It is estimated that only about 1,000 real geisha currently practice this traditional art in the entire country of Japan, and unless you have big bucks to spend, you're probably not ever going to get more than a glimpse of one. To summarize the wiki article (linked above, it's quite interesting): geisha are artists who are trained in dance, song, and other forms of entertainment to be able to entertain guests. The misconception about them being prostitutes comes from people making stuff up since the institution is so secretive.
The Gion district of Kyoto is apparently the most geisha-tastic area of Japan; the most prominent geisha can be found here. Geisha is plural for geisha, by the way, so work with that. We've seen a total of eight-ish geisha in our time here, and apparently they're all fake. The real geisha only come out at dusk and walk briskly to their destination. The many other geisha walking around are people who pay to dress up like geisha and take pictures. But since they're commonly Japanese girls, they look real to me. See? They look nice, I think:
The point is, we realized that you can pay to dress up like a geisha and take pictures; Alana and I thought that sounded like a fabulous idea. We found this really nice website for a place in Kyoto and went to stake it out. I figured they would be booked up since they have a reservation form that talks about reserving weeks in advance, but the lady said she could squeeze us in at 5pm that day! We were super excited.
Arriving back at 5pm to start or geisha journey, we spent the next two hours in a little house with very short doorways being primped and prepped as geisha. This is the tale of what happens behind fake geisha doors.
We were brought into a locker room and told, in broken English, to strip down to our undies and put on a little robe. There were lockers to store our stuff and they gave us a tiny cute wicker basket to put our camera and locker keys in to take with us. There were some other Japanese girls in the tiny room who were taking their makeup off; they had just finished their geisha experiences. Upon noting my confusion on how to strap the robe on (you had to put the rope through a hole in the side of the robe...more complex than necessary), one of the girls came over to help me secure my robe. When she wrapped the rope around me the right way it barely met again in the front. I could not tie a bow like I was supposed to and instead had to tie a tiny knot. Damn tiny clothing. Robed (or, partially robed for me), we proceeded across the hall to the makeup room.
We were each sat on a stool next to each other facing a mirrored wall. We each had a girl to make us up. They began by putting a little netting over our hair to secure the hair down. Next, some baby oil went on our faces and necks, followed by some wax which the girl said was makeup base. After that they used big, flat, semi-circular brushes to lather on white paint to our faces and necks. Back of the neck, chest, neck, chin, and bottom half of the face were covered in about 30 seconds. They they used a slightly pinker color on the forehead, eyes and cheeks, though the colors looked the same when I opened my eyes. Next they took a big puffy thing that looks like what you use to apply powder (like over your foundation makeup) and slapped our faces and necks with it to make a nice even look to get rid of the brush strokes.
We were ghost white and it was weird. They then used some pink blush on our eyelids and below our eyes. A lot of this is very subtle but ends up with a very nice look; I was surprised at how intricate it all was. Then came the red eyeliner along the bottom of our eyes, then red, brown and black eyebrow pencil, then black liquid eyeliner along the top of the lids. My girl asked me to smile (closed mouth smile) and painted on my bright red lips. Mascara on the top lashes and we were all geisha-faced.
Next came the hair. I had been wondering how they did this since all the hair in pictures seemed to look real. But it can't be real, and they certainly can't do that hair style with my blond wispy hair. They took some hair on the front of my head out of the hair net and put a huge, heavy black wig behind it. They use some thread to weave the wig into my hair on the top of my head so it was a bit more secure. The thing is heavy and uncomfortable, just for the record. But now we both had wigs on with our own mismatched hair sticking out the front. The girls put some wax in our front hair and started to comb it back over the wig behind it so that our hair blended with the wig. That's how they make it look real, good thinking. Here's a shot of me as the girl is doing this, I call it my Cruella Deville look:
After our hair was done they sprayed it black (for both of us, but I assume they had to use more on me) and we were sort of unrecognizable at that point. They then led us upstairs to another mirrored room where we picked our kimonos. I got there about two minutes before Alana and I thought the girl was just going to pick one for me. But she motioned me to choose so I pointed to a blue kimono. The girl made a face. I shrugged and told her to pick for me. She pointed to a red one and said it was nicer. I said ok and she started the process of putting it on me while I stood in front of the mirror. Alana came in shortly after and picked another red kimono; I felt a bit bad because I knew she had wanted red in the first place and now we both had red ones. Oh well. Now we're Best Geisha Forever.
The process of putting on a kimono is long and tedious and involves being wrapped in many, many layers and having many strips of fabric tied around you to hold each layer a certain way. It's sort of ridiculous how much fabric is used, how much the configuration covers the female form (I was just a cylindrical blob by the end), and how heavy the uniform is. I quickly rescinded on any previous desires I had to be a geisha; between the wig and the kimono I would not stand a chance. And they didn't even put us in the platform sandals that normal geisha wear, thank goodness.
When we were done with the kimono they added a few things to our hair (I sat on a stool so the girl could reach, as pictured above) and then we were taken into an adjacent room to take pictures. Kane and Marc arrived at this point and started taking pictures with their cameras as we posed for the professional pictures. A woman and a man handled posing the both of us; there were two rooms where the pictures were taken and we alternated taking pics in each. We each got four poses and were instructed where and how to stand for each of them. It was pretty cool. Marc and Kane got some pics while we did all this too, seen below (click to enlarge).
Next we were taken to a little tiny garden in the middle of the building and were told we could take our own pictures there for ten minutes, which was really awesome. We posed and the boys snapped pics for longer than the allotted time and we got some decent shots. Good geisha and goofy geisha pics were taken, see collage below and click to enlarge.
Then the boys were sent out to the waiting area and we went back into the kimono room where we were de-burritoed, then down to the makeup room where our wigs were removed. We then went back to the locker room to take off the makeup and wash out the hair dye. Note: they use baby oil to remove makeup here and I'm not a huge fan of that. My hair dye would not come out all the way, so I put in a ponytail and went back out to the waiting room (after getting dressed). In the waiting room they gave us a little booklet of our pics (4-5x7s each and 1-5x7 of the picture we took together) and we paid our moneys. For the dress up, the four picture poses, one pose of us together, and one of all four of us (they let the boys get in one also) it was US$140! Expensive, yes. Worth it, totally.
Most fun thing ever. I love fake geisha dress up.
*The title was originally meant to be a play on the song "Walk Like a Man" by the Four Seasons, but now that I look at it, it works more with "Walk Like an Egyptian" by the Bangles. Interpret as you wish.