Can 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!
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.
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!