Memoirs of a Gaijin (Gringo) Geisha

Here we go!

Here we go!

Kyoto, Japan; November 2015

While Mariko carefully wove the delicate Kanzashi, a Japanese silver hairpin — this one featuring dangling fabric cherry blossoms — into my voluminous, smooth black wig, I tried to ignore the itch on my nose. I didn’t want to smear the thick white makeup she had applied 45 minutes earlier. My eyes also stung slightly from the heavy black eyeliner, but again, the discomfort was worth disregarding so as to avoid messing up Mariko’s work. She next pulled tightly on the green and gold silk obi, securing the long wide fabric sash around my waist. I looked down at my feet in the split-toe ultra bright white socks as the edges of my pink satin lined, purple floral kimono skimmed the floor. Finally, Mariko stepped away and smiled. My transformation was complete. Pursing my red heart-shaped lined lips, I finally turned to look into the full-length mirror. I was a dead ringer — for a drag queen. 

LIFe cover

lonely-planet-Japan-14th-edition (3)

I was going for geisha. Exceptional artists, entertainers, conversationalists, musicians, dancers, titans of tea ceremonies, as well as occasional tolerant minders of drunken businessmen, geishas are the face of Japan — at least the Japan from a foreigner’s perspective. In the US, it has been this way for decades — at least since Japan re-entered the American imagination after World War II. For example, an illustration of a maiko (an apprentice geisha) bowling on a 1964 cover of LIFE magazine enticed readers to examine the feature story touting “restless excitement and a wealth of paradoxes set the mood of modern Japan.”

Geishas have always fascinated me, long before Arthur Golden wrote his famous Memoirs of a Geisha. Consequently, when my sister, Suzanne, and I planned a trip to Japan, I discovered through a Google search — AYA, a full-service photography and makeup studio in Kyoto that conducts complete Geisha Glamour shots — even for gaijins (gringos). I made reservations for the makeover event before we even booked lodging in Kyoto.

Living the Dream.

My grandma's handiwork.

My grandma’s handiwork.


Scan 152The dream of looking like one of the ultimate symbols of Asian beauty, I’m fairly certain, traces back to my early childhood. On a trip to San Francisco in 1969, my parents purchased a gorgeous swath of turquoise Chinese silk fabric embroidered with cherry blossoms. My grandmother, Evis, a talented seamstress, whipped it into a robe that could easily double for a frock straight from the Ming Dynasty designer collection. Apparently, I often toddled around the house as if I came off a kiddie Cantonese catwalk.

For Halloween, when I was two, I wore a red Asian jacket with black trim and a black silk tie that looked like martial arts movie attire — either that or it resembled something that Hugh Hefner would have lounged around in at his Playboy Mansion. It came with a little beret that had a long black braid attached. On top of my blonde, curly hair, the beret looked odd, like it had undergone a severe unraveling in just one particular spot. Wanting to have long dark locks, I often resorted to disguising my hair more completely with a dark brown terry cloth bath towel since it was the closest thing we had to a black wig.

Scan 150

Although my outfits were really more Chinese themed than Japanese, I was groomed, practically since infancy, to appreciate East Asian apparel in general. And naturally, since Suz was the younger sibling, she inherited all the hand-me-downs.

Ultimately, however, there was something I found extra special about the Japanese kimono, which centuries ago evolved from Chinese fashion. An illustration of a family dressed in kimonos, featured in the “clothing” spread of the 1979 World Book Encyclopedia collection that my parents had bought, captivated me. Their colorful floral garments seemed not only comfortable and free flowing but also time honored.

Also, that year, during a family trip to San Francisco’s Japantown, Suz and I saw stunning Japanese geisha dolls at every gift shop in the area. The dolls were usually displayed in a glass case along with mini bonsai trees. The precisely constructed kimonos on each doll offered a reflection of the Land of the Rising Sun and outshone, by far, even the glitter of our beloved Disco Barbie’s roller skating ensemble. Essentially, I concluded the ultimate way to wear a kimono would be to assume the identity of a geisha.

Back to the Maiko Moment — 2015.

Mariko and I — peace out — Batman!

Mariko and I — peace out — Batman!

Ready for the invisible box.

Ready for the invisible box.

Doubts of becoming a graceful geisha, however, surfaced for me early during the makeover. After pulling my hair back tight and fitting it in a hairnet, Mariko applied the standard white makeup to my face, neck and shoulders. While the white, creamy coverage felt smooth, cool and luxurious when Mariko brushed it on my skin, the look it created could easily get me a gig in Central Park as a mime. All I needed was a striped shirt, suspenders, black beret and an invisible box. Or if the market for mimes was flooded, I could definitely fill in as a Joker stunt double for Jack Nicholson if “Batman 17” was in the works.


