When one mentions Japan, one of the few icons that come to mind are the Geisha. Beautiful and graceful, they have always been extremely captivating and intriguing to me. I’ve never seen one — and only heard about these talented, educated and elegant women through books and movies. It takes years and years to train as a Geisha, but if you want to step into their shoes for a little while by dressing like one — you can!
Kyoto – The Geisha Central
Kyoto is said to be the heart of the Geisha world, with Gion being its main district where you can, hopefully, spot these ladies heading to an appointment or walking its streets. As a visitor (and a girl) in the city, it is highly unlikely to be able to secure an appointment — when it comes to the Geisha society, it not about the dough, but about the connections. However, there are ryokan and halls in Gion that can arrange Geisha and Maiko dance performances… but they cost a lot.
During my visit to the city, I was excited to explore Gion for the opportunity to catch a glimpse of the elusive Geisha. That didn’t happen, so on the last day of my visit to the city, I decided to step into the shoes of a Geisha and become one myself!
What is a Geisha, Geiko and Maiko?
There are some terms that might confuse you about the Geisha — sometimes referred to as a Geiko, or a Maiko. Geisha is a world-known term, and Geiko is what they are called in the Kyoto dialect. A Maiko on the other hand, are apprentice Geisha, usually between the ages of 15 to 20. It takes at least 5 years to undergo the Geisha training, and most of the Maiko become Geisha at the age of 20.
Maiko and Geiko are not “prostitutes” or “call girls”, they are in fact highly skilled entertainers who are well-versed in the Japanese art of music and dance. To tell the difference between the two — Maiko usually wear colorful kimonos with their hair adorned with hairpins and flowers, so they look young and cheerful; while the Geiko are usually decked in more simple, elegant kimonos and unadorned wigs, giving them a more matured and sophisticated style.
Booking and Getting to AYA
I found Gion AYA while researching online for a full makeover experience of being a Geisha. The website is in English with all the details and package prices, so it was easy to make a booking through the site. I was slotted in for my session within the day!
Gion AYA is located in the Gion District of Kyoto — nestled within rows of traditional Japanese houses south of the Yasaka Shrine. It is pretty easy to get to via the subways and busses around the city. I was staying around Kyoto Station, and just hopped on a bus that took me to stop that was about a 5-minute walk to Gion AYA. I made an early morning appointment at 10am.
My Maiko Makeover Begins!
I arrived at Gion AYA with my mum a few minutes before my appointment and was ushered to the waiting area. I was given a form to fill, and the choice of my package confirmed — I was initially booked for the ‘walking course’ (which involved an hour walking the streets as a Geisha), but it was summer and the sun was scorching that day so I decided to change it to the ‘studio course’ instead. For 4 studio shots (printed out) and 10-minutes free time for photos, the course is the cheapest at JP¥12,420~US$111. I added another 2 courtyard shots for some variety, at JP¥1,620~US$15 per shot. I also got to choose the 6 poses I wanted to do from a list of examples.
And then to the main question. Do I want to be a cute Maiko, or an elegant Geisha? I chose to be a Maiko.
Makeup and Hair
First things first, get changed. I left mum at the waiting area and made my way to the bathroom. It was fully equipped with rows of wash basins (for clean-up after the makeover) and lockers. I was given a set of white undergarments and tabi socks to change into, and then taken to the makeup room to begin my makeover!
The makeup room was pretty big, with a few ladies getting made up at the same time. It was interesting watching the makeup artist paint my face with the white shiro-nuri foundation — which was traditionally used back in the days to illuminate the Geisha’s face in dimly lit rooms. She then applied pink powder on my cheeks, forehead and eyelids and drew some eyeliner to give my eyes a little more definition. My eyebrows were also drawn with reddish and charcoal colors. Finally, the red lipstick. It is usually painted in different styles for the Maiko, based on what stage of training they are on.
After makeup, my wig was placed on my head. A portion of my own hair was left out in front to be pinned over the top and sides to give it a more natural look. It was really odd looking at myself in the mirror with a white face and huge hair!
Choosing My Kimono
And then it was time to choose my kimono! Gion AYA has a whole range of colorful Maiko kimono to choose from — and I was spoiled for choice. I finally decided on a bright red one to really bring out the summer colors. The entire process of wearing a kimono took such a long time with so many layers — from the inner robe (nagajuban), to the main kimono robe; followed by rows of cloth underneath the bust, and the pretty obi knot at the back.
The whole process ends with lots of ornaments, ribbons and flowers pinned onto my wig — one of the few fun decorative items that are added onto the Maiko outfit.
Being a Maiko
I’m a Maiko! It was surreal looking at myself in the mirror, and actually carrying all that weight on my body — from the heavy wig to the layers of kimono, everything just felt so bulky and awkward but yet… so beautiful. Even for just a few hours it felt pretty exciting. The process took so much attention to detail that it would be a sin not to admire the results for a longer time.
It was really difficult trying to move in the kimono and act all sweet and demure. My footsteps were limited to just tiny steps at a time, and I could hardly make any big movements. I really respect these ladies that spend so much time just to get ready; and dance, sing, move and live in these thick outfits every day.
My photoshoot had a total of four studio shots and two courtyard shots. It took about 30 minutes altogether as my photographer was really good at guiding me on how to pose, and giving tips on where to look and how to smile — and there I was, trying to look all graceful in the pictures. The photographer based her work on the poses that I had already chosen beforehand — and took about 3 to 4 shots of each pose. For the courtyard shots; I was given a little Maiko pouch to carry with me, and had the chance to put on some high clogs (zori) too.
After the shots in the courtyard, I was given about 10 minutes for free photo time, where I was allowed to take pictures with my own camera. Mum was around so she became my photographer and took photos for me with my iPhone. I enjoyed the free photo time much more because I could do all sorts of fun poses — even the non-graceful ones unbecoming of a Maiko!
After my session, I was assisted with getting out of the kimono, as well as with removing my makeup. The bathroom was fully equipped with facial wash, shampoo, conditioner and hairdryers so I could wash up after the makeover. I was then taken back to the waiting room to wait for my final prints. The final 6 5R-sized printed photos were chosen for me — I could change them if I wanted to, but I liked them all; and decided to get a CD of all my digital photos, for an extra JP¥2,000~US$18.
My Overall Experience
I have to say that the Maiko makeover was one of the highlights of my trip to Kyoto. It was the ultimate cultural experience and one that I will not forget anytime soon. It was extremely exciting to be a Maiko even for just a couple of hours — and I now have a better understanding of the extreme care, technique and time spent in putting on a Geisha/Maiko outfit. Of course, there is so much more to being a Maiko/Geisha, but I am glad that I got to at least try a little part of it.
I’m glad I did the makeover at AYA — the studio was easy to find, the staff was friendly and helpful, and they spoke good English! The kimono and other accessories were of good quality and well taken care off, and there were so many choices available. Most importantly, at the end of it all — I looked and felt like a Maiko, and the photographs turned out well!
The next time I come back to Kyoto, I would love to have another go (maybe be a Geisha instead), and take the course that has a 60 minutes outdoor walkabout. I’ll make sure it’s not during the summer heat — cherry blossoms in spring, koyo foliage in autumn and snow in winter would make such beautiful backdrops!
Address: 499-8, Shimogawara, Higashiyama, Kyoto, Japan.
Tel: +81-75-532-6666 (Open daily unless announced otherwise)