Many come to Kyoto hoping to encounter a Geisha or Maiko (an apprentice Geisha). Instead of just wishing to catch a glimpse of one, why not become one yourself! Read on to find out how I became a Maiko on my recent trip to Japan.
KKday – My Travel Resource
Thanks to KKday, I got to know about the Maiko/Geisha experience and found that it was rather affordable! KKday has descriptions of the services available from reputable providers (not some unknown vendors where you have no recourse if things go wrong) and provides a convenient booking platform. What I found most helpful were the real reviews from other travelers who had done the experiences.
After comparing a few favorites from the directory, I chose to do a Maiko Walking Plan with AYA in the historic Geisha District of Gion, Kyoto. The AYA studio was housed in an authentic teahouse where real Maikos used to perform and it was a perfect opportunity to see the architectural design within a machiya (traditional Japanese townhouse).
I was really looking forward to my once-in-a-lifetime Maiko experience ever since I confirmed my booking. I scheduled it at the tail-end of my 11-day campervan road trip hoping for cooler weather in the summer month of September. The day finally came and I arrived early to check out the neighborhood ahead of my stroll in the Maiko costumes.
It was early in the morning and there was only a handful of tourists around the atmospheric neighborhood. The pedestrian-only lanes were quiet and perfect for strolling. They are not only lined with quaint and traditional wooden houses, but are also filled with stories from the past. If you have the chance, take your time to read all the descriptions outside the buildings where they are available. This district is a destination in itself!
By the time I finished my walk, I was already sweaty and feeling the heat after a sudden surge in the temperature that day. It was time to head to AYA.
I was half an hour early for my appointment but the staff was already expecting my arrival. Upon entry, I was brought into the waiting room where I was shown the different Maiko and Geisha Makeover Plans and add-on options available. I was also asked which poses I wanted to use for the photo shoot. If you have a companion who is not taking part in the makeover, he/she can wait in this room which has wi-fi and tea provided.
When I voiced my reservation about walking under the hot sun in the kimono, the staff recommended that I replace the 60 minutes walk with a courtyard photo shoot and 2 additional photo prints instead (a top up of JPY 1,000 required).
After I selected my poses, everything went like clockwork. Check out what went on behind the scenes.
I changed into the Maiko undergarments and wore the tabi socks in the changing room. There were lockers to keep your belongings, and toilets here if you need them. Then, I was brought to the makeup room.
My makeup artist introduced herself as Wakana and started to clean my face with baby oil. I came without makeup so cleansing was quick and easy. After doing so, she massaged the makeup base onto my face. Next, the white foundation was applied on my face (including lips), neck (front and nape), chest, shoulders and upper back with a brush and blended in with a sponge. White powder was then patted on top of the foundation. Curious thing is that the white foundation was not applied on the entire face. A little skin was left bare at the hairline making it seemed as if I was wearing a white mask.
I secretly wished that she had painted my arms white too as they had became darker after days of driving and walking in the sun. The sharp contrast with my white face was kinda weird.
Cute or Elegant
I had never have such a thick makeup on my face before and this was just the foundation! At this point, Wakana asked me if I wanted a cute or elegant make up. I didn’t know what that meant in terms of the makeup style and I thought it would be hard for her to explain if I asked. So I just pointed at a nearby poster and she said that was elegant. Yeah, that would suit me better since I am no longer a youth and I much prefer elegant beauty too.
Adding the colors to my face was just as much work, if not more. Shades of pink and red were added to my face, eyes and lips. Eyelid tapes, eye liners and mascara were used to accentuate my eyes. When the makeup was done, I thought I looked fierce. It reminded me of Chinese opera! I was just not used to it. Yet.
Finally, it was time to wear the wig. It was so cool to see how Wakana took some of my own hair and combed them over the wig to help create a more natural looking wig. If your hair is not black, they will use a temporary black hair spray to color your hair. When the hair was done, Wakana tied a cute little red ribbon in the hair and I was ready for the dressing up. The makeup and hair took 30 minutes to complete.
Dressing up in Kimono
I was amazed at how many interesting pieces of clothing make up the complete kimono outfit. The layers were secured by tying separate sash around them and were not visible underneath the kimono. Since I’m short, more of the kimono was folded and tied around my waist. So this is how a kimono can fit most sizes and height. How clever.
