All dolled up

by Heather Bobrow

Photos by Mitchell Coster
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maiko Heather
Heather, before and after her maiko makeover

Until a few weeks ago, the closest encounter I ever had with geisha was chasing a few with my camera through Gion, the geisha district in Kyoto. Even then I only caught a fleeting glimpse of their magnificent dress and dramatic makeup. I never actually considered the transformation a woman underwent in order to look like a geisha. Wasn' she always a display of beauty and charm? The answer is simple: No. The brief hour and a half I spent in the Maiko Make Over Studio gave me a firsthand look at the process and it certainly is a process involved in becoming a geisha.

Located in Shibuya, the small, tranquil makeover studio offers a delightful reprieve from Tokyo's congested streets. I went in with almost no knowledge of the ingredients blended to create a maiko, or apprentice geisha. Luckily, I didn't need to know anything. I shed my clothes, put on a white robe and tabi socks and became a life-sized doll to be painted, dressed and posed.

The white makeup is surprisingly thin

Color up
First, I was ushered into a makeup room where my hair was swept into a net; the makeup artist began to prime my face with baby oil. I could've been in any beauty salon in the US: Soft American rock music playing in the background, a large lit mirror in front of me. The familiarity was quickly lost. I was told to shut my eyes and, when I opened them approximately five minutes later, I no longer recognized the image in the mirror. My face, neck and upper back were covered with white makeup, and a space was left unpainted on the lower back of my neck to display what is considered the most erotic part of the body. Only my eyes were recognizable to me.

I imagined the white makeup would take the longest amount of time, but it was actually the quickest part of the routine. The makeup was surprisingly thin, though smiling wasn't much of an option (as I found out later, a wide grin really was not important. I could only offer a demure close-mouthed smile, my pearly whites kept hidden at all times). True artistry was shown with the application of makeup to my eyes and lips. She lined my eyes with red and black, adding mascara as a finishing touch. My lips were the masterpiece; the makeup artist hovered close by my face, shrinking my actual lip size by nearly half, perfecting each arch and curve of the shockingly red mouth. Within half an hour, I was completely transformed. Initially, I feared I wouldn't be able to sit through the entire makeup process, but as soon as I began to grow restless, it was over. The studio boasts a complete makeover in under an hour, so quick that you can stop in during your lunch break. Just remember that you need to undo the process as well.

After my makeup was complete, I was faced with dozens of hangers of kimono, ranging from dusty blue to deep crimson. You have a choice of 80 kimono, so if you're the indecisive type, it's a bit overwhelming. All of them photograph well because of the vibrant colors. I went with a striking green kimono - "very popular with gaijin." (Incidentally, seventy percent of their customers are gaijin.)

Two women expertly dressed me in a matter of minutes. I resumed my doll stature and tried my best to stand still, arms extended, while I was wrapped up in an under robe, kimono and matching obi (belt). I hadn't anticipated how uncomfortable the whole outfit would be. The soft, sensuous material of the kimono was nearly unnoticeable as my dressers yanked on strings to tighten the obi. Amazingly, I was probably five pounds thinner around my midsection, and my posture was impeccable because I had to balance the weight of the obi. Then came the wig. It was fitted to my head, but also quite heavy, so between the weight of the kimono and my new hairdo, I was more than slightly off kilter.

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The outfit was surprsingly umcomfortable

Picture perfect
Hobbling into the photo studio I was greeted with yet another challenge: okobo, or wooden thongs. Luckily the photo shoot was relatively brief, so my discomfort was minimal. I was offered a variety of poses: standing, kneeling, holding a fan or an umbrella. I tried my best to arrange my mouth in a coy, close-mouthed smile, all the while attempting to tilt my head at just the right angle in an effort to show some of the poise and grace that geisha always possess in photos. It was no easy task.

Removing the kimono was the fun part. Though I had only worn the outfit for under an hour, it was more than enough time. The makeup artist pulled a few strings, and giggling with my returned freedom, I spun out of my bindings a la Gwenyth Paltrow in Shakespeare in Love. I stepped out of the gorgeous green fabric, leaving it in a heap on the floor, and headed to the sink to remove my makeup.

The price of transformation (JY10,000 for a maiko-san, JY12,000 for a geiko-san, a more refined, subdued makeover), is well worth the bucks. In about an hour, you'll glimpse the elegant world of geisha, leaving the studio with an appreciation (or shall I say enhanced sympathy) for the makeup and wardrobe of geisha and maiko, along with two fun photos to show family and friends. And, best of all, your ratty old jeans and Chapstick will have acquired renewed appeal. Trust me.

For a makeover (available for men as well!) contact Maiko Make Over Studio (03-5459-1230).

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