Even before I moved to Japan, there were a few things that I had always been curious about this country, thanks to having read about them a lot online, seen them in movies or in magazines and news. I have always been fascinated about the astounding geisha world.
So when Tokyo Survival Channel challenged me to learn all I could about geisha and then use the concept to create my own inspired look, I was more than thrilled to dive right in.
For the complete geisha experience, I first decided to check a few documentaries online that detail the story of real life geisha in their own words, while also taking us through what goes behind the scenes like their training, transitioning from maiko to geiko.
What is a Geisha?
A geisha is known for her white makeup, elaborate kimono and distinct hairdo – and they have been known to work as entertainers or host parties and tea ceremonies since the 1760’s. But as I set out to explore more about geisha I realised that their work and skills are much more significant.
They are highly skilled and trained in performing arts like dance, singing, musical instruments and more.
Geisha is a word that consists of two Kanji characters 芸 (gei) meaning “art” and 者 (sha) meaning “person.” So in its literal sense, a geisha is a performing artist or artisan. Despite a common misconception, they were not prostitutes. In fact, sex with clientelle was stricly forbidden. Yes, they were hired by wealthy men for entertainment, but it mainly involved witty banter, dancing, and party games rather than intercourse.
Being a geisha was, in fact, the first respectable occupation afforded to women in Japan, and they were considered role models for young girls across the country.
There are two terms popular for a geisha in Japan – maiko and geiko. Girls between the age 15-20 are traditionally known as maiko, while girls above 20 years of age, who are considered too old to be a maiko, make their debut as geisha. Most maikos stay at an okiya (a geisha house) while they undergo training under other older geisha sisters.
What Does a Geisha Do?
A BBC documentary that I saw followed the story of a 16-year old girl’s shikomi (training) for becoming a maiko. A maiko has to train for a few months or up to a year before her formal debut, after which she can finally accompany other geisha to events and parties.
While I used to think that Geishas just do a traditional dance during an event, the documentary did open my eyes about how they go through an extensive training that involves formal arts training – including traditional musical instruments, singing, poetry, various forms of dances etc. They train on conducting tea ceremonies, being a sophisticated hostess, as well as social skills – a skill that sets them apart from any other entertainers or artists.
Once the training is over, and a maiko is formally able to host parties with other geisha sisters, she has to work around for five years and perfect her skills to finally become a geisha. A geisha’s allure, elegance, and incomparable hospitality is a result of years of discipline, determination and hard training.
Now for my favorite part—the elaborate outfits that geisha get to wear. Fun fact, when I was in nursery school my mother had dressed me in a kimono, sash and a lovely hand fan for a school competition. A Japanese kimono is definitely one of the most exquisite outfits I have ever seen; and geisha get to own and wear these unique ensembles every day—for work.
Kimono are made of rich silk and feature intricate designs, craftsmanship, and embroidery. The long sleeves and asymmetric hemline with a long train really brings life to their graceful movements while they perform traditional Japanese dances.
The kimono is definitely incomplete without the obi (sash) which is between 13-16 feet long and is always tied with the help of a professional dresser, since it’s too heavy to be managed by the wearer alone.
Another documentary showed how much effort it takes to neatly tie an obi with the help of stiffeners (looked like thin pieces of cardboard), ribbons and undersashes. I am really in awe that geisha can wear such heavy outfits so often without ever losing patience or hurting their backs (The heaviest outfit I ever wore was my wedding lehenga that easily weighed around 10kgs, but that was for just 10-12 hours and I literally wanted to get out of it as soon as the ceremony was over).
A single kimono outfit can set them back for at least $10,000. A maiko has to work for at least 5 years to pay back for her training and attire costs.
Geisha Hair & Makeup
Japanese women have always been trendsetters when it comes to hair and makeup, whether it’s their bold choices in hair color, micro fringe hair or the kawaii makeup.
Geisha have also always been an epitome of style and beauty with their soft makeup and striking hair that sets them apart in the crowd.
The most recognizable feature of a geisha is the white face. Why would they want to paint their face white? Well, it’s said that in old times most tea houses had to use candles instead of electricity. Since the candle light is not too bright, geisha would paint their faces white to enhance their features and look more beautiful in the dim lighting.
