Maiko Makeover – Dress up like a Maiko in Kyoto

Maiko Makeover – Dress up like a Maiko in Kyoto

Maiko Makeover - Best experience in Kyoto, JapanCan you think of anything more quintessentially Japanese than meeting a maiko or geisha in Kyoto? Well, what if I told you that many of the maiko you see when you wander around Japan’s ancient capital are not actually professional artists, but tourists who have had a maiko makeover for the day. Japan is a great place for dressing up (they call it cosplay) and it’s totally possible for non-Japanese folks to get involved in the fun!

Most of the ‘larks’ I have written about in Japan have been a bit out of the ordinary as I like to introduce the crazy, quirky or less obvious ideas for travel. However, getting made up as a maiko is honestly one of the most fun experiences you can do in Kyoto. This may not be original, but it is a ridiculously fun thing to do. I hope you can try it!

Maiko makeover – the basics

There are quite a few options for dressing up like a geisha or maiko in Kyoto. I’ll leave links for the various studios at the bottom of the page, although I have a feeling any one of them will be fantastic. Normally you will have your make up done, then be dressed in a spectacular kimono. Next you’ll have time for photos and/or a walk around Kyoto.

What is a maiko?

Maiko is the word for an apprentice geisha. They are normally quite young (age 15 -20) they are basically artist/performers, who are experts in traditional music and dances. Some studios also offer the chance for people to dress up as geisha (geiko in Kyoto), but their kimonos are darker and less flashy.

Maiko Makeover – Getting started

When you first arrive, you need to strip down to your undies. You’ll be given a white under-robe and some tabi socks. Put those on and you’ll be ready to go!

Choose a kimono!

For me, this is always the hardest part! There are soooo many beautiful silk kimonos to chose from! I can spend aaages looking at all their beautiful patterns trying to decide which one I should try! It’s best to have a peek at these before you have any make up; You don’t want to get any white marks on these pretty patterns!

Maiko make-up

This is where you’ll lose all your features! They start with some pink colour around your eyes, then your face is painted completely white and powdered. I have really sensitive skin, so I asked about each product. In the end, even my terrible eczema-prone skin was okay with this gentle make up. They take extra care with the section on your neck, leading to your back. This is thought to be the sexiest part on a maiko or geisha.

Layer upon layer of kimono

Next you get to wear your kimono! There are many many layers to a maiko’s outfit, so this can take a while! In the end I was wrapped in various layers of skirts, undergarments, collars, kimono, obi and the wrappings that go around each of these. Be warned, it can be a little hard to breathe, and this is pretty warm!

I have long legs, so the ladies found it hard to find my waist(!) They were really surprised when they realised how high up it was! In the end, one of the staff has to stand on a step to tie my obi on properly!

Lastly, they add the katsura wig with it’s flower-filled ornaments.

Next, you’ll be ushered into a waiting room while the photographer gets ready for you. This part is really fun because you can compare kimonos, obis and head pieces with the other clients. Everyone looks amaaaaazing.

It is fine to keep your own camera with you, so you can take your own photos.

Photo time

Next you get some time in a studio with a photographer, who will pick props that look good with the kimono you chose. They are well practiced at this, and seem to have a repertoire of about eight different poses that they’ll try with you.

Where can you get this done?

  • My experiences have been at Yumekoubou (夢工房)
    They have three studios, one near Kyoto station, one in Gion and one in Arashiyama. The current price for the simplest maiko plan is ¥10,260 + taxes.
  • Maiko Henshin Studio Shiki (舞妓体験四季)
    Their studios are in the Higashiyama area. They have a huge range of options, but they are a bit more expensive. The cheapest studio option is from ¥14,900 + taxes. NB, if you speak Japanese, book through the Japanese version of their website. The prices are quite a lot cheaper.
  • Gion Aya  (ぎをん彩)
    Their studio is in the Higashiyama area. The cheapest selfie option is ¥9,180+ taxes. Taking photos in the studio is from ¥12,420 + taxes
  • Yume Yakata (夢館)
    Located near Gojo, this place has quite a few kimono/yukata hiring options. Their maiko makeover starts from ¥8,500 + taxes
  • AOI (葵)
    This one is right by Kyoto station. The cheapest Maiko makeover is ¥8,000. Their website is in Japanese only, so this may not be easy to book if you don’t speak Japanese.
  • Henshin Maica (変身処 舞香)
    Located in Gion but their website seems to be down at the moment so I can’t verify details about them.

Eep! Does this count as Cultural Appropriation?

