, may I point out that whilst my home country may be quick to scream "cultural appropriation", every Japanese person I met was thrilled that Grace and I were enjoying the experience and getting to try a little bit of culture that they were very proud of. We were complimented a lot and had nothing but positive feedback.
Arriving at the venue, which was in a rather inauspicious building off the main street, we were quickly seated and asked to finalize what we wanted. Whilst the weather all week had been torrential rain, that day was glorious sunshine, so the walk option was selected. Walking outside is prohibited if the weather is poor as the makeup is not water resistant, and could run and damage the kimono, which are all very expensive.
Being given socks and a base layer to change into, whilst all valuables were put in lockers (however, there was a special dish to put cameras and phones in to use later) we went back to the makeup room, which also contained the furisode and wigs. Photos are forbidden in the dressing room, for obvious reasons.
The dressing ladies were very kind, and spoke a little English. Quickly and efficiently, makeup was put on; it really is quite the transformation. I certainly had to double take to check that it was me. Maiko, being younger than the more mature geiko, have clothing and makeup to match. Whilst geiko have more sedately patterned kimono, maiko can have colourful furisode.
The makeup was skillfully applied
Because it was autumn, I chose an orange one out of the many displayed, which had a fern leaf pattern. Grace went for a baby blue block colour with patterned sleeves. Getting dressed was easy because of the skilled ladies, who were very worried that I'd find the obi belt too tight. The many layers of clothing were constricting, but not uncomfortably so.
The maiko's kimono have many layers. Sometimes it's said a man's strength can be helpful to tighten the obi belt as much as desired.
AYA offered ready-styled wigs to wear, and these were slid on seamlessly, their white fronts blending in with the makeup. It is interesting to note, that whilst geiko nowadays use wigs, maiko use their own hair, and so a way of telling the difference between someone dressed for fun and an actual maiko is to look and see if there's a strip of natural skin at their hairline. This is of course impossible and impractical for this purpose, so we were very grateful for the beautifully adorned, if heavy wigs. Some companies had offered half wigs, where the front part of your natural hair was sprayed black and styled into the existing wig.
Another way of telling if a maiko is genuine or not can be looking at their lips and hair. Maiko only paint their lower lip in their first year of training, and will paint both from year two upwards. Likewise, maiko will only wear hana-kanzashi, the impressive hair ornament with dangling silk flowers to the chin, for their first year Minarai stage. Having a hana-kanzashi and two painted lips is what to be alert for.
All dressed we were allowed to wait in the main foyer to take some pictures of our own before the photo shoot. The assistant helped take some of us together, and then we entertained ourselves with a box of props (parasols and the like).
The foyer was a wonderful place for photos.
The location looks over the Gion skyline.
A group of four high school students were there for a friend's birthday, and looked absolutely fantastic. We wished each other a fun time as they left for their walk outside and we were ushered into the photo room by a very genki photographer.
He was very professional and took several shots of Grace and I together before guiding us to pose individually. The room itself was split into several themed areas; in one jewel toned corner was someone lying sensually on the ground dressed as an oiran (which is very VERY different from a geiko or maiko) and we started off in a corner decorated like a traditional room complete with tatami mats.
There was also a black background which created great photos with the white face makeup, making our features really pop.
We were soon off on our own walk, and were asked whether we wanted to have low geta that were easier to walk in, or okobo pokkuri style, which are higher and take some getting used to. Both of us chose the latter, which forces you (along with the kimono) to take small delicate steps. The assistants tied up our kimono so we wouldn't have to constantly hold them up so they wouldn't drag on the ground and get dirty. As we were in the elevator on the way down, we were warned that even when people realised we weren't real maiko, there would still likely be people wanting to take pictures. This came true but five steps out the front door, when a man on a bicycle screeched to a halt and kindly asked for a photo.
Walking down the old streets with traditional wooden houses was an amazing experience. There was also a small shine, pretty trees and a river with a bridge so photo opportunities abounded. The assistant guided us around and led our poses for photos, as well as making sure we weren't swamped by the many people who approached us.
The scenery was popular – we passed a newly married couple having their wedding photos done as well as a family leaving a funeral wake, who with a cry of "gaikokujin, sugoii!" said we had cheered them up looking so lovely. The local ladies in particular were very complementary and were estatic when we said that we loved Japan and getting to try out the maiko look.
The assistant guided us through some lovely poses – note the happy lady and her daughter in the background sneaking a quick picture.
All too soon, our walk time came to an end, however in our absence, the best photos from the shoot were chosen, printed and put on a CD to take home! Getting undressed was very quick, although it took quite a few flannels and wipes to get all of the makeup off in the sinks provided. As we were leaving, two women were excitedly waiting for their turn, having chosen the geiko package, and to top off a great day, the bill even came to lower than we were expecting.
I would definitely recommend both the experience and the company – Grace and I had a fantastic time and my family loved the photos. Everyone was very friendly and professional and made sure that we enjoyed ourselves fully. The stunning ancient streets of Gion was a perfect backdrop, and I now have wonderful memories (and photo evidence) that will last a lifetime.
10 pictures were edited and on a CD for us to take home. There were also some small printed copies.