Along with white paint on the face, they add a flush of color to their eyebrows, cheeks and eyelids. However when it comes to enhancing their lips, maiko apply lipstick only on their lower lip to look cute while geisha go with a fuller look, coloring both top and bottom lips.
For their hairdos, they mostly have to visit a professional hairdresser, where it might take them 45-60 minutes to get their hair done in an elaborate manner (mostly a wig or extensions that give the appearance of a voluminous bun). To enhance their hair, a lot of ornaments like dangling flowers, pins etc are used.
MY Take on Geisha Makeup and Style
Now comes my favourite part of this challenge, turning myself to a geisha – or let’s say a fusion/modern geisha. I wanted to do my own rendition of a Geisha’s style that’s more modern, chic and easy to wear even on a casual day or a day at work.
To help me in this challenge, the very talented Japanese designer Keiko Tagai sent over a stunning dress and a mini beret from her latest collection. She is a self-trained fashion designer who is passionate about Japanese culture and style, which shine through in her modern yet traditional designs that epitomize the heart of Japan.
The kimono-inspired dress I received features a hand-drawn dragon artwork by artist Tsuyoshi representing female strength. The beauty of this outfit is that it can be styled in more ways than one. It can not only be worn sleeveless or like a poncho; but also you can wear it as a dress or style it with pants or layered over a plain dress.
Since the dress was too short for me to be worn as it is, I decided to pair it with a tiered black skirt that added length and volume to the outfit, just like you’d see in a traditional geisha outfit.
To represent the obi (sash), I took out a waist belt from my closet that cinched the waist and added more definition to my attire.
I absolutely fell in love with the mini beret by Keiko Tagai that’s made from 100% silk kimono and features this stunning floral pattern in bright colors. It has attached hair pins that made it so easy to wear and didn’t move one bit the entire time I wore it for the shoot.
I finished off the look with black heels, though I really wished I had those sleek high wedges that geisha often wear to ensure their kimono doesn’t touch the floor. The only other accessories I wore were these traditional lotus-inspired earrings I bought in India to give this look a personal fusion touch; and this elegantly embroidered hand fan from my trip to China. Finally, a chance to use it!
Coming to my makeup, I wanted to add elements from Indian culture like bold eyes, fuller lips and thicker eyebrows; which is definitely a contrast to geisha makeup – I did, however, keep the crimson lip.
Now, I am not a makeup pro, but I have a huge makeup stash which has been lying around ever since I moved to Tokyo, as I have been mostly staying at home due to the COVID-19. Thankfully, I finally got to use some of my products to create this look.
For my hair, I tried to do a messy bun that I have seen many maiko do when they are more casually dressed. I am actually really bad at doing hairstyles on my own, but a side bun was actually quite easy to manage and it really complimented the whole look.
My entire look represents a modern-day geisha who is independent, comfortable in her skin, and isn’t afraid to blend her culture with personal style.
A More Dramatically Geisha-Inspired Me
Because I couldn’t finish this challenge without pulling all the stops, I made another more heavily geisha-inspired look that’s a complete 180 degree change for me.
It was really difficult nailing the look I was trying to achieve, therefore I did multiple makeup trials before the final shoot (had to beg my husband to click these amazing pictures for me).
I still kept an Indian touch with my heavy dangly earrings, which ended up pulling the entire look together. What do you think? I think I nailed it.
How to Explore Geisha Culture as a Tourist / Foreigner Living in Tokyo?
If you really wish to explore the geisha culture and learn more about them, I would recommend attending one of the below experiences that were previously very exclusive, but have now opened up their doors for regular tourists and are available in many parts of Japan, including Tokyo.
There are many makeover studios where one can get dressed as a geisha and have professional pictures taken for about 12,000 yen. Or you can skip the photos and parade yourself around in the elaborate kimono outfits.
For an exclusive experience, it’s best to book a package that includes a special performance by maiko/geiko, dinner and some games that start from around 12,000 yen per person – these packages are done in small groups of 5-10 people. But for a really private experience, you can book a session at a tea house that will cost around 50,000 yen.
Now that I have learnt so much about geisha and how truly respectable and amazing their journey is, I can’t wait to go for an exclusive experience with them myself. Here’s hoping for a quick return to normal so that I can meet a real life geisha and tell them in person how much I admire them.