Dressing up as a Geisha or Maiko apprentice is much tougher than squeezing into one of those inflatable sumo wrestling suits.
Unlike tourist photo-ops that encourage you to put on silly wigs, slap on a cheesy fake mustache or strap on a one-size-fits-all costume over your street clothes, going Geisha on the streets of Kyoto is a two-hour transformation experience.
Guest blogger Glennyce Paetzmann, who visited the ancient Japanese capital back in 2003, reflects on the most amazing two hours of her life…
Yumekoubou Studio is a bit higher end than the usual boardwalk tourist traps, where they drape Ye Olde dresses over your regular clothes and print the photos in sepia tone, but the sentiment is the same. I notice pretty quickly that there are no westerners in the sample photography that covers the walls. I figure this is for two reasons: either no westerners have ever been to Yumekoubou Studio, or the photographers have recognized that caucasian faces look ridiculous when done up in Japanese finery, and they don’t want to risk a change of heart.
The white make-up is powder based, so while it cakes my whole face, I barely feel it. I’m more bothered by the hairnet they’re making me wear. My hair is the shortest it’s ever been at this point, and I know that, after an hour of being smooshed under a heavy wig, I’ll be walking back to our hotel with Albert Einstein hair.
The make-up goes on quickly. It’s the wig an kimono that are the difficult parts. My head’s not quite the right shape for these heavy headpieces. They put on and take off at least three different pieces before they find the one that doesn’t pull away from my face and threaten to fall down my back.
It takes three of us to put on the kimono: I hold my arms up away from my body like an airplane, and the first woman folds the sleeves around my elbows. She then folds the heavy silk skirts up against my stomach while a second woman circles me with strips of linen, tying it all in place. The obi sash is relatively painless, until they hook the big bow onto the back. Between the wig, the bow, and the heavy kimono, I must be wearing an extra thirty pounds.
Not pictured are the two inch platform sandals that the costumers assure me is authentic to the geisha experience. When I say “two inch,” I mean mostly two inch. There’s significantly less platform under my toes than is under my heel, and while that’s perfect for striking dramatic poses with paper fans, it’s also perfect for tipping forward onto your face.
We may have had a passing thought to stroll the sidewalks of Kyoto with the wigs and kimonos, but that all ended when we put those shoes on. I’m not exaggerating when I say they were the absolute worst. They must be designed specifically to keep girls from moving too fast. If you’re even slightly off balance – SPLAT! Right on your face. It was a major feat just to shuffle across the studio just to get in front of the backdrop.
Suddenly, the counter-weight of the bow makes so much sense.
“Look here,” the photographer says, raising his hand. “Don’t smile.” Not that I would. I take good care of my teeth, but against the clean white make-up, it my mouth is an attractive shade of antique yellow. You would think I had smoked since birth. My lips are sealed. Besides, I’m too preoccupied with not falling off my shoes to smile.
After, when the make-up comes off and I look like Eraserhead from the neck up, Fushiko lets us pick our three favorite prints. Julie, my traveling companion, is Vietnamese by birth, so her photos look a bit more authentic, while mine look a bit like the photo call for Small Town Community Players upcoming performance of Mme. Butterfly. Geisha make-up just isn’t designed to highlight Caucasian features, but I don’t mind that much.
Crazy shoes aside, I’ve never felt more fabulous!
(Read more of Glennyce Paetzmann’s adventures at This American Tourist.)
“It may be the most unflattering photograph I’ve ever taken, but I have also been in a costume booth, once, in Old San Francisco. I’m pretty certain my sister and I were dressed like Victorian Ladies, but we may have been brothel madams.”
“It was the end of the day, so we were both super tired and a bit sweaty, and not at all putting in the effort, but I think that lent a little something in the way of stuffy Victorian Lady-ism. And the whole thing is extra delicious, because in my off-the-shoulder dress, you can see the major tan lines I earned working as an outdoor life guard all summer. If I had it, I would send it to you, but alas, it was “accidentally” left behind.”