It was very hard to be serious when Suz and I looked at each other in our full regalia. All of the other women and girls getting makeovers were Japanese. It looked natural for them to be at the studio. At nearly five feet ten, Suz was easily the tallest geisha at Aya — and this was before we donned the wooden geta footwear. Until then, we wore more informal flip flops for padding around the parts of the studio not covered by tatami mats. When Suz asked if she could borrow a larger pair of flip flops that she saw, Yukiko, her makeup artist, said, giggling, “No those are for men.”

Mr. Tuna and Yukiko get us to vogue -- maiko style.

Mr. Tuna and Yukiko get us to vogue — maiko style.

Our photographer, Yasuyuki Tuna, who had written in English on his staff profile photo displayed in the AYA studio entryway, “Let’s enjoy together,” introduced himself. An older, trim gentleman with slightly receding hair, Mr. Tuna wore a navy blue button down shirt over a matching turtleneck with navy pants and light blue plastic crocs. A white cloth poked out of his back pocket and he wore one white glove on his left hand. He looked as if he was ready to do some gardening. We would soon find out, however that Mr. Tuna, who cradled his camera as he bowed to Suz and me, was definitely a pro.

Serving as an assistant to Mr. Tuna, Yukiko held out a sliver reflector circle to catch the light. Mr. Tuna began with Suz, who towered over him. Basically, a lot of head tilting was involved— perhaps to get the coy look or catch the light off the various Kanzashi in Suz’s hair.

The Glamour Shots

The only English word Mr. Tuna seemed to know was “perfect,” which he would throw out fairly regularly although it didn’t quite fit in my case.

photo by: Nullumayulife:

Here you can see the makeup of a maiko as well as the descending obi. photo by: Nullumayulife:

Suz and I had been outfitted and made up to be maikos, who are apprentice geishas. Actual geishas or (geikos in Kyoto) have completed all their training to become full-fledged, professional entertainers in Japanese traditional arts. Despite their amateur status, maikos don the more colorful kimonos, to which we had been more attracted. They are decked out to be more “cute” versus the more mature geishas/geikos who are made up to be “elegant.”

Other subtle differences distinguish the two, such as the way the wide belt or sash, the obi, is tied. Geishas sport obis with tied square bows in the back. Maikos wear their obis secured at the back but not in a bow, rather as a cascade of silk fabric. The makeup along the back of the neck also identifies whether clients are in the midst of a maiko or geisha. Geishas have complete coverage with the white makeup along their necklines and shoulders, whereas, a maiko’s skin is left bare at the nape of the neck and as well as two spots that end up as a sort of pronged formation. This is considered to be very seductive.

Apparently, I was a hot mess maiko. Unbeknownst to me at the time, the cherry blossom Kanzashi I had chosen was way out of season. According to Yukiko, it was a spring hair accessory, and we were well into autumn. I had also requested “elegant” eyebrows rather than “cute” — a clear indication of a geisha not a maiko. Also both my lips were fully spread with red (geisha style) rather than only partially lined on the bottom lip.

Mr. Tuna trying to make me "perfect"

Mr. Tuna trying to make me “perfect”

I supposed when she was preparing me for the photos, free-spirited Mariko assumed there was absolutely no way I would ever pass for a maiko anyway, so what the hell? A cherry blossom in November, why not? Elegant eyebrows for an apprentice? Sure. Fuller, Angelina Jolie lips? Done.

Basically, Mariko, who had moved on to making up a legitimate Japanese girl, had not exactly adhered to authenticity for the gaijin. On the other hand, Mr. Tuna, while he overlooked my makeup and hair decoration transgressions, definitely was not going to let the crossover couture continue. He immediately halted my photo session when he discovered that I had selected a geisha accessory bag to tote around as part of my look. Mr. T was all over that, and with his guidance, I chose an appropriate maiko totebag. “Perfect,” he said smiling when, with my new bag, I tilted my head for the next photo.

Adjusting my caveman grip on the parasol.

Mr. T adjusts my caveman grip on the parasol.

Mr. Tuna also adjusted the way I held a parasol during my photo shoot. Evidently, I appeared to be a Nippon Neanderthal by holding the parasol pole’s base in my enclosed fist. Actually removing the parasol from my grasp, Mr. T gently took my index, pointer and middle finger along with my thumb and formed them to hold the umbrella base correctly. Although not necessarily secure, the new position was definitely daintier.

As the photo session in the courtyard ended, it was time for the next phase of the makeover event. For Suz and I to get the full effect of a maiko moment, I had signed us up to walk around in our getups in eastern Gion, part of the largest geisha district in Kyoto. Yukiko escorted us to the studio’s exit and then handed us a map saying, “Okay, we will see you in 30 minutes. Have fun!” We stopped dead in our wooden-platform-geta-making tracks. What?! No Mr. T to guide us through this potential minefield of maiko mishaps?

