Have you ever wanted to feel so beautiful, desired, pure and untouchable for a short, but extremely real, portion of your life? If your answer is yes, i totally recommend living the the authentic life of "Memoirs of a Geisha" in Gion, Kyoto, Japan. I have to admit; it was one of my most special and memorable days in my travelling life, where I felt constantly in awe and wide-eyed in delight.
My friend and I rode on our hired bikes to the small and quaint "Geisha" district in Kyoto. Gion is a famous area known for rare sightings of the real-life trained "geiko" or "maiko". Unknown to most of the population, these women are far from being "men entertainers" or even "prostitutes" and are held up on pedestals for being extremely talented and educated woman, trained for upper class entertainment. The women are highly experienced in traditional Japanese arts such as dance and music, as well as the art of communication. They are very respected for their unusual talent at making guests feel at ease throughout their banquets and functions using conversation, dance performances and drinking games.
Japanese girls, typically at the age of 15, move into the special houses (known as okiya) to become a maiko (geisha apprentice) and then a geiko once fully trained. They tend to walk through the small district dressed fully in their "geisha" wear, including full hair and makeup. It is not usual for the geishas to be approached while they go from one place to another, and walk with small and fast-paced steps. If you blink you may actually miss them, seeing merely a quick flash or colour and small shy smile.
I heard on the grapevine that as a white girl from Australia, desperately searching for a geisha in Gion, was not as far as my traditional experience had to go. There is actually an opportunity to dress up in complete exotic and traditional maiko costume and explore the streets of Gion. We went to a tiny studio in the heart of the district called AYA, where you can book in your session to be transformed into a maiko (geisha)!
When you arrive you are taken into a small room, after swapping your shoes to cute wooden clogs, to sit on a fluffy cushion on the floor. While you wait for you turn to enter the makeup room you are asked to pick your chosen amount of professional photos, taken by the Geisha photographer.
From the moment I stepped into the studio I felt taken away by fantasy. Feeling right in character from the beginning I welcomed the white "paint-like" foundation to my face and neck for full coverage, thick eye liner and delicate red lips. The next step was disguising the fact that I have extremely blonde hair, so they placed a wig on top of my head, sewn tightly to my own hair. (warning, this can feel quite heavy and painful for the duration of the geisha experience - but if you ask me, totally worth it). They then spray painted my hair (note: don't worry, it is easily washed out with water) with black hair spray. They then take you up to the costume studio where you can pick layers upon layers of delectable Geisha clothing; including kimonos, obis, accessories, shoes and bags. I was constantly astounded every time they put another layer of clothing on me, I felt in awe of the girls that dressed like this every day!
The finished product was heavy, and felt restricting. The bodice was tied tightly around my body with different ropes and ties, as a form of making the girls slimmer. The kimono sat on top gracefully, and the jewels and hair pieces made me feel like a princess. We put on stiff wooden clogs, and after taking a few steps in them I suddenly understood why Japanese women tend to take small and quick steps. But overall, I felt amazing and looked like a Japanese Goddess. I was plunged into life as Geisha.
We had one hour to walk around the streets of Gion in true Geisha fashion. The moment we stepped outside I could feel all eyes on me. It was like Angelina Jolie was walking around in Times Square. I felt completely famous, desired, pure and..shy! I am not a shy person at all, but being in Geisha character, I felt an odd likeness to being quiet and softly spoken. We didn't get very far down the road, maybe 100m in total. Every person we passed, tourist, Japanese local, even other people dressed as Geishas, all wanted to take our photo. We smiled and obeyed. One American man was so convinced of our characters he even said to us; "You speak great English for a Japanese girl". I meekly replied "arigatou" (Thank you in Japanese) and kept walking, a sly smile on my face. During the walking experience, we could also take as many of our own photos on our personal cameras as we liked.
If you visit Japan and would like the experience of a life-time, 3 hours in the life of a Geisha; I highly recommend you book through AYA. You can easily visit their website and send them an email enquiry. They respond efficiently and make it a very simple process. Please click HERE to visit the AYA website.