I shiver as the makeup artist draws the first strip of cold white paint from the base of my neck to my back, leaving the required spot of bare skin. As the heavy black wig is being sewn on and mixt with my own hair, I let my own identity fade out to be reborn a Maiko. A few more touches of rouge and black and I am finally ready to put on the many layers of clothes of my Kimono… This is the story of my dive into Japanese culture through some of its most iconic feature : a Geisha.
Marquise Electrique is going on a world tour!
On my Instagram, you maybe have glimpsed at what my new life change as I am officially leaving San Francisco to go live in Barcelona. We are moving thanks to a change of my husband’s job but mainly to get a taste of what it is like to live la vida loca in beautiful Spain…
The discovery of Barcelona’s fashion and sewing scene won’t happen until a few days though. In the meantime, I fulfilled a long awaited dream of mine: going backpacking around the world!
The first two stops where the Hawaiian Island of Maui and the Wild West region (Grand Canyon, Monument Valley and the likes). Both were incredibly beautiful but had very little to report on the fashion and sewing front.
But after several weeks in Japan, I finally got a clothes-related subject to properly sink my teeth into…
The Maiko Experience in Gion, Kyoto
Like any French snob tourist, I am always looking for quality and authentic enough experiences when I travel. Dressing up in local attires (or a tourist compatible version of it) is always something I enjoy very much. The goal is never to make fun of the culture, but rather to experience it through my own skin and eyes just like I enjoy dressing up like relatives from two centuries ago might have been, or like a creature of my imagination.
If you want to do that in Japan, the easy route is to rent a full package of kimono + light make up + hair styling. That’s what you see in most streets around Japan (have a look at Madame Daniel’s example here and here). Although cute, I chose a more complicated approach.
I came across the Aya Maiko Experience through random blog posts and was quickly convinced by their attention to details. I wasn’t going to learn how to be a complete Maiko in a few hours (obviously) but I might be able to come as close as a Gaijin can in an afternoon!
Although not cheap (150$ for 3 hours) the experience encompassed the whole make-up, dressing up with all the appropriate layers and taking a few pictures to immortalize the moment. I decided to give it a try and satisfy my curiosity : would it fit my Gaijin body? How would I look painted in white and red? Is a Kimono comfortable?
Step 1 : Paint Your Face Like There is No Tomorrow
To start on a blank canvas, you first need to strip down to your underwear and get into the a long cotton dress resembling an 18c chemise.
To warm your feet, the traditional socks complete the look.
You then get into the makeup room where no men are allowed. Good to know if you had planned on hiring your husband to play photographer during the process. #fail.
Adorable Mirai, my makeup artist and dresser, kindly helped my take a few snaps to show you the process.
This is a timelapse video that will give you a better understanding:
Your face has to acquire that perfect white color that is the trademark of the look. For having attempted several tries of white painting myself (rather unsuccessful) I confess I was very impressed.
The Makeup artist starts with the back portion that needs whitening. Yes it’s cold and oddly sensuous to feel the soft brush going over your upper back. To get rid the wet shine, some white paint is applied and then spread using a puff cushion to leave a matt finish.
The forehead gets a blush pink shade that is more becoming than an all-white option.
At this stage you look like a white ghost\monster with bright yellow teeth. It’s normal, don’t panic (yet).
Next up : eyebrows are drawn using a combination of black charcoal and red. Red is also applied to your eyes. The final touch are the lips, that can the drawn to create a rosebud effect. That’s when you will start to look more presentable…
Step 2: Wig On Please!
Even when I do historical hair like in this occasion, I usually recoil from using wigs. They never look natural and you sweat tons under there. BUT I have to confess this combination of real and fake hair is opening new possibilities.
It’s not very pleasant to wear because of the weight (it’s held together using metal, which adds weight) but the illusion is almost perfect once you add the black hair spray.
A net is fixated using bobby pins. It holds your hair flat except for a handful in the front. The wig is then put on and sewn in place at the top. Mini pillows are inserted at the bottom to “stuff” it properly and get to sit nicely on your head. Your remaining hair is smoothed on either side of the wig and on top to blend the wig seamlessly.
A red knot on top and you are ready to layer up!
Step 3: More Underwear
There comes the layers! A large belt around the waste, a long red underskirt and a first kimono vest with a red colored lapel.
Everything is wrapped pretty tight but still allows movement (not yoga pose obviously, more like gentle walking).
You then get into the Alibaba Cavern where the other Kimono parts are kept.
Step 4: Choose Your (Kimono) Weapons
Another short Kimono “spencer” is added.
Always leaving space at the back to show the neck and the bare skin,supposed to be subtly erotic.
Next you finally get to choose the main layer of the Kimono.
Real Maiko and Geisha wear colors depending on the season : red, oranges and green during autumn leaves, blush pinks for cherry blossom etc.
The handful of Japanese women wearing actual kimonos we saw in the street tended to have pale or dark greys or black kind of shades, with barely any motifs on. The equivalent of a western pant suit I would say.
