If it had not been for my sister, I would never have come to wear that kimono. Nor have red eyes. There are many studios in Kyoto – and surely in other places – where you are made up and dressed as maiko (a geisha apprentice) or geiko (a Kyoto geisha), but it didn’t even occur to me to visit them. I guess I thought it wasn’t an authentic experience or something. Authentic-shmautentic. In the end, it turned out to be one of the highlights of out trip.
We went to AYA Maiko Makeover Experience in the Kyoto Gion area, a wonderful place in itself, where some of the old Kyoto is still preserved and geiko can still be seen. The low wooden houses, lanterns and small streets were one of my favourite memories of Japan. It’s such a pity that so little of this remains today. This is also the district where real geiko and maiko can be seen, if you are lucky or know where to go. And don’t confuse them with silly foreigners.
The dress-up business is a very modern thing, however. It’s a well-oiled machine: 15 minutes to determine what you want, 40 for makeup, 20 for dressing and half an hour for taking the pictures; probably much less, if you’re not going with an entire family. While you are trying to get the black dye out of your hair, the pictures will be developed and voila, by the time your return to your normal colouring, the photos, postcards and a CD will be ready.
Despite my initial indifference, I now think this transformation would be fascinating for anyone interested in beauty. The important thing is not to expect it to be flattering according to contemporary western standards. It can be (my daughter looked absolutely stunning, a little disconcerting considering she’s seven), but it probably won’t. Your figure will be hidden by many layers of fabric and your face completely white, with a small mouth and red-lined eyes. What is extremely impressive, though, is how completely makeup and clothes can change you. Obviously, for the dark-haired, rosebud-mouthed Japanese beauties the change is much less radical, but it’s still an extremely stylised look. Most tourists “do a maiko”, as the trainee geishas are more colourfully dressed (read about the visual differences here).
Your whole face, most of the neck, upper chest and back will be painted white with a traditional flat brush – that takes surprisingly little time. The brows are drawn straight with black and red (something I really liked) and lower lashline accentuated with red. The lips were also bright red and although I’m used to wearing red lipstick, the result was a bit unnerving as the pigment colours the teeth: combined with the sheet white face, this was my least favourite aspect of the result (I kept my mouth shut and “smiled with my eyes”). The outcome will depend quite a bit on the skill of the specific makeup artist. I can certainly outline my own lips with a more assured hand than the lovely Japanese girl at the studio, but in the end it’s not the point.
Real maiko do not wear wigs, but what with our hair obviously not being satisfactory, we all got a black wig, with some of our own hair dyed black to make it look more convincing. My wig hurt pretty bad, but that was not the case for others. The black is quite difficult to remove: 10 minutes of washing I was certain I’ll never get my blond hair back (I was almost happy with that grey, actually), but it does come off after about 30 minutes of vigorous scrubbing.
The kimonos are simply stunning, even though I’m sure they are vastly inferior to what real geishas wear. I’ve been reading The World of the Shining Prince and the refinement of the colour combinations of the Heian Japan: sometimes 12 robes in different colours and sleeves in different lengths dangling from the carriages, to showcase the taste of the lady inside. Even the kimonos and obis in this tourist trap were a visual feast and I’m more in love with Japanese traditional dressing than ever. The wooden sandals – with white socks – that go with the kimono aren’t the most comfortable footwear I’ve ever tried, but I didn’t find them too difficult to walk in either. After a 15 minutes or so, I even stopped sounding like two horses approaching.
Going to another country with an old, extremely sophisticated culture and dressing up as one of its symbolic elements does raise questions, of course. I was thinking about it when we did a half hour tour in our costumes on the streets of Gion. Would I mind if foreigners dressed up as ancient Estonian chieftains or brides from Muhu? No. But Estonia is not Japan and the context is different. I had thought that it would be daytime and therefore abundantly clear to anyone that we are only a very bad imitation of the real thing. But it got dark before 5pm already and that made the situation more ambiguous. Poor tourists of course found it difficult to realise what was what and even some Japanese (probably not local) took a moment to figure things out – not because of our incredible grace, but simply because one could not see clearly.
It was of course not our intention to deceive or offend anyone. And in the end, I think the power in these equations ultimately lies with people who know exactly how far my fumbling, awkward attempts to look like a Japanese lady of refinement are from success.