I've wanted to do geisha dress-up since I saw a photograph of someone in costume in our Lonely Planet Japan guide. Visiting theatrical performances aside, however, Fukuoka is not exactly a hotbed of geisha culture. By contrast, Kyoto and geisha go together like New York and cabbies: for the epitome of geisha culture, you have to go to the source.
The most interesting thing I learned in the course of this, besides how bad I look in geisha makeup, is the fact that I actually wasn't dressing up like a geisha at all. What we think of as the "geisha" look - white face and red lips - is actually more of a "maiko" look. Maiko are apprentice geisha, and their look is much more elaborate and colorful than adult geisha (which, just to make sure you're totally confused, are called "geiko" in Kyoto dialect). The best source I can find suggests that this is a look for young women, and that you might continue to wear it for a few years after promotion from maiko to geisha, but gradually a geisha starts to wear less and less, and by 30 the geisha will only be seen in full makeup for a performance like the dances we saw here in Fukuoka.
This is one of the problems with writing about geisha, however - most of the writing really is "about" geisha and not "by" geisha. (I recommend Discovery Channel's The Secret World of Geisha; it's the best English source I found while writing this post). Maybe that's different if I became fluent in Japanese, but geisha are (professionally?) discreet and don't talk much about themselves. Beyond the public performances which have always been a part of geisha employment, they have chosen to avoid catering to the massive tourist interest in them. It is impossible to just waltz into Kyoto and set up tea with a geisha (assuming, of course, you could afford it... Secret World puts a typical 3-hour evening at $600 per person, and that was over ten years ago). This appears to be because a geisha tea-house is like an old-school British gentleman's club: part of the point is that it's exclusive.
Geisha are sometimes harassed by tourists when out and about in Gion. Good guide books or hotel owners can tip you off on places to go to spot geisha, but they will also advise you to leave the ladies alone as they go about their work. If you didn't know, the word "geisha" means "artist," and modern young women who are drawn to becoming geisha generally do so because of a passion for the dance, theater, or music involved. They don't become geisha to be celebrities, and they don't like to be paparazzi-stalked and certainly not manhandled. They do not pose for photos with tourists, either.
Justin and I decided not to go to the location recommended by our hotel, not because of any discretion reasons, but just because the time of day (4-6 PM, when the geisha set out for their earliest appointments) didn't work with our schedule. However, when we were walking through Gion (Kyoto's geisha district) on our way to my makeover appointment, a panel door slid open and out popped a full-gear maiko. She peeked around, laughed with the friend in the doorway, and then scurried out to the vending machine to buy a coke. So that's my big authentic-geisha spotting experience.
The place where we went for dress-up is called Maica. They are not fluent in English but have enough translated paperwork for yutzes like Justin and me to get by. The way things work at Maica is you pick a package. None of these are cheap - they start around $75 - but the more you pay, the more you get. I chose the cheapest package, which included make-up, wig, kimono, unlimited time to take my own pictures in the (badly-lit) downstairs room, and one professional picture in their studio. More expensive packages include bonuses like half-wigs integrated with your own hair, pricier kimono or kimonos which have actually been worn by geisha, or the chance to leave the building to take pictures in the tiny courtyard. The most expensive one lets you go haring all over Kyoto to take pictures at temples and shrines. I wonder how many of those women are mistaken for the real thing by tourists.
(Side note: the English paperwork specified that men were welcome to dress as maiko, including wig and full makeup; however, they were not permitted to purchase the walk-about-Kyoto package "to protect the image of real Maiko.") Maica also offers male-clothing packages for men, and I forced Justin to get one so we could take a picture.
Once you pick your photo package, you are taken upstairs where you have to lock away your phone and camera for the changing process and change into a loose under-robe, which is also sort of translucent, so I recommend not wearing black underwear. Then you go upstairs where you choose the kimono you want to wear. Interestingly, I picked a red kimono for myself, and when Justin came into the room, he picked the exact same one for me.
You may notice a slight problem with that last statement, which is that the men and the women are in the same room, and you're wearing a flimsy translucent pink cotton shift. I warned you about that black underwear. Once I chose my kimono, poor Justin had to stand around that room for about twenty minutes while random Japanese Maica clients came in and out in various stages of dress and undress, doing his utmost to merge with the carpet until I came back out.
They put your hair up and give you a hairnet, then do your white makeup. Since I wasn't allowed to have my camera in there, I have no pictures of the proceedings, but I do have this one I illicitly snapped afterwards in the makeup removal restroom (incidentally, it also shows the flimsy pink garment).
Japan math: maiko makeup + inappropriate facial expressions = disturbing resemblance to the Joker:
Next they put my wig on, and I finally got wrapped up in my kimono. I thought it would take longer, actually, but they have it down to a science. Here is a photo of the final wig + makeup final product:
They paint your lips on extra small. I've read alternately that that's because small lips were considered beautiful and because the white makeup makes any lip look larger. Probably a combination of the two. The little dangly pink thing on the right is a maiko headpiece. Full geisha won't wear that.
Here's an extreme close-up of the eye makeup (and believe me, if I'd known I would be doing a zoom, I would have taken better care of my eyebrows):
If I'd done basic research, I would have realized that red is an essential part of geisha makeup. In fact, geisha only use three colors: black, white, and red. But I hadn't thought about it beforehand, so when the lady started putting red eyeliner on me, all I could think of was how I was going to look like a Scot on Saturday morning, or Justin within fifteen feet of a cat. The ultimate result was not as unflattering as I thought it would be, but I maintain that red eyeliner may be best suited to people without green eyes.
Another unflattering color issue with geisha makeup? A super-white face makes your teeth look dingy:
Interestingly, geisha used to get around this by dying their teeth black, so the teeth would just sort of fade away into the mouth. I'm not sure that's better.
Here's the neck makeup (and the obvious wig):
The nape of the neck is the only part left uncovered by geisha makeup. Traditionally, this area is quite sexy in Japan, and you can see that the kimono deliberately displays it. Think of this makeup as playing the role of a necklace worn with a low-cut shirt.
So now you've seen bits and pieces, but what about the whole look? I made Justin take like seventeen thousand photos in there to make sure something came out. Here are some of the highlights, featuring me doing my best to badly imitate what I imagine is correct geisha body language:
Reverse shot showing obi, worn hanging long maiko-style (geisha have bows):
DRAMATIC BLACK AND WHITE FILTER:
DRAMATIC JUST PLAIN WHITE INDIVIDUAL:
Justin did not take getting into character quite so seriously:
Note the one-toed Ninja Turtle socks. From our time at the ryokan (traditional hotel) we discovered that these are excellent and quite warm in winter, although I'm still boggled that traditional Japanese footwear calls for these and sandals outdoors in winter, and nothing else.
Justin behaved himself a bit better for the obligatory local-person-asks-to-pose-with-crazy-foreigners shot. (This happens sometimes and we always say yes. I figure it's the least we owe Japan for putting up with us.)
My favorite picture of the day is on another post.
Overall, I thought my time at Maica was totally worth the cost. I don't think it's worth it for men, but it would have been really lame for Justin to go with me and for us not to have a picture together, so in that case it was worth it as a couple. And now I can put another check mark in my "things to do in Japan" list!