Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on December 2004
Bijin ni toshi nashi, or “beautiful women have no age,” goes the ancient Japanese proverb. On the gently sloping hillsides of east Kyoto, where 500-year-old temples rise out of maple forests and winding flagstone paths divide neighborhoods, there’s no shortage of beautiful women these days.
Around late afternoon, you might glimpse them: the flutter of a sky blue kimono here, the glimmer of a hair ornament there. Or perhaps you catch a whiff of some provocative fragrance as you make your way through the laneways of dangerously leaning wooden restaurants and teahouses of the Pontocho, Kiyomizu-zaka or Gion precincts. While geisha-spotting has long been a highlight for visitors to Kyoto, the wise locals will have you know that “not all that glimmers is gold.”
Thanks to a burgeoning industry called geisha henshin, or “geisha transformation,” the city is brimming with young (and not-so-young) women fulfilling the fantasy of becoming a geisha or maiko (geisha in training) for a day.
“Maiko and geisha are just so gorgeous! Their kimono are elegant and stylish, and the way they move is extremely feminine. Their lifestyle seems far more mysterious and exotic than my own,” says Masami Hamada, a 30-year-old office worker from western Honshu’s Himeji City, as she waits excitedly in the lounge of Maiko-henshin Studio Shiki near the imposing Kyomizu Temple.
More than 40 studios now offer women, both Japanese and non-Japanese, the chance to “transform” themselves into geisha and maiko with full regalia, while men can let loose their macho desires by donning the duds of a samurai warrior, complete with authentic sword and ponytail/skin wig called a chon-mage.
With an estimated 80,000 tourists a year doling out between ¥8,000-15,000 for a makeover-which takes around an hour and includes kimono, wig, cosmetics, a studio photo shoot, and an optional 30-minute amble around the local neighborhood-business is far from sluggish in the henshin trade. Kimono designs, makeup quality and prices span the spectrum, with some studios offering packages costing up to ¥35,000 for album “glamour” shoots and the chance to slip into a designer-label kimono.
At Studio Shiki, the excitable giggles of waiting customers are audible from the street. One by one they are called into the changing salon and asked to select a design from a rack straining with thickly embroidered kimono. Then, after being wrapped in a plain white cotton robe and seated, the makeup session begins with a smothering of sticky chalk-white foundation called doran-the trademark of the maiko and geisha. This is followed by a dusting of pink blush across the cheeks, with rouge applied to the eyelids, first lightly and then thickly, to create a set of small, strawberry-shaped lips. Coal-black eyebrows are penciled in to complete “the look.”
“It’s wonderfully simple, yet the effect is so exotic,” Hamada says of her new face, barely managing to smile beneath the thick layer of doran.
Thanks to ready-made wigs that can be adorned with (plastic) wisteria flowers and a vast array of silver trinkets, would-be maiko are spared the tedium of doing their own hair, which real novices must fix daily. Not all customers can handle the weight of this massive hairpiece, which is “clamped” to the head so tightly that it occasionally induces nausea and vomiting in some, while leaving a painful impression on the scalps of others. “If we didn’t attach the wigs so firmly, we’d have geisha losing their heads all over Gion.” explains one Studio Shiki staff member.
Once the studio photos have been taken, many aspiring maiko and geisha choose to step into the streets of the ancient capital. Most studios allow a 30min stroll for an extra charge, usually in the company of a staff member who will recommend the most scenic route and keep the shakier-of-leg from toppling over as they come to grips with their towering okobo wooden clogs.
It’s worth remembering that during autumn, when the hillsides are burning with red and orange maple tree leaves, the streets surrounding Kiyomizu temple teem with sightseers looking for that special photo to remind them of Kyoto. Step out dressed as a geisha around this time and you may just be it.
Getting there: Both the Nozomi (¥13,320) and the slower Hikari (¥13,020) shinakansen travel to Kyoto from Tokyo or Shinagawa station. JR English Info line: 03-3423-0111. The Maiko-henshin Studio Shiki is located at 351-16 Masuya-cho, Koudaiji, Higashiyama-ku. Tel: 75-531-2777. Open hours are 9am-9pm, though reservations are available 7am-11pm. Henshin rates: Maiko ¥9,500, Geisha ¥11,500, Samurai ¥ 8,500. The Kyoto Tourist Information Center (75-371-5649) provides maps and can recommend studios across the city to suit all budgets.