Posted by: thewhitesintokyo | May 4, 2009

Memoirs of the Gaijin Geisha

If I saw this photo sitting on a shelf, there’s no way that I would recognize my wife was one of the immaculately dressed and prepared geishas in the photo.

In Kyoto, Rachael and Jenn decided they would love to try dressing up in the geisha style. True geisha, however, are truly amazing performers that have many talents and a certain code of conduct. We made an appointment at a “maiko” shop, which caters to those of us who find the geisha culture interesting and might want to try it firsthand. “Maiko” are simply young women who are apprenticing to become geisha. According to my travel book it is currently thought that there are less than 1000 geisha left in all of Japan, so it is an art form and a culture that is certainly still around, but not prevalent in the popular culture of modern Japan.

The word geisha roughly translates to “performing artist” (or person that performs). For one night in the company of geisha, you first have to have connections. The restaurants and other establishments that have geisha entertainers only allow friends of established patrons to come in. As a foreigner, that’s next to impossible. Plus, there’s the language barrier and the average cost of $3,000 per evening that would definitely keep us from ever enjoying the geisha experience.

(Real maiko, left —- Rachael the maiko, right)

When many foreigners hear the word geisha, their first impressions and understandings seem to relate to prostitution. However, “true” geisha are not prostitutes at all. They are meant to be pleasant entertainment professionals. Most of that misconception comes from the American GIs calling Japanese women “geisha girls” when they weren’t really geisha at all. With their expertise in various art forms of music and dancing, along with being notorious for having a strong wit, geisha provide individuals or groups an evening of exclusive private entertainment. There have been many instances of prostitutes advertising themselves as geisha and misconceptions like that of the GIs, but in general the geisha world seems to hold a high level of respect and wonder in the imagination of the Japanese and foreigners like us.

So, that’s why Rachael and Jenn gave it a shot. Look carefully at the elaborate makeup and wigs that took nearly an hour to apply. The makeup is even applied around the upper back and neck to accentuate this “sensual” area of the woman’s body. Amazingly, the wigs were so heavy that Rachael and Jenn both have small bruises on their foreheads from the weight of the wig pressing down! Also, they each wore 5 or 6 layers of robes, each wrapped tightly enough to feel similar to wearing a corset. Apparently actual maiko will wear as many as 15 robes at a time.

Here are a few shots of actual maiko/geisha in the area of Gion in Kyoto:

We have our own “yukata,” or summer robes, but robes alone aren’t enough to make a maiko. The wig and elaborate makeup truly transformed my Western wife into the stunning Eastern beauty you see here. I was blown away when I first saw Rachael, and she and Jenn seemed to have a fantastic time with this experience. I never read the book, Memoirs of a Geisha, but this has certainly given me more reason to do so.


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