Travel: Geisha for a day

If you’re wondering why I’ve been so quiet over the past couple of weeks, it’s because I’ve been travelling through Western Japan and discovering the beauty of the Kansai region.

I will probably write more about that next time, as I am such a huge history and culture fanatic (my favourite was Osaka Castle because of its fascinatingly violent and dramatic history), but for now I will stick to the above topic: playing dress up in Kyoto.


not sure if I look Japanese enough to pull this off, but probably better than the Westerners who seem to enjoy it just as much eh. Had to shave the ends of my eyebrows to pull off this look.

Now, to the horror of real geishas and maikos (geishas-in-training under the age of 21), some girls do the whole dress-up experience and actually walk around the city the entire day looking like this.

my favourite character in Memoirs of a Geisha was actually the one played by Gong Li, not Zhang Ziyi

Fortunately, I read beforehand that this can be insulting and offensive to the real thing, so I just opted to dress up for the tea ceremony in which I was indoors most of the time. Oh, and we were cycling around the city everyday, I could hardly do that in a kimono. That silk would cost me an arm and a leg if I so much as made a little tear on it.

our host preparing the tea

our host preparing the tea

We did the tea ceremony in our ryokan – or traditional Japanese inn – performed by our host, who studied the “Way of Tea” all throughout high school and university. Can you actually believe that, studying how to prepare tea for 4-8 years!

tools of the trade – we also used a matcha green tea set for our ceremony

It would be way too long for me to explain what happened during the tea ceremony, and I won’t even try. Besides, I would be the last person to explain every little nuance enacted by our host; there are too many intricacies and symbolic meanings behind everything, it would take years of practice and study to learn them all.


One thing I do remember, though, from skimming over Japanese history during my trip, was that the highly ritualised yet overly-simplistic way of preparing the tea ceremony originated during the period of the shogunates. When the militaristic shoguns rose to power, the emperor took a back seat and simply became a figurehead. The imperial household went through hard times (financially) while all the wealth went to the shoguns and feudal lords. The emperor’s lifestyle became simple and minimalistic, which then became the trend (rooted in necessity), and until now Japanese design and philosophy is all about simplicity and subtlety. The emperor’s ways back then defined a new classiness, which made the showy ornateness of the shogun and his entourage look gaudy in comparison. This explained a lot to me, especially in terms of the branching out of Japanese clean styles from the neighbouring China’s ornate tendencies.


Now, getting dressed up in traditional kimono in Japan is no easy feat. It took almost an hour to get me ready – and to think it just looks like (to clueless people like me) a big piece of cloth with holes to put your arms through. Disclaimer: I am fully aware that that is a really idiotic way of putting it.

Mariko, the lady who dressed me up, learned the art from her grandmother.


It costs around JPY3,800 to rent a kimono for an entire day. The same cost to rent a kimono for a short tea ceremony.

The typical woman’s kimono outfit consists of twelve or more separate pieces that are worn, matched, and secured in prescribed ways. Young women’s kimonos have longer sleeves, signifying that they are not married, and tend to be more elaborate than older women’s kimono. Many modern Japanese women lack the skill to put on a kimono unaided. The yukata, on the other hand, is more commonly used. A casual summer kimono, the yukata can be worn by both men and women and is simpler to get up in. 


I used to think that was a pillow on Japanese womens’ backs; rather, it is a way of folding and tucking the obi to adjust to the wearers’ size

Finally, a few more points of interest I thought I’d share :

  • Contrary to popular belief, it is the maikos (apprentice geishas) and not actual geishas who wear the white make-up and red eye shadow / lips on the face most of the time.
  • The traditional makeup of an apprentice geisha features a thick white base with red lipstick. Originally, the white base mask was made with lead; after the discovery that it poisoned the skin and caused terrible skin and back problems for the older geisha towards the end of the Meiji Era, it was replaced with rice powder. Reminds me of Elizabethan England, almost exactly the same thing happened. Wonder which went first. Too lazy to fact check right now.
  • Maiko who are in their last stage of training sometimes color their teeth black for a brief period. It is done partly because uncoloured teeth seem very yellow in contrast to white face makeup; colouring the teeth black means that they seem to “disappear” in the darkness of the open mouth. I find that tidbit disturbing.
  • For the first three years, a maiko wears this heavy makeup almost constantly. 
  • After a maiko has been working for three years, she changes her make-up to a more subdued style. The reason for this is that she has now become mature, and the simpler style shows her own natural beauty. For formal occasions, the mature geisha will still apply white make-up.
  • the earliest kimonos were heavily influenced by traditional Han Chinese clothing, known today as hanfu, through Japanese embassies to China which resulted in extensive Chinese culture adoptions by Japan
  • After the 1923 Great Kantō earthquake, kimono wearers often became victims of robbery because they could not run very fast due to the restricting nature of the kimono on the body and geta clogs 😦
  • The socks you wear with the kimono are split between the big toe and the rest

researched from Wikipedia

And that is all for tonight, folks! Glad to be back on the blog. Have a great weekend 🙂


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s