Wednesday, April 7, 2010

I Know How a Celebrity Feels

Okay, it's one of those cheesy experiences.

It's also very touristic and contrived. But it also one of my favorite memories now of Japan.

I'm talking about dressing like a geisha and strolling through historic streets of Kyoto.
So what exactly are geisha?

They are entertainers who practice traditional dancing and singing, play instruments, and engage in witty conversation. Are they really prostitutes underneath it all? It's hard to say. We couldn't find anyone who would describe them that way. Instead think "Courtesan."
While there used to be as many 80,000 geisha slinking around the backstreets and pouring sake for businessmen in Japan, today it is believed there are only about 1000. Moreover, they don't come cheaply. Clients often pay thousands of dollars for a geisha's exclusive entertainment. But more on that later.
So my friend Diana and I decided to enter the mysterious geisha world and find out what it's all about.

Turns out there's a lot of prep work and a certain degree of discomfort. It took almost 45 minutes to get the makeup on and about 15 minutes to put on all the undergarments. I can't even tell you how many pieces and parts are strapped this way and that underneath the kimono. In Diana's case, she was uncomfortable with the heavy wig; As for me, I had a temporary moment of claustrophobia with all the articles on clothing on me.
But we got over that quickly as soon as we hobbled around the streets in our wooden sandals and got a celebrity welcome...
It might have been the novelty of a huge lumbering foreigner dressed up as a geisha, but we were like Moses parting the Red Sea. Crowds split and formed around us. I think about 100 people took our picture. This is what it must feel like to be Angelina Jolie.

And even though now I'm freaked out by the pasty white makeup and pink eyeliner and wonder how I didn't wipe out in those shoes-- at the time, I felt so elegant.
Later that night, as Diana and I were strolling through Gion, we noticed a frenzy of activity outside an expensive club. Right before us, posed two actual real geisha with their group of wealthy businessmen. I mean, look at that one guy on the right. He's wearing an ascot!
Kyoto Travel Tip #2

Overall, dressing like a geisha was so fun. I highly recommend this experience. There are dozens of photography studios in Kyoto offering this service, but we used Maiko Studio Shiki and chose the Maiko Stroll Plan, which included a book of 10 portraits inside the studio and a hour walking around outside. Young girls can also participate and men can dress as samurai.

More geisha stories to come, including what my husband said upon viewing the studio portraits. Men just have a different way with words, I guess...


K and S said...

I did this too, it was fun until I had to try to take off all that make up and wash my hair of all the "stuff" they put into it...

Mary and Sean said...

K and S,
Yes, I neglected to mention the hair goo! I couldn't get it all out and had matted hair for a day or two.

My friend and I decided to wash the white off our faces, but we actually wore the eye makeup and fake eyelashes the rest of the day!

shopgirl said...

Mary - this is too cool for words! You two were so brave! I don't think I could ever do this. I don't like any attention.

Did your husband, Sean, take any video footage? It would be cool to watch.

I love this post!

Rambles with Reese

Erica said...

Kyoto was one of my most favorite places, however, it is more humid than Houston in July and I didn't think that it was possible to achieve that.

I miss Japan dearly. Have you guys gone to a "stand up" bar there?

Mary and Sean said...


Why no, what's a stand up bar? Wait, is it one of those places where you see men standing behind a curtain eating their lunch?

Eve said...

Mary - I wanted to visit Kyoto before, but after this post I am sold! You are a beautiful geisha! What an incredible Japan experience.

Dina VagabondQuest said...

Fun article! What a great experience, and great photographs too you made! Was the white make up easy to come off? I will be nervous having that make up because I often touch my face, potentially destroy the make up?

My husband (boyfriend back then) and I went to Kyoto many years ago, and unfortunately we didn't see a single geisha in Gion! Maybe wrong tming and not patient enough to wait.

Stacie said...

That must have been so cool! You make a beautiful Geisha too...

Mary R said...

I was worried about the white makeup too, but it didn't irritate my skin and it washed off easily.

I remember reading somewhere that historically many geisha developed serious skin conditions from it. Today, it's safe.

Bogusia said...

Dear Mary and Dianka, you look wonderful, you brave girls :)
I am so glad you are experiencing this great adventure. I wish I was there with you. You are having an amazing blog Mary, your writing and pictures are perfect. I am learning so much about the world. Congratulations! and thank you.

Diana's Mama


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