• Shona McCarthy

Geisha Transformation : My White Skin

(A photo of me dressed as a Maiko Geisha, 2017. Photo by Josiah Sillavan.)

What Was My Maiko Henshin Like?

When you go for a Geisha transformation, you are usually given two basic options: You can dress as a Geiko, which is a full-fledged and qualified Geisha. They tend to be very prosaic and refined in their dress. Or you could dress as Maiko, which is an apprentice Geisha, bright, colourful, and covered in flowers. Some studios will give you an Oiran option, which means being dressed revealingly and heavily made up in a style emulating ancient prostitutes. I knew I wanted to get the most classic look; the look everyone imagines when they think of a Geisha, so I chose to be dressed as a Maiko.

Why You Should Be Dressed As A Maiko

Dressing as a Maiko is usually the best idea for anyone wishing to attempt this. As a rule, Maiko are very young, while Geiko are older. Doing either gives you a greater sense of the level of difficulty all geisha experience when getting dressed. This means you greater appreciate their performances when you see them later. But, also, you will never be any younger. So, it is possibly wise to leave off attempting the Geiko look for now, incase you have a later opportunity to return. Unless of course, you find the Maiko look too gaudy and/or you are certain you will only ever go for geisha henshin (transformation) once in your life.


The facility I chose appeared to have once been a true Japanese residence with all the original architecture preserved, and with each of lower rooms used as photo studios full of luxurious screens and props, and upper floors for applying makeup, kimono and wigs. This will often be the case with geisha transformation studios. Unless you chose to go to the Toei Movie Park to be transformed. In which case, they have state of the art facilities. It's worthwhile to look at different studios before making up your mind, and to book well in advance. Geisha henshin is only done during the day, usually, and it is a popular tourist activity, so spots can book out fast. Particularly if they are high quality. Also, they will have different photo package options and pricing options. Many will even limit which kimono you can choose based on the package you have chosen. So, it is smart to work out what you want.


Before going, I had watched many videos on how Geisha are dressed and so I had some idea of how it was meant to look, though getting dressed at a Geisha henshin studio is very different from true Geisha dressing, since Geisha will tend to get fully dressed standing in one spot, and they’ll usually be dressed by men. Real Geisha kimono and obi are so heavy that most women don’t have the strength to work with them constantly and efficiently.

I was escorted into a room full of kimono first. These were all hikizuri style, longer than usual kimono and padded at the hem so they would trail in exquisite trains, as opposed to usual kimono, which are carefully tucked and folded to adjust the length. I chose a moderately high package since I wanted more time and opportunity to enjoy my outfit. I had waited ten years for the experience.

(A photo of me dressed as a Maiko Geisha, 2017. Taken by Maika Kyoto Staff.)

I had a very difficult time selecting a kimono. Most on the racks were not to my taste. I could tell they had been made within the past ten years to appeal to tourist tastes; nearly neon-bright colours and intense motifs scattered all over the hem and sleeves. There was a deep blue vintage style one that really caught my eye, but I knew that it was much less than the idea length for my height, so I tried to make myself like one of the longer, more modern ones. But my eye kept returning to the blue, so I chose it. In retrospect, I wish I had gone for one of the cheaper packages, since then it would have come with more of the type of kimono I like to choose from and I might have been able to find a longer one I liked. The hikizuri or trailing-skirt part of the kimono was not able to swathe and to flow along the floor quite the way a hikizuri should because of my height. I did ask the attendants whether it was going to work, and they claimed it would even though the dressing process itself involves hiking up some of the length. But once I had chosen it, there was no going back as the studio did not permit any changes.

Once I had selected my kimono, I was asked, not to get dressed on the spot, but to go to another room on another floor that was full of little green lockers and change into a soft pink cotton hadajuban (kimono under robe). This was the underwear part of the outfit.

