I gasped as I felt the icy coolness of the bamboo brush against my neck. Closing my eyes, she continued to sweep the brush against my neck, across my back and around the front on my collarbones, sweeping upwards and then continuing onto my face. Swapping the brush for a sponge, she began to blot away at the foundation she had just applied, tapping softly around my eyes, my nose, over my lips and then asked me to open my eyes.
I didn’t recognise the person I saw in the mirror. I looked nothing like what I had imagined I would – but closing my eyes again, my makeup artist began to add the final touches. Shades of red along my brows and around my eyes, black charcoal added thickly to define my features. After applying a glistening red to my lips in the smallest of brush strokes, she asked me to open my eyes – and I gasped once again.
I’d had a fascination with geisha ever since I read Arthur Golden’s novel ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ as a teenager. The film adaption released in 2005 only furthered my interest in the lives of these beautiful women and their traditional, secretive yet dying art form. As we planned for several days in Kyoto, I knew that I had to see them for myself.
Unfortunately the timing of our visit did not coincide with any of the seasonal performances held in various locations around Kyoto, much to my disappointment. The other alternative of a private performance and dinner and conversation with a real geisha was out of our budget. That’s when I came to learn that there were studios in Kyoto who offered a geisha transformation and photography session, replicating the traditional application of makeup, hair and clothing and located in what used to be an okiya – a geisha house.
I booked a geisha transformation in Kyoto right away. The traditional makeup of a geisha is one of their most recognisable characteristics and I thought it would be fantastic to experience this part of their daily routine – getting ready for appointments and performances, and then having the wonderful keepsakes of some professional photos of the experience.
At the studio, I was given a catalogue to select the types of poses I wished to take for my photographs, before being whisked away for my makeup. Changing into just my underwear and a simple short robe and wearing white split toe socks, I entered the makeup room – entranced by the half made up other girls. An oil substance called bintuske-abura is first applied to the face, neck, shoulders and back before the white makeup layer is applied. This is made of rice powder mixed with ice water – it was so cold! Just a small area is left un-whitened on the base of the neck, in a W shape – this is done to accentuate the neck which is traditionally an erotic area.
Sponged to remove excess moisture, a dusting of pink was applied around my forehead and cheekbones. I had opted for a maiko look as opposed to a geisha – a maiko is an apprentice geisha, and they are the ones who wear this traditional, heavy makeup look. A geisha’s makeup is more subdued as they are more mature and of an older age. Red was applied to my brows, and a heavy black charcoal on top to define them. Red eyeshadow is also worn on the corners of the eyelids and the lower lash line, along with red eyeliner – a thin strip of black lining the top and angled downwards to create the kawaii (cute) look. My lips were then painted in a bright red – the lips aren’t totally filled in as this would make them appear overly large in contrast to the white makeup. Instead, the top lip is filled in just slightly, the bottom lip rounded out to look like a flower bud.
The hairstyle is the next part of the preparation process. Whilst my hair is currently black – the right colour – I have very little of it, so I had no idea how it would work. I wasn’t to worry – the studio had traditional wigs to wear, and they utilise some of your real hair around the front of the wig for a more natural look. If you’re a blondie, not to worry – they have black hairspray so everything blends in! The wig weighed over a kilo – it was so heavy and so tight! The wig style I wore was called wareshinobu – worn by a junior maiko for the first 2-3 years of training.
After both my hair and makeup were finished, it was off to the kimono room! The studio had a massive range of beautiful, genuine silk kimonos – I chose a beautiful bright blue one that I’d spotted in the catalogue. The first layer over my robe was a red and white ‘under kimono’ – essentially a wrap around skirt and tunic type top. This was followed by a strip of fabric that acted as a collar – red, as the junior maiko wore. With strips of fabric, I was then ’tied up’ – my tummy to my chest wrapped tightly before a type of bodice was tied on also – I was already struggling to breathe and I was only three layers in! Then the kimono was put on, with its beautiful long sleeves – I loved it! Over the kimono, the obi – a sash in a beautiful bright red colour was tied tightly around my middle in the darari style, which means dangling. The final part of the outfit was a belt of sorts, with beautiful jewels tied around the centre of the obi.
After choosing several kanzashi – ornamental hair pins, my geisha transformation was complete! I couldn’t believe the work that had gone into getting me ready for a simple photoshoot – I couldn’t imagine having to do this each and every day. As it is, a geisha requires help to get dressed – the various layers cannot be put on and tied tightly enough on your own.
I chose the Luxurious Plan – this included the makeover, plus a studio shot, a courtyard shot, four outside location shots and 30 minutes free time to walk around in the beautiful area of Gion – home to the majority of the few remaining geisha left in Japan. I’d had photoshoots before, but nothing quite like this – being a geisha was hard work! As I shuffled around the streets of Gion in my geta – a wooden style Japanese clog – struggling to breathe, struggling to keep cool in the warm sun under all my layers, the heaviness of my wig pulling and pinching – I couldn’t imagine how these women used to do it, day in, day out.
Regardless, I had an amazing time during my photoshoot. It was somewhat surreal to walk around Gion and see people out of the corner of my eye – both local Japanese and other tourists – stopping to take my picture, fascinated to see a ‘geisha’ for the first time. I never wanted the experience to feel like a ‘celebrity’, but that’s what it was like – Japanese girls trying to take a sneaky selfie with me in the background, others stopping dead in their tracks and pointing, and some who simply asked if they could take a photo – I was more than happy to oblige.
After our thirty minutes was up, I shuffled back to the studio to undergo a transformation once again – back to my plain old self. As I scrubbed away my makeup, swirls of pink and red disappearing down the sink basin, I felt sad that my experience was over. How I would have loved to have spent more time as a geisha, to not only be transformed into one physically but to have learnt some of the skills that they excelled in – dance, shamisen playing, tea-pouring, poetry and more. There’s always next time!
- Where can I have a geisha transformation?
Kyoto has the biggest range of studios who offer geisha transformation experiences. All of them vary in what they offer – some may just offer hair, makeup and clothing, others also offer photography. I visited the Aya Studio for my experience and highly recommend them. They have been providing geisha transformation experiences for years with a highly skilled team of makeup artists and photographers. The studio itself is an original teahouse where performances used to be held. It’s also located in the Gion district.
- How much does it cost?
Packages inclusive of full hair, makeup, kimono and photography start from 12 420 JPY / $144.41 AUD.
- How long does it take?
The geisha transformation takes a minimum of 2 hours, up to 3.5 hours depending on your package. You could incorporate your experience into a day of sightseeing around Gion and the Higashiyama area, which is what we did.