My Experience with Geisha Culture in Kyoto

It’s no secret that Kyoto is arguably well known (if not most well known) for being something of a geisha capital in Japan. Kyoto and geiko, at this point, seem to be inseparable; even ads for the city railways in Kyoto use geisha in them. In Japanese culture, geisha (literally, “arts person” in Japanese) are professional hostesses and entertainers, well-versed in manners, culture, and etiquette to make their customers relaxed at parties and events—unfortunately, Western misconceptions perpetuated with popular culture like the book and movie Memoirs of a Geisha have placed a different image on what geisha do and their role in Japanese culture. As a result, I have to wonder about my experience dressing up as a maiko (apprentice geisha) in Gion District, Kyoto.

Note: Geiko is another name for geisha that refers to a geisha in Kyoto (source); since I’m in Kyoto, I will be using geiko and geisha interchangeably. A maiko is an apprentice geisha that ascends the ranks for over five years before she becomes a geiko; there are distinct differences in appearance at each stage of being a maiko/geiko that are thoroughly explained in this article.

I am fully aware that I was not dressed as an authentic maiko (e.g., my collar was not right for being the level of maiko I was otherwise dressed as), and I realize that this is most likely by design. Because there are still working maiko and geiko, the companies that allow for these costume experiences have to be careful not to tarnish the real maiko and geiko‘s reputations, lest they risk getting shut down by the authorities (source). As a result, there were a significant amount of rules that I had to follow when I was in the full maiko regalia, like no eating (they never eat while working—likely also because they didn’t want to soil the kimono), no drinking (likely so as not to soil the kimono—also, I remember from watching a documentary on geisha that they don’t drink unless they’re offered drinks), and no smoking.

For this experience, I chose Kyoto MAICA for the price and the good reviews I saw online. They are nestled in a side street a short walk away from Keihan Railway’s Gion-Shijo station. They have different plans for photos and style options, starting at ¥6,500 (roughly US$65). They also have plans for guys to dress up as samurai! (For the record, this is not an ad for MAICA; this is just my experience.) I booked a reservation the day before, and I would highly recommend doing so, even if it’s not mandatory. One thing they told me to do was bring makeup remover, because you cannot leave the place with the makeup still on, and I did not see any makeup remover for guests to use (though I’m sure they had some in case people genuinely forgot to bring it). They asked for no photos during the process of hair, makeup, and dressing (in fact, they asked me to lock up my phone), so I only have photos of the finished result—sorry, y’all.

After I chose my photo plan, they asked me to select a kimono; I chose a rose pink kimono with a gradient to a soft golden taupe with flower detail, because I was nervous about wearing a more intricate pattern. They then showed me to a room with coin lockers for my clothes and bag, and asked me to put on a juban (the base layer of a kimono) and tabi socks before going into makeup. They then gave me a full face of makeup, including the white base makeup on my shoulders that left the nape of my neck bare (the nape of the neck is apparently an erogenous zone in Japanese culture, from what I remembered in my research), and then they put me into the kimono.

I imagined that wearing a kimono was likely an experience from what I saw on the Internet, but when they asked me if I needed the ladies’ before I got dressed, I then realized, “things are about to get real.” The maiko‘s obi is worn higher than a typical obi to mimic a more girlish figure, so it’s naturally going to constrict your ribs a bit (while I could breathe normally, I couldn’t help but think of Elizabeth Swann in Pirates of the Caribbean throughout this process), and a kimono‘s usual hemline trails behind you so that was something I had to be careful with (when we went outside, the ladies tied it up as you can see in the photos so the hem didn’t get wet). After the kimono was on, they asked me what kind of wig I wanted. Because my hair is auburn and short (even though I’m growing out my pixie), I went for a full wig, but they do offer partial wigs, depending on your plan.

After the workers made sure everything was perfect, we went downstairs to do the photo shoot. The professional photos you get with your plan are done indoors in a small studio area with screens and props like fans, a traditional tea ceremony display, and a parasol. My plan included going outside to take photos; it was raining that day, so we weren’t able to get a ton of photos outside, but I was still satisfied with the ones we got.

I ended up getting two professional photographs printed as well as tons of photos on my phone that came out really well. When we were done with photos, I was asked to wash off the makeup before I got back into my street clothes (one of the ladies working there helped me clean the makeup off my shoulders). They also had a room where the guests could reapply their usual makeup before they left, which I personally thought was a nice touch.

Final thoughts

If you want to dress up like a maiko or geiko and get good photos done, then this is perfect for you. That said, while I have no regrets about this experience, I do kind of wish that there was a more educational version of this for Japanese culture enthusiasts, or people who want to learn more about the maiko and geiko besides dressing like them. Because the maiko and geiko are renowned for their privacy and discretion, I’m not sure if “Life As A Geiko 101″ would be able to happen, but for Asian Studies majors like me, and other people who want to know more about their extensive training, etc., the makeup and costume are a good place to start, but might not be enough. As for me, I was worried that dressing like a maiko without learning more about their life was straddling the line between “culture enthusiast” and “stereotypical tourist”, especially in this day and age with our growing awareness of cultural appropriation. I will admit, though, that when I was in the kimono, I felt very feminine and graceful (minus my trepidation about the high-platformed shoes, especially with the state of my knees); with my research of Japanese culture, particularly that of the geiko and maiko, I hope to take with me their refined grace, poise, and appreciation of art and culture.

Tomorrow, I’m heading back to Tokyo for a few more days, so let me know what you want to read more of in the comments! Until next time, またね!

One Comment on “My Experience with Geisha Culture in Kyoto

  1. Pingback: Six Lessons I Took From Japan: Final Thoughts – Carry On My Wayward Soul

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