Memoirs of a Maiko

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June 21st 2007
Published: June 21st 2007
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The mysteries of geisha and maiko have intrigued me even before I came to Japan. When I first got here daily I would get all excited to see women wandering the streets of Hiroshima in kimono, in the back of my mind pondering why they were wearing kimono and if they were somehow related to the elusive geisha. Silly, I know, but still it did cross my mind! I quickly learned that many Japanese women wear kimono on a daily basis sans the intricate makeup, and especially at festivals. At my first summer festival I saw women walking around in yukata, summer kimonos, and immediately was yearning to be adorned in such beautiful and traditional garments. Then I finally read Memoirs of a Geisha and went Geisha-hunting in Kyoto’s Gion district…I was sold and knew that before leaving Japan, I had to take part in this beautiful art. During my two years here I have had the chance to wear my yukata numerous times and can even put one on by myself. I wore the most beautiful kimono I have ever seen at a tea ceremony in town. But, finally, this past weekend I got my chance to look and feel like a maiko- makeup, hair, kimono…the whole package. It was a dream come true and I almost felt more special than when I was crowned homecoming princess in high school.

A Little Background Info
When foreigners think of Japan, the term geisha is synonymous with sumo and sushi. We envision the black hair pulled neatly into a bun, the ghostly white faces with bright red lips, the colorful kimonos, and their geta clomping along the cobblestone streets of Kyoto. This romantic vision of geisha is only partially true.

The first geisha (or in Kansai dialect geiko) appeared early in the 18th century when Japan experienced little civil unrest and cut off ties with the rest of the world, allowing leisure activities to flourish. In the mid 17th century in Kyoto, Osaka and Tokyo ‘pleasure’ districts took form. Japanese men would flock here in search of the most beautiful courtesan to call their own. Quick sex was not hard to find, and soon men were looking for more. In the early 18th century the first geisha appeared- and they were men! They came to parties to perform for the guests. Soon women geisha took to the stage. Geisha literally translates to “arts person” and their job was to go to different parties to play instruments, sing, dance and socialize with the men. Geisha provided pleasure through intellectual stimulation. Apparently in the long run intelligence does triumph over beauty. Sex was not a requirement for geisha, instead it was the allure and build up of NOT getting the girl that attracted men to these untouchable women. You always want what you can’t have.

Women spend years in training to perfect these sought-after skills. As young girls they begin their training and as they get older, they move through the ranks to become a full-blow geisha:

Shikomi - At this stage the women are young girls required to do all the housework at the Okiya (geisha house). They also attend school to learn skills needed to be geisha, such as dancing, singing, and learning to play an instrument.
Minarai - Relieved from their house duties, at this stage the women are allowed to attend parties, yet are not supposed to talk to any of the customers. They wear very elaborate kimonos that are supposed to do the talking for them.
Maiko - This is by far and away the most recognizable stage of a geisha’s life, and often what foreigners mistake as geisha. As a geisha apprentice, the maiko will receive an ‘oneesan,’ or older sister who is already a geisha. The maiko will follow around the geisha and learn all the tricks of the trade. This stage can last between 6 months to 5 years. Once they graduate from this stage, they are finally geisha.
Geisha: you are now the top dog, the life of the party, the prime minister of the entertainment world, and desired by all.

When maiko are dressed to the T, they have on the white make-up, depending on which stage they are at have their lips painted differently, and like with sumo, depending on their ranking are allowed to wear various hairstyles. The kimonos are much brighter than actual geisha, and their obis are tied in much more intricate bows. Geisha on the other hand, are not as flashy as their women in training, which symbolizes maturity. When women become geisha, it is said that their refined skills will attract the men instead of their elaborate appearance.

Sorry to burst bubbles out there, geisha were not exactly your medieval Japanese sluts. Which if one thinks about how much time it takes to dress and undress a geisha, logistically geisha as a quick lay would be anything but quick. There were prostitutes who looked like geisha, but were easily identifiable not to be geisha because they would wear their obi bows in the front. Even whores had rankings- everything is ranked in Japan! Like described in Memoirs of a Geisha, sex was a part of the geisha world but definitely not in their main job description.

Today geisha are still part of Japanese culture, but with a population dwindling to 1,000-2,000 from 80,000 in their heyday, geisha are fading quickly. With the slow economy, traditional old Japanese customs losing popularity over new and cheaper forms of entertainment ie hostess bars and karaoke, and the lack of women wanting to invest time in a difficult job with mediocre pay, the existence of the geisha may soon become just a memory of old Japan. Often times now tourists come to Kyoto’s Gion Quarter and think they have run into a real maiko, only to find out that it is a foreigner dressed up as one for fun (like me!). But, when you do get the chance to see a geisha or maiko wandering the streets of Gion, or happen to see one through a window performing at a party, it is quite an unforgettable treat.

