While I was in Kyoto, I had the privilege (as I learned it is very rare to get an interview with one) with a real Maiko. You might be confused – don’t you mean a Geisha? So to clear it up, it’s important to note that there are no Geisha in Kyoto, there are Maiko and Geiko. End of story.
Once you become a Geiko, you will work with the house until you decide to leave; A: because you marry, or B: you wish to retire. Their jobs entail performing songs, dances, and playing the shamisen for visitors during dinner events. It’s an exhaustive schedule, sometimes with no days off for months, so, for some, an end point is imminent… And, as I don’t speak Japanese, we were lucky enough to have a translator help out so I could share all the wonderful history behind this art form AND a few beauty secrets too.
When we met Mamefuji who is 18 and grew up many hours away, she was dressed traditionally in a vibrant red kimono, hair impeccably done with all sorts of adornments, and makeup like Pat McGrath herself had done it. Although not knowing much about the history of a Geiko, she was always interested in the culture of Kyoto and, through word of mouth, was connected to the house she works for, or okyia. It’s an isolated community for people who understand the rules and traditions, so to be accepted into a house is no easy task.
A Maiko is an apprentice for a five-year period on their way to becoming a Geiko. They stay in one house with the mother, are fed with room and board, receive daily lessons in art, dance, music and calligraphy, and don’t actually own anything. Around the age of 20 or 21, she will become a Geiko, at which point she begins to work, make her own money and can buy her own garments. (Yay!) There’s also this nice saying she told us, ‘The turning of the collar’ – or, when you become of age.
In this period between Maiko and Geiko, she will have to go into town and let everyone know her intention for two weeks. She writes letters, shows up with sweets, all while donning a black kimono, with her family or houses crest on it. She also paints her teeth black… (I didn’t quite understand this, but with a quick search on the internet found that by painting teeth black, they seem to “disappear” into the darkness of the open mouth. Sayonara, Crest whitening strips!)
It was also interesting to find out that, if you look older, you may not even work as a Maiko as age in Japan is such a big deal, and, in the Maiko culture, it isn’t based on your actual age, but what level you are at in training, this is the age you present yourself. Kind of like an actor… ;)
As a Maiko, you wear your own hair and sleep with it perfectly done for a week, they even have special tall holed-pillows to sleep on in order help keep in place and hair off the ground (the older Geikos all wear wigs!) The bottom lip gets painted for one year and both for two years of learning during work sessions. Same for eye makeup: they want you to retain the look of adolescence so no mascara or eye makeup for first year.
After being shown by her onee-san (older sister in the house, or mentor), each Maiko does all of her own makeup, even the delicate W angles at the back of the neck. She uses a thick oil to apply makeup with her hands then, with a special bamboo brush, she applies the white – a powder she mixes with water. Every Geiko has a sightly different color of white face makeup, some more red or pink. Her lip color is a mixture of Shiseido lipstick mixed with water and a red candy. Yes, candy! Hers is called iced candy, which is literally a brick of sugar. And why the candy, right? Simply put, the candy is sweet and tastes good, and it also makes for more beautiful color. She uses this same mixture around her eyes and eyebrows too.
It must take hours to do all this – the hair, the pins, the layers of makeup? But repetition makes for quick hands and Mamefuji said, “Oh, about 30 minutes!” I thought my routine was quick. Maybe most surprising is how she takes off the mask of makeup… baby oil! And she cites Nivea lotion as her evening go-to for moisturizer.
Of course, this is but a brief foray into the life and times of a Maiko. It was so fascinating, I could have spent hours with her! Mostly obsessing over the belted kimono situation and her perfectly drawn eyebrows but, like all good things, our time was limited and she had other obligations that day….