I think it will be difficult, if not impossible, for anyone to wear a kimono without help. It was a complicated process and dressing up took about 20 minutes even when done by the expert hands!
There was a good selection of kimono for me to choose since I was only the second customer that morning. But choosing which kimono and obi to wear was hard because they were all beautiful and I didn’t know how to match them. I also had difficulty choosing the hair ornaments as everything was a blur for me without my glasses (you can’t wear your glasses while wearing the wig). Fortunately, the transformation turned out well 🙂
The photo shoot in the studio and the courtyard took about 30 minutes. Throughout the shoot, the photographer, Hazuki guided me on how to pose and was very encouraging. Many times, I couldn’t maintain a good posture under the weight of all the kimono layers and the wig but she was very patient. But the most unnatural thing for me was to smile without showing my teeth! I don’t normally have such reserved smiles…
Free Photo Time
Every Maiko experience package comes with a minimum of 10 minutes of free photo time (duration depends on what plan you choose) where you can take your own photos with your own camera. Since I was traveling alone, I was very happy (and grateful) when Akiko (who assisted during the courtyard photo shoot) offered to take photos for me using my iPhone. We took photos just outside the shopfront and at the entrance.
After my 10 minutes was up, I was helped out of the kimono ensemble and removed my makeup. I took another 20 minutes to clean my face, wash off the hairspray and change into my own outfit. Makeup removal, shampoo, towel, hairdryer, etc. were all provided in the changing room. Then I was led back to the waiting room for my photo prints.
Besides the makeover and photo shoot sessions, the package also included 6 5R-size photo prints – 4 from the studio and 2 from the courtyard. You can also get a complimentary free-style shot (of yourself or with your companions) if you have a Facebook or Instagram account.
I thought I could choose which 6 shots to be printed but these were chosen by the staff, probably to save time. But they obliged me when I asked for a particular photo to be changed. You can also order more photo prints or have some printed as stickers, post cards, etc. As for me, I got a CD of my digital photos (cost JPY 2,000). Photo prints may fade but digital prints will last a lifetime.
Location-wise, I like that the studio was away from the main busy street, it’s more private and exclusive. I also like the old Kyoto atmosphere in the neighborhood that is rich in history. There is still so much more to explore in the Gion district and I will be sure to return on my next visit in December.
The staff was professional yet friendly. They gave their instructions in English and understood simple English. The makeup was strange to me but the kimonos were truly gorgeous. The photos were well taken and the transformation was a success. I was actually mistaken for the real deal when I stepped out into the street briefly!
Obviously, there is more to a real Maiko than just being dressed up as one. But this was the closest I could get to the elusive world of Maiko. I wish that the studio had provided some sort of cultural education (exhibits, videos, etc.) about the often misrepresented profession, maybe in the waiting room (Maikos and Geishas are not prostitutes). After the activity, I became curious about the Maiko/Geisha’s daily lives and the different parts of the kimono outfit that I wore.
Looking at my photos now, I regret not braving the hot sun and took my 60 minutes walk. I should have taken more close-up shots of my hair and attire too. 10 minutes of free photo time was just not enough. Perhaps, I just want to be a Maiko for a little longer… Even though I was just a tourist Maiko, it was the ultimate Kyoto cultural experience that I ever had.
1. Check KKday Facebook for the latest promotion
2. Book early to grab your preferred time slot
3. Avoid weekends when it can be crowded if you are booking the Walking Plan
4. Check the sunset time if you are booking late afternoon time slot
5. Check the weather forecast for the date you want to do the experience
6. Practice smiling without showing your teeth
7. Know which is your better looking side profile
8. Choose the poses you want for your photo shoot beforehand to save time
9. Order your CD early (if you decide to have it) to allow the staff to have more time to edit and prepare the photos
10. Wear minimal or no makeup before the makeover for easy removal
11. Wear contact lens if you wear glasses
12. Bring your own camera along for selfies in the makeup room, etc.
Map code – 7 588 744*88
Nearest Car Park
As a KKday Ambassador, I was invited to personally experience this Maiko activity and to share my experience here. Please leave a comment below if you have any questions to ask me.