Friday Flashback: Geisha Adventure

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Okay, it was one of those cheesy experiences.

It was also very touristic and contrived. But it was also one of my favorite memories now of Japan.

I’m talking about dressing like a geisha and strolling through historic streets of Kyoto.

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So what exactly are geisha?

They are entertainers who practice traditional dancing and singing, play instruments, and engage in witty conversation. Are they really prostitutes underneath it all? It’s hard to say. We couldn’t find anyone who would describe them that way. Instead think “Courtesan.”

While there used to be as many 80,000 geisha slinking around the backstreets and pouring sake for businessmen in Japan, today it is believed there are only about 1000. Moreover, they don’t come cheaply. Clients often pay thousands of dollars for a geisha’s exclusive entertainment. But more on that later.

So my friend Diana and I decided to enter the mysterious geisha world and find out what it’s all about.

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Turns out there’s a lot of prep work and a certain degree of discomfort. It took almost 45 minutes to get the makeup on and about 15 minutes to put on all the undergarments. I can’t even tell you how many pieces and parts are strapped this way and that underneath the kimono. In Diana’s case, she was uncomfortable with the heavy wig; As for me, I had a temporary moment of claustrophobia with all the articles on clothing on me.

But we got over that quickly as soon as we hobbled around the streets in our wooden sandals and got a celebrity welcome…

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It might have been the novelty of a huge lumbering foreigner dressed up as a geisha, but we were like Moses parting the Red Sea. Crowds split and formed around us. I think about 100 people took our picture. This is what it must feel like to be Angelina Jolie.

And even though now I’m freaked out by the pasty white makeup and pink eyeliner and wonder how I didn’t wipe out in those shoes– at the time, I felt so elegant.

Later that night, as Diana and I were strolling through Gion, we noticed a frenzy of activity outside an expensive club. Right before us, posed two actual real geisha with their group of wealthy businessmen. I mean, look at that one guy on the right. He’s wearing an ascot!

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Kyoto Travel Tip #2

Overall, dressing like a geisha was so fun. I highly recommend this experience. There are dozens of photography studios in Kyoto offering this service, but we used Maiko Studio Shiki and chose the Maiko Stroll Plan, which included a book of 10 portraits inside the studio and a hour walking around outside. Young girls can also participate and men can dress as samurai. I don’t know if this studio closed down. The website link I had for it doesn’t seem to work anymore. But I think most of these studios are about the same.

More geisha stories to come, including what my husband said upon viewing the studio portraits. Men just have a different way with words, I guess…

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