Makeover Time!
To start my transformation I put on the kimono underwear- a cotton slip, and tabi-socks. Next, I was ready for makeup. My hair was pulled tightly into a bun and wrapped with a cloth so no little fly-aways would interfere with the makeup. A clear base was rubbed onto my skin, then the white paint was applied all over my face and neck. At the nape of my neck a “W” was left unpainted, so it looked like I was wearing a mask. For special occasions, Maiko (like for their debut) would leave a “W," otherwise it was a "V." It was my maiko debut, so a "W" was fitting. Next they drew in my eyebrows. My eyes were painted with black and red eyeliner, and a coat of mascara was added to my lashes. A light layer of blush was added around my eyes and cheeks. Last, they applied red lipstick. They definitely drew in my lips much smaller than my actual ones. Depending on the ranking, maiko and geisha would paint their lips differently. Based on my lip design and ornate hairpiece, I concluded I would be considered a ‘senior maiko.’

Next, I got to choose my kimono. They had every color with various patterns of birds or flowers. I chose a beautiful turquoise kimono with a combination of birds and flowers across the long sleeves and bottom hem. My dresser first wrapped another cotton layer around me that was white and red. After that she draped the beautiful silk kimono over my arms and body. The collar of the kimono is left loose, so that all of my neck is seen. The back of the neck is viewed as a very sexy part of the body and by leaving it visible geisha further enticed their customers. The kimono was secured to my body with thin cloth straps pulled very tight, almost as if it was a Japanese corset. The obi was bright orange - the obi is always brighter than the kimono. Usually large intricate bows are tied, but to speed up the process, the shop had pre-made bows that they just slipped onto the back. Maiko have long strands of the obi flowing behind them and geisha have much smaller bows.

For the final touch, I put on a wig. Yes, traditionally maiko and geisha would spend hours putting their hair into various twists and buns adorned with flowers and combs. Depending on the rank and event, the hairstyle would vary tremendously. I can’t even begin to tell you the differences between them all. Since my hair is not black nor did we have the time to do it up perfectly, instead a helmet-like wig was used.

And voila! I was a maiko!

Ready for my Close-up
After my transformation I had my photo shoot with the most bizarre photographer ever. He clearly was weirded out to have foreigners there, spoke little English, and to compensate for it would just laugh. All the poses were pre-determined and every girl does the same exact ones. No room for creativity. This posed a problem for me for a few reasons. When someone tells me to tilt my head a certain way it is pretty damn awkward. Then he would have us look at a certain point where his hand was and then he would take it away, left with no idea where to keep looking. About a quarter into my photo shoot I started getting pissed off and asked to see my photos. I also am not used to taking photos with my mouth closed so was afraid I was looking completely awkward. In true Japanese fashion, for some reason I was not allowed to view my photos on the digital camera, despite how easy it would be for me to see them. I was paying a lot of money for these photos and I wanted them to be good. Carolina with her amazing Japanese comes in and stands up for me. Stupid photographer laughs and tells me they are fine. The rest of the time Carolina stood there to make sure I looked okay. She kept telling me to relax but well, hard to relax since I was already so pissed off. He even failed to give me a mirror so I could look at my smile. Since it was a torrential downpour outside, we chose not to roam the streets of Gion.

After my questionable photo shoot we got undressed and took some rather frightening Kiss-inspired photos. When we got our negatives, some were really good, some were bad, and overall we just looked so strange dressed up! The one with a double chin was definitely horrendous. I sent a photo to my friends on my cell phone and they all responded, “We didn’t even recognize you!”

Overall it was an incredible experience and I am so glad I did it during my time in Japan. I would definitely consider doing it again later in life with friends or family that come to Japan to visit, but would definitely look into a different company. As fun as it was, I don’t think I am cut out for a life of playing the shamisen, dancing, and singing. Yet it was great to be a maiko for one afternoon- I felt like Japanese Barbie!

And the moral of this story is: Wanna pull my obi?

*My professional photos are coming soon when they company sends them!!

Geisha info found at

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14th July 2007

wow. this is incredible..i finally ended up to read your journal..and how i miss japan now! whats even actually made this! sugoi! how did natto taste? ;) (can you finish your list..?) greetings from iceland which is hot! (well..not hot but amazing warm..)

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