“Lady Looks Like a Dude” on the streets of Kyoto

Suz walking quite well into the tourist arena.

Suz walking quite well into the tourist arena.

Suz can't stop laughing.

Suz can’t stop laughing.

Essentially, walking in someone else’s shoes to understand a new perspective  never became more literal. We lurched forward in the getas, cracking up with each step. Fortunately, we clodhopped through the initial portion of our outing on a rather deserted street. 

However, turning a corner, Suz and I emerged on a much busier street —one leading to Shinto temples on either end. I didn’t know what I feared more — the thought of running into Japanese tourists or other Americans. We were so Gringo that probably appearing in front of an American tourist posed more of a cringe factor. If, from a distance, people couldn’t tell from our awkward gait that we were gaijins, certainly when they moved in closer and saw us completely losing our composure as well as dignity, it would be obvious.

People getting photos of the gringo geishas.

People getting photos of the gringo geishas.

Due to a mixture of sheer horror, mortification and hilarity, Suz and I were overcome with fits of giggles. It didn’t help that a massive busload of Japanese tourists, who were in Kyoto in droves to see the autumn leaves, seemed to have just disembarked right in front of us. Once they saw Suz and me, the domestic tourists couldn’t contain themselves either. The normally reserved Japanese, were laughing out loud and out in the open. Some tourists approached politely and asked if they could take our photos. Other tourists snapped away, using the same strategy Suz and I have used before when with a companion: the old “pssst-stand-right-here-but-I’m-really-taking-a-photo of the-_____ ” I’m pretty positive that at the end of the day our photos were uploaded to or something along those lines.

The ricksaw driver and women who realize what is in their path.

The rickshaw driver and women who realize what is in their path.

Even the tourist-toting rickshaw drivers, who wore uniforms including black shorts that looked a bit like glorified diapers over black tights, laughed at us. One small group of women, wearing beautiful kimonos and showcasing large flowers in their hair, approached and stopped immediately, remaining completely stationary while they fumbled with their cameras as we hobbled by.

Despite asking permission if they could take our photo, their expressions read — we are totally laughing at you, most definitely. But, interestingly, when we started laughing, too, and nodding to indicate, “yes, we realize we are a mockery of maikos,” the women stopped their “burst”-filled photo session. Instead, they handed their cameras to the only guy in the group and then asked Suz and me if they take a photo with us.

The kimono-clad women losing it when they see us.

The kimono-clad women losing it when they see us.


With our new friends. Suz and I are trying hard to bring dignity to the geisha image.

With our new friends. Suz and I are trying hard to bring dignity to the geisha image.

We took a few serious shots and then hammed it up for the camera. I even asked the women’s besieged male friend if he could snap a few pictures with my iPhone. Soon a semi circle of people formed around us. It was like a standard scene from a 1980s breakdance movie. While flashes erupted like kernels in an unsecured bag of microwave popcorn, I felt pressure to do the worm.

Finally, the awkward assembly ended and the kimono-clad women thanked us and waved good-bye. Meanwhile, a small stooped elderly Japanese woman, who had been in the semi-circle and had her arm supported by an equally older gentleman, shuffled by. She smiled at us and enunciated, “beautiful.”

Although it takes years of special training to be as accomplished in the arts as a geisha, and it helps to be brought up in Japan, Suz and I, indeed, succeeded in entertaining the Japanese. Laughter is traditional no matter from where you hail.

As far as not achieving the beauty of a geisha and resembling more a mime mimicking a maiko or a male diva in drag, I accepted the reality. Ultimately, I wore a beautiful kimono and had black hair for a few hours. However, later during our stay in Kyoto, after we had spotted a real geisha and maiko, fluttering down the tiny alleyway known as Ponto-chō, I read more about the history of the hostesses. Apparently, the first entertainers actually classified as “geisha” in Japan during the 1700’s were men.

More photos from the day:




Suz, looking very cute as a maiko.


Documenting our progress


Maiko selfie!




I can’t get composure…

Still can't

Still can’t.


Surprisingly, we eventually got the hang of walking in the getas.

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4 thoughts on “Memoirs of a Gaijin (Gringo) Geisha

    • Leanne, soooo glad you thought this was funny. Yes — I think we would probably only fit in at Harajuku. Even then, we probably would be a source for laughter. Thank for the comment and the Japan stories will start rolling in. Feel free to let me know if you spot inaccuracies, by the way.
      Cheers, my friend!

  1. Absolutely BRILLIANT! What a great thing to do – I love how you embraced your inner Geisha!! I can well imagine the hysteria and laughter. I bet you had such fun. Way to go my favourite travel correspondent! xxx

    • Lottie! Thanks so much for the comment. I think you have the same spirit to embrace your inner cultural alter ego — I bet you would make a good flamenco dancer. Hope all is well in España! 🙂

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