Soft chilled bristles skimmed my face, leaving behind pigments of white that would transform me into the traditional and alluring image that many pause to gaze upon. As pink dust was patted atop the white, I felt again the coolness of the full brush tracing patterns across my neck and between my shoulders – this was really happening. When finally allowed to open my eyes, I stared at a face that seemed familiar but looked anything but! My eyes stood out more than usual and I could really see just how tired I looked, but that is hardly the point now, is it. My lips were kissed with a rich red stain that followed a different path for definition. Shuffling away from the line of seated women being transformed, I was moved into a room many Japanese women would salivate over – the kimono room. Displayed so elegantly, with a respect I have never seen before for fabric, the array of colour-coded kimonos was somewhat overwhelming. The sensation of touching the heavy woven materials was surreal, with their gold embroidery and accented floral patterns, each told a story and each encapsulated elements of what makes Japan so culturally unique.
Netted and pinned, a wig of interesting proportions, known as a zen-katsura, was placed upon my head and secured.
The picture of what I was becoming was getting clearer by the second.
Feeling like a princess being dressed for a ball, the art of donning a kimono is not a simple task. There is the undergarment (Hadajuban) that is first wrapped around the body and tightened, followed by a mid layer that is made like a cape with structured collar (Nagajuban and Eri). This is secured in and of itself due to its weight through the shoulders, however is further made to stay in place with a torso cummerbund-style piece of fabric (Koshihimo). Being half way done at this point, a beautiful belt was then fastened around the torso layer (Datejime) – its ornate buckle tickled with cherry blossoms. Unfortunately this belt is never to be seen. The final stages are an operation as the chosen kimono is draped over the confining layers and then secured by a padded outer torso fabric (Obi) to be tightened like a corset. As if security were an issue, a final silk belt (Obijime) is tied around the Obi to complete the process.
Finally, with bag, headpieces and wooden shoes the picture was complete – some two hours later. I became a geisha.
Walking the streets and taking a rickshaw ride around Gion was an experience I shall never forget. I used to think that if I saw a real geisha that they would see I was a lovely Australian and stop to take a photo with me. I now have a newfound respect for geisha.
For two hours, I felt famous….and while it was absolutely crazy, it was equally exhausting! Cameras were pointing in my direction 92% of the time, with locals and tourists stopping to have a photo. At one point I thought I was about to pass out due to the heaviness and stabbing nature of the wig. Then I reminded myself that beauty is pain and this moment will never come again!
The elegance of a geisha goes beyond the kimono and headdress – for in their seemingly blank expressions they keep the allure and prestige of what they do a mystery, something only to be experienced by those worthy of such entertainment. Don’t think for a moment that a geisha is some form of prostitute, because you are sorely mistaken. The term ‘geisha’ itself means artist and they are therefore living embodiments of the Japanese arts. They help keep traditional dance, tea, music, and dress alive in our modern world.
I found it hard not to crack a smile as the whole scene was so amusing. Not only was I the tallest geisha out, I was a fake. Yet fake as I may have been, the hype was anything but.
I was lucky enough to meet two photographers along the way who took independent photos of the geisha journey. So to Art and Antonin, I thank you for capturing the candid moments.
For anyone thinking of visiting Kyoto, I highly recommend the geisha or samurai experience for it really is something unique and a great memory. Studio Shiki had the most competitive deals at the time I was in Kyoto – you can check them out here.
Oh, and I did see a real geisha! The scene was beyond what I could have hoped for and the picture, itself, captures the true essence of the moment. I was with my American solo travelling bud, Ian and we turned into the street where you can only hope to see geisha moving like the wind to or from their appointments. Ian suddenly quips “there, there, there” and all I remember doing was pushing the ‘on’ button of my camera over and over and just pointing and pressing the capture button. Bam – the best photo I have ever seen was taken!! I love that the focus is off and that there is so much movement, for that is exactly the experience. She was there…and then she was gone. Like a dream. My time in Kyoto was done, as far as I was concerned at that point! I should have left right then and there, for a few hours later….my phone was stollen! Ha.
“It is not for geisha to want.
It is not for geisha to feel.
Geisha is an artist of the floating world.
She entertains you.
Whatever you want.
The rest is shadows.
The rest is secret.”
– Memoirs of a Geisha (2005)