The Makeup

Then I was brought into another room where they sat me down on a tiny stool. They gave me a wash cloth to wipe my face down and a headband to pull my hair away from my face. Then a lady entered to put on my makeup. I had been fearful of how I would look with the Geisha makeup on, since I am Eurasian and I wondered if my features were too Western to compliment the look. Some Western women wear Geisha makeup well. If you google for it, you can find images of Dita Von Teese dressed up as a Maiko apprentice Geisha and she looks lovely, though she is Western. The makeup seems to enhance her beauty, lighting it up and making it glow. But there are others, like Jessica Simpson, where the look doesn’t really work. The makeup is of one aesthetic, their features are of another and the two fight. I feared I would be like the latter rather than the former.

The sensation of Geisha makeup being applied is odd, since you can feel them only pat on a little bit of something here and there, and then you feel something large and spongy rubbing and patting all over your face. Then, thin brushes are used to add the finer details. These little brushes seem to be perfectly designed to tickle your lips and eyelids. I had to restrain myself from twitching or giggling at those slithery little fairy kisses.

After a time, the makeup was done and I could finally learn whether I was a Dita Von Teese or a Jessica Simpson. It seemed I fell somewhere in between the two. From some angles, the spritely Asian-ness of my face seemed to perfectly match the flawless white of the Geisha makeup. But from some angles, I looked awkwardly Western and the makeup seemed as though I had simply festooned myself with a white acrylic paint.

Getting Dressed

The way I was dressed was a kind of simplified version of true Geisha dressing; simplified not in terms of appearance, but rather, the outfit seemed to be broken down into smaller parts which are jerry-rigged together with hooks and ties to form the outfit more easily. To put on my wig, they had me sit in a chair while they placed what seemed like a perfectly coiffed and combed headdress of black hair and colourful accessories on my head. It was over sized and had to be stuffed with a hairpouf on the inside, as well as some cords pulled and tucked at the nape of my neck. This is different from true Maiko, who would have their own hair styled by professionals into true nihongami hairdos. But since this can be a painful process involving hot pine tree sap, I was grateful for the compromise.

Such a wide obi sash is difficult to sit in. I had to work hard to get my body to bend into anything resembling a seated pose in that outfit, though I did love the way I looked. I stood in front of various mirrors in the studio and took selfies. My ex-boyfriend helped me take some photos. The studio ladies, too, helped with some photography.

To be escorted outside, I had to put on my own pair of okobo, which can be thought of as the ultimate pair of platform shoes. They are hollowed out blocks of paulownia wood with little red thongs on the top to slide your feet into and bells embedded in the soles. I loved putting them on as they are one of those things I had been reading about for a decade but had only even encountered once before. The lady running the studio also used a special red shigoki obi scarf to fold and then restrain the skirt of my kimono so that it would not fall and get dirty as I wandered outside. I’ve since been told that this is a tell-tale sign of being a tourist Geisha, since true Geisha will always perfectly hold their skirts up with their hands. Walking still took some care, though my skirt was so hoisted, since the okobo geta shoes were so hard and heavy on the cobblestone road.

(Me as Maiko Geisha, 2017. Photo taken by Josiah Sillavan.)

Once outside, I was so very cold that my jaw was hurting, though the photographs we took were wonderful. It all gave me a much greater appreciation of the things Geisha endure for their art. I highly recommend it to anyone who loves kimono. But to me it seems that experiences like these, without further explanation, could reinforce the wrongful view that kimono wearing always needs to be difficult.

So, here is a disclaimer. DISCLAIMER

Not all kimono outfits are formal! Not all are complicated and difficult to wear! Not everyone who wears a kimono is a geisha or is dressed up as one! There are casual kimono. There are easy kimono. If you learn how to wear kimono, you can learn how to do it in a way that suits your body type and needs! Please do not assume that everything the media tells you about kimono is the truth!

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(A gallery of images taken my me, Josiah Sillavan and the Maika Kyoto Staff, 2017.)

#geisha #maiko #kimono #kyoto #tourism #experiences #japantourism #travel #travelblogging #travellinginjapan #geishadressing #geishakimono

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