I have seen quite a few articles complaining about cultural appropriation when non-Japanese people dress up as maiko or geisha. For example there were a bunch of protests in New York accusing people of racism and orientalism when the Boston Museum of Fine Arts started Kimono Wednesdays.

The thing is, when these protests blow up outside Japan, my friends in Japan have always been really confused by it all. People in Japan honestly do not think of people trying on kimonos, or dressing up as maiko as racist or imperialist. They are just pleased to see people enjoying their culture. This is especially true now, when the kimono industry is in decline. Any innovation that popularizes these beautiful clothes should be encouraged.

If you like the idea of dressing up as a maiko, I really hope the idea of cultural appropriation doesn’t hold you back!

Go in a group

I am not sure if all the companies do this, but when I took a large group to Yumekoubou, in addition to the individual photos, they also took some shots of all of us. This part of the photoshoot was SUCH a giggle.

Last tips if you decide to have a Maiko Makeover

  • Go to the toilet before you start the makeover! Once you’re in the kimono it is very difficult to pee.
  • The prices do not normally include taxes, so expect to add an extra 8% to the price.
  • It is NOT normal to tip in Japan. If you leave extra money, staff will probably run after you to return it.
  • Do consider the more expensive options that involve a walk and photos outside around Kyoto. Just be aware that people might think *you* are a real maiko!

This is probably the most expensive experience I had in Japan, but it was totally worth the cost! I hope this encourages you to give it a try too!

Maiko Makeover - Best experience in Kyoto, Japan  Maiko or Geisha Makeover - Best experience in Kyoto, Japan  Maiko Makeover - Best experience in Kyoto, Japan - geisha

50 thoughts on “Maiko Makeover – Dress up like a Maiko in Kyoto

  1. Those photos are beautiful! I’ve never been to japan and never knew this was something you could do. I do love kimonos though. And the makeup is so creative

    1. The make up artist told me that she had to train with a real maiko, so that part is really authentic!

      I loooove kimonos as well. 🙂

  2. I really enjoyed reading your experience on the Maiko makeover and didn’t realise that you could do this in Japan! You really do look like a geisha and didn’t realise how the make up can completely transform you. Enjoyed reading this experience!

    1. Thanks Pashmina! It’s funny how different everyone looks with a white face!! I’m really glad you liked reading about it! <3

    1. Squeee! Your comment made me so happy!

      I’ve typed out this information and told friends about it quite a few times, so I figured we can’t be the only ones that would love this!!

  3. Very interesting post. I admit feeling concerned about cultural appropriation and I’m glad that you address that in your post. Glad to hear that many Japanese don’t feel that way. It does look like a very interesting experience. Great photos.

    1. They look at it as appreciation (rather than appropriation.) Japanese people tend to borrow aspects of other cultures, then change them to suit their needs. They think of that process as creating something new and unique.

      Good examples of that are ramen (they started with Chinese noodles, and created something new) or anime (they started with western cartoons, but made a totally new style, which then started to be picked up by the West…)

      It’s just a different way of thinking about it.

      I do think cultural appropriation *can* be a big issue when the culture that has been appropriated is harmed by it or objects to it. That is just not the case here.

  4. This loooks like so
    Much fun. It’s been years since I was in Kyoto. Hopeful to return some day and if I do I will definitely do this!

    1. Me too. All these photos were from years ago (when I lived there) I did check all their websites to make sure everything is still the same. 😉

  5. Wow, this looks amazing!! I immediately thought of cultural appropriation, so I’m glad you addressed that, and it’s interesting that the Japanese don’t see it that way at all! Have you noticed that it’s almost always the people it doesn’t represent who are bleating about “cultural appropriation”? Research is worth a lot. I would love to do this – and I didn’t recognise you AT ALL!

    1. Lol I know right!? I showed photos to my mum and she didn’t know it was me! 🙂

      You know, I think it is similar with Japanese anime or films being remade in Hollywood. I remember in Japan people were really happy when Scarlett Johansson was chosen to pay the Ghost in the Shell. They were pleased that such a famous actress had been chosen. BUT in the West lots of people complained that they had not chosen an Asian actress.

      Having said that, the choice of Ziyi Zhang as Sayuri for memoirs of a geisha *was* hugely controversial because it was a Chinese actress playing the role of a geisha…

      These things are never black and white!

