A taste of the floating world
Karyukai means the flower and willow world aka the floating world. It is a world of art, desire, pleasure, beauty and a painted mask that leaves reality at the door.
I’ve always been fascinated by geisha (geiko – as known in Kyoto, maiko – apprentice geiko) among other things like rooftop ninjas and committed-to-the-death samurais.
I’ve read books about them and their way of life (Geisha by Liz Dalby – the first foreigner to become a geisha, Geisha: The secret history of a vanishing world by Lesley Downer, Geisha of Gion by Mineko Iwasaki - a very successful geisha who Arthur Golden interviewed while writing his book, Memoirs of a Geisha) and think they truly are artists, whether it be in conversation, music, dance or seduction.
So of course I’ve always wanted to dress up as one. White painted face, red petal lips, heavy elaborate kimono – the works.
Convincing Sue Yen to join me, I made a reservation and on Sunday we headed to a photo studio in Kyoto. There are many of these studios around that get you fitted out like a maiko/geisha, take photos and you can also pay extra for the chance to walk around for about an hour fooling tourists that you actually are the real deal.
Kyoto is always crowded but was even more so when we went because it’s the season of changing leaves. Just as crowds flock to see Spring’s cherry blossoms, crowds love just as much to gaze at Autumn’s trees that look aflame with red, orange and yellow leaves. It really is beautiful.
So the studio was fully booked and we lined up to get our makeup done after we changed into white, cotton slips and tabi socks. First my own makeup was removed with baby oil and a kind of wax was rubbed all over my face and neck. I accidentally touched my nose and was told not to touch my face and my nose had to re-waxed. Then a thick brush dipped into a cold, white, liquid was painted onto my entire face and neck, leaving a forked tongue of unpainted skin at the back of the neck. Then a white powder was padded onto my face so as to set the foundation. I tried hard not to laugh when I saw Sue Yen being bashed in the face with this giant powder puff – it wasn’t dusted on, it was smacked on. Then my eyes were lined in black and highlighted with a bit of pink. Finally my lips were painted full. A little too full I thought, as traditionally maiko only paint their top lips 3 months after their debut.
Sue Yen getting her make up done
I look like one of those chinese opera monkeys
Then it was down to the dresser’s room where our under robes were wrapped on nice and tight. After choosing a kimono we liked, the staff helped us get dressed. Pulling, tucking, wrapping, tying, padding – then finally with our obi belted around us and heavily weighing our backs down, as if that wasn’t hard enough to balance in, we were given the ridiculously high wooden geta to walk around in. Next a wig was chosen and fitted onto our heads. The wire framing in the wig was PAINFUL. I didn’t like my wig because it was more of a dark brown shade in colour. Voila ~ instant maiko (poser)!
The ninja geisha wannabe
(My flying kick was restricted by my kimono)
We were then ushered into the photo studio room, directed a few poses and had our photos taken. I don’t like my photos very much. I look like I’m about to crack up in every shot, maybe because that’s exactly what I did. It was too funny. Tilt your head. Just a little. No, back a bit. Step back. OK. Now smile with no teeth. Not so much. Look here. Look there. Tilt a little to the left. Back to the right. I had no idea what I was doing and the photographers explanations in Japanese/minimal English were just too funny. It reminded me of Bill Murray in Lost in Translation.
After that we went for a little walk around the area as instant maiko posers. But without lunch in our stomachs and feeling faint, really bad headaches from the wigs, difficult breathing in the mega tight kimonos and trying to balance in the geta whilst being pulled backwards by the obi, we didn’t go very far. Our instructions before we left: “No eating, drinking, touching your face, pulling the kimono, touching the wig, shopping, smoking, going to the toilet. Just walking and taking photos. Okay?"
We took a few photos but were way too tired, hungry and exhausted to do our initial plan of walking to a temple. It felt very strange - people staring and taking photos while you’re walking. We got asked to take a few photos with some people, Japanese and non-Japanese. A Thai couple asked us in Japanese to take a photo with them so I replied back in Japanese. After the photo they said “Thank You” in English to which I replied “No worries. You’re welcome!” The expressions on their faces were money.
“Oh. You are not Japanese?”
“No, we’re Australian” and you just got jipped.
It was so good to get out of the geta, wig, kimono, robes and take off the make up. We collected our photos then went to the nearest restaurant and had some okonomiyaki and super delicious green tea ice cream. I recommend not going on a weekend because it is just way too crowded. Also Summer would be way too hot in all the gear and your make up would probably melt off. It was quite cold when we went but luckily the robes kept us warm.
It was tiring and painful but fun, and dare I say I would do it again now that I know better.