With paper-white skin, demur red-painted lips, glorious silk kimonos and elaborate jet-black hair, Japan's geisha are one of the most iconic images associated with the "Land of the Rising Sun. Now, modern geisha share the traditions of their short-lived heyday with artists, tourists and businesspeople alike, perpetuating the best parts of their brief prominence in Japanese mainstream culture. The higher-class saburuko danced and entertained at elite social events while ordinary saburuko were mostly the daughters of families left destitute in the social and political upheavals of the seventh century, the period of the Taika Reform.
The way they move, their voices, their faces—the makeup! I have just undergone a full transformation at the hands of a pro team of Japanese geisha experts, who have spent an hour bestowing upon me the traditional makeup of a meikoor apprentice geisha: My skin is covered in opaque white pigment, my eyebrows are streaked with red, and my lower lip— only my lower lip—is painted matte crimson, which makes me look as though the bottom half of my face is attempting to devour the upper half. When Vicky Tsai, the founder of geisha-inspired skin-care line Tatcha, invited me to undergo this process with her, I imagined myself emerging as delicate and elegant as Madame Butterfly; instead, I resemble a very bizarre mime.
Every time I travel to Japan, my skin develops an inferiority complex. I mean, have you ever seen those Japanese women with their smooth, glowing, absolutely flawless skin? There is not a single blemish or an enlarged pore to be seen anywhere.
But in much the same way that their polished speech and refined mannerisms are the result of years of training, maiko also have a careful routine they follow to keep their skin looking as delicate and pleasing to the eye as it does. At first, the idea of maiko with beautiful skin might seem counterintuitive, given that their professional pursuits involve far more liberal use of cosmetics than most women use on a daily basis. Aside from being a nice round number, those rinses, using hot water, help to open up all the pores and ensure a deep cleaning of the facial skin. However, the traditional cosmetic can leave the skin too dry, which is why many maiko apply the lustrous hair oil pomade to their faces, too.
Geishas have been shrouded in mystery since their first emergence in Japan in the s. Trained in the skills of music, dance, and conversation, the entertainers and hosts are elegant and lithe like ballerinas, and instantly recognized for their entrancing stage makeup: stark white skin, red lips, and an intricate chignon called a shimada. Nowadays, there are still thousands of practicing geishas in the Japanese town of Kyoto who adhere to the traditional beauty rituals of their generations-past counterparts.
It might seem like our obsession with beauty has never been greater, but looking to the past tells a different story. Making Up The Past is a column looking at great women from history and how they used cosmetics to shape their identities, from ancient queens to modern artists. American critics said they were more like the faces of the dead rather than living women.
When I began spending time with the geisha, they would schedule me to interview them in between formal appointments. Thus, I only saw them in full costume with the flowing kimono, delicately painted white faces and vermillion lips. Pictures rarely do justice to their otherworldly appearance because the harsh glare of a flash bounces off the white makeup and creates an extreme effect in photography. As the geisha began to truly welcome me into their world, I started to spend time with them as they rested between classes.
One after another, they round the corner and shuffle into the room swiftly and quietly, only creating the slightest of sound as their tiny steps meet the tatami mat. The moment they enter, the atmosphere changes; their presence raises hairs on arms, and everyone immediately goes quiet, in awe of the beauty that has just arrived. On this particular evening, we are honored with the presence of two geiko and one maiko.
Contrary to popular belief, geisha are not the Eastern equivalent of a prostitute; a misconception originating in the West due to interactions with Japanese oiran courtesans, whose traditional attire is similar to that of geisha. The most literal translation of geisha into English would be "artist", "performing artist", or "artisan". This term is used to refer to geisha from Western Japan, which includes Kyoto and Kanazawa. The white make-up and elaborate kimono and hair of a maiko is the popular image held of geisha.