11 Thoughts I Had During My Geisha Experience in Kyoto

#1. My dad didn't recognize me.

When I sent the following text to my parents while in Japan, I thought they'd recognize me immediately as the woman in the long, silk kimono. They thought she looked like me, but decided that her nose was a little different than mine.

My parents have memorized my face over these 30 years, so I was confident they'd recognize me.

Like many, I am fascinated with geisha culture.

I have seen her mysterious gaze in art history class. I have heard how she captivated royalty. I have been stunned that she used a wooden takamakura pillow to protect her hair at night. I have witnessed her in real life, floating across Kyoto's cobblestones on tall sandals. And I have heard unsavory misconceptions of her profession, which I won't perpetuate here. ​

Geishas are embodied Mona Lisas.

While visiting Kyoto, I discovered the AYA, a machiya teahouse from the 1900s that introduces tourists like me to this storied chapter of Japanese culture. The women at AYA are experts in geisha and maiko makeover transformations.

Before this experience, I had no clue who a maiko was. These young apprentice geishas train intensively for 5-6 years to become expert conversationalists, dancers of the miyako odori, commanders of the three-stringed shamisen and vocalists of traditional kouta songs. They're famous for their command of party games (ozashiki asobe) and, still today, these artists entertain clients from around the world.

A colorful selection of kimono, buttoned tabi socks, and lacquered okobo sandals.

There were more than 80,000 registered geisha in 18th and 19th century Japan, but today there are less than 200. Although there is a dwindling number of authentic geisha and maiko, dinner experiences in Kyoto begin around $1,000 USD per person depending on the artist's experience. To get a reservation, you must know someone on the inside. Arrive at the ryotei teahouse with a suitcase of Yen, but without a personal connection to the okā-san (mother geisha)? No chance.

The more I read about these witty, intelligent and multi-talented women, the more I wanted to experience just a second in their lofty shadows.

But, it wasn't an easy or simple decision.

Walking beneath the gates of Fushimi Inari before my maiko experience.

Before my maiko experience, I spent time walking beneath the tranquil gates of Fushimi Inari Taisha.

When I am traveling, I am careful to flow with the tide of a community when its traditions, social norms and rituals are different than my own. When considering whether to try this experience, I was concerned about appropriating the geisha culture or disrespecting its tradition.

First, I did some research.

Visiting the Gion district at dusk where geisha and maiko meet with clients.

I read blog posts written by other women who had tried the experience, including black, white, Latino, and non-Japanese Asian women. In fact, the teahouse waiting area has a photograph book of past clients from 31 countries and on its pages are women of all shapes and colors.

I also asked locals what they thought. I spoke with the bartender at our hostel, an elderly woman on the train and my 20-something makeup artist. And I corresponded with the geisha experience manager, Akiko who said in an email, "I want women all over the world to experience how special and wonderful this culture is. I want to share Japan."

I realize that some of you may disagree with my decision, but after receiving the blessings of locals, I decided that the experience would support this woman-powered business and broaden my understanding of geisha culture.

So in I went.

#2: Let's do this.

I arrived without makeup and a simple ponytail. After undressing, I stored my clothes in a locker and removed my wedding rings. My new outfit consisted of a white cotton robe and comfortable zori sandals.

A tidy place in the machiya to remove makeup after the experience.

The sink basins were stocked with makeup removers, moisturizing creams and cotton balls so I began to wonder just how complicated it would be to remove the makeup later on.

#3: That's a looooot of makeup.

Makeup is one of the most recognizable characteristics of geishas. My professional makeup artist, Namiki Kishi, arranged a spread of creams and powders that ranged from crimson red to snowy white. She asked me if I wanted to dress in the maiko or geisha style. I chose maiko because it is considered more playful.

Maikos would have done their own makeup, however, I clearly couldn't be left to my own devices.

#4: This is so relaxing.

Namiki tied my long, platinum blonde hair into a habutae, which is sort of like a wig cap.

My face and neck were massaged with kabuki abura oil to serve as a base for the cream.

After tucking in the last of my hairs, she applied the base layer. Kabuki abura is an essential, wax-like substance that ensures the white paint will stay immovable on my skin. It is considered the secret to the longevity of Kabuki makeup. My skin felt silky and wonderful.

#5: My neck tickles.

To begin, Namiki wielded a wide hake brush to paint my neck in the traditional komata shape to elongate my neck, which reflects the traditional Japanese aesthetic of sensuality. It felt like chilled air on the nape of my neck.

Namiki was an amazing professional artist who took her time with me on every step.

#6: I love a fire engine red lip.

Of course, the most recognizable feature of a geisha is her exquisitely painted white face. Namiki told me that their performances were only lit by candles and andon, traditional Japanese lanterns, so the paint accentuated their facial expressions.

As each hue was added to my face, the final product began to take shape.

To create the geisha's unmistakable pearly skin, Namiki blended several creams of light pink, light green and porcelain white. The kona oshiroi face powder was smoothed over my entire face and neck with a sponge pad to set the makeup. Even the tiniest nooks of my face were painted, including between my eyebrow hairs.

Once the paint adjusted to my skin, Namiki darkened my eyebrows and my eyelids were shaded with vivid hues of pink. Namiki used a paint brush to apply kyomizubeni on my lips to achieve a rich crimson that shocks the blank canvas of my face.

#7: How. Did. They. Dance. With. These. On. Their. Heads.

After makeup was complete, I disappeared beneath a heavy wig of onyx locks.

Every geisha wig is made from real human hair and sprayed with black paint.

Geishas wore these traditional wigs, however, maiko would have styled their own hair. Even though I selected the maiko style, the staff said they would need to spray paint my hair black if I decided against a wig. That's a hard pass.

I texted this photo to my sister at 2:00am MT without explanation.

Even without the combs and elaborate kanzashi ornaments, wearing this headpiece felt like carrying a heavy basket. I couldn't imagine how women could perform so gracefully while bearing so much weight.

#8: Wow.

It was this moment where I realized just how different I looked.

After 45 minutes of makeup application, I took a look at my reflection.

It sounds silly now, but I felt the need to honor the maiko by conducting myself in a way that she might have during this process. I moved with softer hand gestures, took more graceful steps, smiled more simply and tapped into an inner calm befitting of a geisha apprentice. In short, I adopted a game time mentality.

#9: My daily dressing routine is nothing compared to a maiko.

The next phase was to select my garments and accessories with the aid of a geisha dresser.