    1. Lol we did that the first time, and it was pretty fun! I speak Japanese, so I could tell we we fooled people (most people could tell we were foreign)

  6. This is so on my bucket list! Actually I have noticed that outside of America, less people are concerned with cultural appropriation and are more concerned with seeing their culture become more accessible for others. I know I personally don’t get upset or offended if I see someone wearing anything that’s part of my cultural attire and my best friend was happy for me to dress in her traditional dirndl when we were in Germany. I think if you are being respectful, it shouldn’t be an issue. Anyway I loved this post!

    1. Thanks Panda!
      I guess I feel the same about the crazy culture in the UK. I love it when I see non-English folks getting involved in cheese rolling or morris dancing! Not that I can imagine morris dancing myself!

    1. There are some really good second hand kimono shops in Kyoto (and Nara) if you want to buy one. 😀

      I bought a beautiful one from the market in Toji temple.

  7. This is SO neat! I love the colours you chose – I think they really suit you! I totally would have been all over that teal kimono you have a snippet of!

    I love that you considered the cultural appropriation aspect. Thanks for including that you asked your Japanese friends what they think, too! I think a lot of it comes down to intent. If you’re doing this so that you can appreciate the culture, understand it, and support it, then I think it isn’t cultural appropriation. If you were to dress up with the intent of deceiving people or did so during an inappropriate time or in an inappropriate manner, then it’s not good. Mind you my background is pretty much as white and colonial as you can get unfortunately so I can only give my two cents from my perspective, but that’s what I think anyway! 🙂

    1. Thanks Lindz! You’d look amaaaazing in a Teal kimono! 😀

      Yeah, it is always a bit scary to write about this kind of thing as a white person. I used to work for the local government in Nara, and then for the Japan Foundation in London… so I’d have to explain this kind of thing to my colleagues. They found it hard to understand how people could be offended by cultural exchange. I mean, it was our job to set up cultural exchanges(!)

      Having said that, the protests show it *does* really upset some people, so I want to be mindful of their opinions too!

  8. Man was I obsessed with Maikos in Kyoto, I remember running around chasing them every night. I just didn’t have enough time to sign up for an experience like this. This blog post made me feel like I was going through a make over myself <3 Also on culture appropriation I really think people outside these countries make more noise than the locals. For e.g. As an Indian, I love seeing tourists dressed up in Indian Saris esp when visiting popular landmarks.

    1. That is a totally understandable response! I didn’t live in Kyoto, but every time I was anywhere near Gion near sunset, we’d head over to watch for maiko! 😀

      Oooh that is really good to know! I visited India with a friend yeeears ago, but we were too shy to dress up in saris. We really wanted to, but we were just not sure who to ask if it was appropriate. Ah well…there is always next time.

  9. Amazing article! As a Japanese, I’m confused by the protests as well. I love seeing people enjoying Japanese culture, and wearing kimono is one of the greatest experiences in Japan! You were a beautiful maiko 🙂

    1. コメントをしてくれて、ありがとうございます! Phew! I am so glad you agree Yuki! It is SUCH a fun thing to do. 😀

    1. Yeah, it is funny, I never expected just how heavy and corset-like all those layers of kimono are. I mean, they are beautiful, but not as easy to wear as the yukata that I am used to!

      (Yukata are the cotton kimono-like clothes that everyone wears to festivals…)

      If you ever go to Japan, they have versions of this for mums to do with their daughters. I can imagine Gigi would LOVE this!!

    1. You could always go in summer and dress in a cotton yukata. Those are much faster to put on, and it’s easy to use the loo when you wear them! 😉

  10. What a unique experience, Josy! I didn’t even recognize you when I first saw the pictures earlier this week. I am so going to do this when I ever visit Japan. My mom grew up in the Philippines and her dad was always visiting Japan. She has some pictures of herself with geishas and some artwork. I have always thought they looked so graceful!

    1. Oooh yes, if you ever see them dance, they are incredibly graceful! I was much less so, those geta shoes are very difficult to balance on! 😉

    1. Oh no! I totally missed this comment Sonia!
      Thank you though (5 months late!!) I loved how different they made us all look!

  11. You look absolutely stunning!
    I think lots of people don’t know the difference between cultural appropriation and appreciation. Cultural appropriation to me is when you wear a costume that is not coming from an authentic and genuine place. Or when you wear that outfit and makes it a trendy outfit whereas when the people from the country it originated wears it, not not seen as trendy but old fashioned.

    1. Thank you Mayi!

      Yeah, I think you are right, Japanese people seem to see it as cultural appreciation.

      Having said that, I have friends that did get annoyed when Kim Kardashian considered naming her underwear line “kimono” (it had nothing to do with kimonos!)

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