I wake up good and early, not wanting to be late for my geisha photoshoot. Jumi is still sleeping and I’m not sure about waking her. I ask Jinn before I leave but he says she’s still asleep, so I resign myself to going alone. Halfway down the street I hear footsteps running after me, and turn to discover Jinn is chasing me. Jumi has just woken up and needs to charge her camera battery, but will meet me at the studio, Maica. I do my best to explain where it is, but am none too sure myself.
I catch a bus across town and get a little lost in the backstreets of Gion, but eventually arrive 15 minutes late. I’m escorted upstairs and given a light cotton gown to change into, and a locker to put my stuff into. I’m then led to a room full of kimonos, and directed to select one from the rail set aside for my price plan. I notice these are all a bit shabby and some are torn in places, but I am on the cheapest plan. I select a turquoise blue number, covered in butterflies and flowers.
Next I am taken to the make-up room, where my hair is pinned back and white paint smoothed onto my back in the familiar arch shape. The make-up artist daubs it all over my face and rubs it in, before setting to work quickly and lightly to add the red, black and pink accents. I find the process immensely relaxing.
In the wig room, I get the first look in the mirror. Jumi is right, I do look like a totally different person, and as I suspected the look is slightly less flattering to a western face than it is to Japanese girls. I expect some sort of nylon wig and then to choose the hair accessories, but instead a massive structure that is predominantly metal is plonked on my head and tied on. I am instantly transformed into a geisha, but it’s very heavy and feels likely to topple off if I tilt my head too much.
Back in the kimono room, I am shepherded into another cotton gown with long kimono sleeves. Towels are wrapped around my waist and tied in place to achieve the desired straight silhouette. Having fake weight packed onto my waist to cancel out my hips and breasts goes against my notions of femininity and attractiveness, and I also notice they have thinned my lips by only painting part of them red. Curiouser and curiouser.
A stiff collar is added and tied on, and then at last the kimono is slipped over my shoulders, the inner robe’s sleeves tucked into those of the kimono. Now the belts are layered on, with cords being strapped across my chest and waist and then covered by a huge pink brocade obi. A huge bow is hooked onto the back, and the whole outfit weighs a tonne and has me sweltering.
I totter down the stairs and am delighted to find Jumi waiting at the bottom, who tells me I look fantastic. She watches as I have my two professional photos taken, and then we are ushered into a side room full of props, where we are free to take our own photos. I pose with a ceremonial tea set; in front of a folding screen; with a broken parasol; on my knees; standing up. Eventually it’s someone else’s turn to use the room, and a mother and daughter arrive kitted out in beautiful kimonos, giving me instant kimono envy. Jumi asks them if they will pose with me, and we take a succession of photos with the two of them, before leaving them to it.
We find another room with fantastic backdrops, an intact parasol and a bunch of fans. More posing ensues, and I practise looking less glum, whilst still trying not to smile enough to show my teeth (let me tell you, a white face and red lips are never going to make your teeth look sparkly white). Another mother/daughter pair arrive and we do more posing. Jumi asks if we can go outside for better light, but I have not paid for this privilege. Eventually the weight of the wig gets the better of me, and I go upstairs to change and be rid of it. Jumi takes the opportunity to go outside and photograph other girls dressed as geisha.
The widow’s peak of the wig is made of metal and has left a painful bruise on my forehead which lasts three days. Getting the white make-up off is a mission and the assistant deems my make-up wipes woefully inadequate, but with some effort they get the job done. I pay and receive my two inclusive photos, which have actually turned out pretty nicely.
Out in the street we review the photos on mine and Jumi’s cameras. In quite a few of them I look like a fat old woman, and I conclude that there’s a reason not many westerners try this particular experience. Still, there are some that are quite nice, and I’ve had a fun time trying it out.
Jumi heads back to the hostel, and I spend my afternoon following the directions of a Lonely Planet walking tour of the local area. I wander down old-fashioned streets full of Japanese tourists enjoying the public holiday. I spot a few geisha along the way having their photos taken by excited tourists, but having just been through the process myself, I suspect that behind the white make-up they are also tourists.
The final stop on my walking tour is Kiyomizu temple, which has a giant wooden veranda projecting out over the side of the hill on which it sits. Once again I am in the right place at the right time for sunset, and I watch the skies over Kyoto glow. Inside the temple is hung with huge ornate lamps, and the veranda and buildings are made of big pieces of solid, polished wood. It reminds me of Australia, and the stunning view paired with the beautiful buildings, make it my favourite temple to date. I exit into the night along a path lit with lamps, surrounded by Japanese families in a holiday mood.