We had the chance to run into one actual Geisha coming out of a hotel in Gion and she wore a bright red Kimono. I would have taken a picture of her but she was a bout 2 feet from me and getting into a taxi so there was no way I could have been discreet. Plus I was pretty surprised and too mesmerized to grab my big camera…
You’ll have to come to Japan and see for yourself!
For myself I chose a deep green (my favorite color) with pretty flowers everywhere.
Kimonos are almost always uni size. They are large and long to fit almost any body types, making it easy to pass them down from one generation to the next.
To adjust length, the Kimono is folded up and around the belly, just like an origami,
and held in place with two simple cotton belts (under bust and high hips).
A large red sash is (tightly) wrapped from upper hips to under bust.
A rigid plank is added, it prevents pleats creation in the front. Kind of like a busk in 18c Stays.
You get to pick your Obi belt (favorite part!).
I opted for a pretty flowery one to keep the focus on the green but my dresser’s alternative options were really tempting.
I couldn’t see what was happening in my back but it looked like an intricate game of pulling, tying , adding a cushion, adding more tiny belts. Just like a French Gigot there was no way I was getting rid of all that quickly.
One belt featuring a brooch and another red one closing over a tiny rigid busk later, I was ready for the final touch : head ornaments.
Step 5: A Flower Crown To Finish It Off
To recognize a Maiko from a Geiko (Kyoto name for Geisha) you only need to look at their hair.
Geiko will only be allowed pretty wooden combs while Maiko will have exuberant hair pins featuring flowing flowers, gold etc.
Like the Kimono, they also follow seasons.
And voilà! You are ready to go and take tons of pictures of your narcissic self!
Step 6: The Photoshoot
We had a little time to test poses indoor.
and then off to the courtyard!
Being dressed as a Geisha wasn’t terribly uncomfortable, on the contrary. But again, I am used to very stiff 18c stays and huge and heavy skirts so I might be biased here… 😉
Everything is held tight but you can still breath easily and walk to a certain extend. It makes you stand pretty straight and you naturally want to held your head high to give justice to the clothes!
Step 7: getting back to your normal self
Like any historical outfit, getting back to your normal backpacker self is a process! The wig and clothes part is easy. Most of the white is removed using baby oil which is both very gentle for the skin and a good moisturizer. Add a good face wash and one or two shampoos and the dye and rest of the make up will be off.
You exit the place back to the real you and your head full of good memories…
On my experience with Aya
I was a little scarred at first by the fee requested by Aya. My hubby was not such a fan either of this – rather pricy – idea but I was hell bent on going through with it.
In the end, for 3 hours of pure joyful experience with an attentive and kind staff ready to accommodate all your photos and video requests, I felt I got even more than I bargained for!
The whole experience was wrapped in this exquisite Japanese politeness that we have come to love throughout all our trip there: little attentions here and there, help to gently massage your back to relieve the post-wig tension, tiny container so you would not lose your rings etc. It made the experience even more special.
I would highly recommend booking with them!
A few recommendations if you want to transform into a Geisha too:
- Book in advance! They tend to get busy. I contacted them about a week ahead to check dates via email, and this was not the busiest of period. Once your reservation is made you are committed though. The main contact speaks good English
- They have different price plans, I choose the garden option that allowed me to get the pictures I wanted while not getting crazy in terms of budget. The best value for your money in my option
- I chose to get my pictures on a CD (cheaper than a USB) which gave me 10 pictures instead of the only 3 printed in the basic deal. I was planning on writing about it hence I needed decent digital support but this is optional of course.
- Couple sessions are possible although a bit expensive given men don’t get special treatment except a male kimono. We still got a couple picture on CD
- Bring your own camera, tripod, smartphone if you want to capture the full experience. A helper to take your photos (preferably female to get the makeup part too) is definitely a plus. Otherwise, your dresser should be ok to help you take a few snaps but she will also be busy taking care of you..
- The studio is close to a lot of pretty temples so if your friend or hubby is not doing it with you he will be able to go check other stuff and come back if he or she wants to
Since the studio was a little busy, we even got extra time to take our own pictures which was awesome.
Some things you can experience only with your own skin, this was clearly one of the highlights of my trip to Japan.
Side note: how correct is my outfit?
A side note on the correctness of my outfit. Of course several things don’t fit the picture: I am not Japanese, I transformed into a Maiko, not a Geisha and Maikos are supposed to be unmarried young girls (15), my Kimono doesn’t follow the season perfectly etc. Yet, for once having a rather round face was an asset as it resembled a little more the traditional japanese features (I said a little).
If you want to dig deeper into the subject I found a handful of other articles to let you in in the mystery. As always in Japanese culture, it is far more complex than our westerner ways…
Tell a Geisha from a Maiko at a mere glance
A modern Maiko talking about her trade (to spot the differences !)
Would you be keen to transform into a Maiko too ?
Because you have been very patient, here is a little blooper section for you, because holding serious poses is always very hard for me…