Thursday, March 29, 2018

The Geisha: Nothing but Questions

Lantern Lights; Gion, Kyoto.
What do I know about Japan? A smattering here or there from my avid interest, but I'm far from a learned scholar or dedicated historian.

So far, this trip has spurned more and more questions. With each new experience and realization, I'm struck by another burst of unknown. As we travel between different sites and streets, the lack of English translations leaves me hungry for clarity and understanding

Some of the largest (and also mundane) questions revolve around the enigmatic Geisha. I have a fragmented image of how this entertainer fits into Japan's history and wonder how this profession has been shaped and altered by modern society. What has remained a constant amid the multiple changes that technology and the structure of relationships has wrought?

My sister is more the expert on Geisha. For the grade 12 English ISU (Individual Study Unit) at our high school, students had to pick a fictional novel that focused on a social issue/structure. During her year, Shayna picked Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha. Through reading the novel and supplemental research, she learned a lot about the profession (I on the other hand, read Schindler's List and studied the delightful topic of genocide). With this background in place, Kyoto became one of the highlights of our trip.

It was only natural that upon arriving in Kyoto, one of our first tasks was to walk the streets of the famous Geisha quarter: Gion.
Early Morning Streets on our way to "become" Maiko.
If you are looking for a chance to dress up in kimono, Kyoto is the place. If I had 100 JPY for every kimono rental shop that we saw, I could afford an extra week of travelling around Japan, easy. That being said, while there are a lot of kimono rental shops, there are not as many that advertise full Geisha/Maiko attire. As this was high on our list of to-dos, I researched ahead of time and decided on this experience after comparing plans and prices. Shayna and I really wanted to walk through the streets in costume. Many makeup plans were limited to a dress-up and a mini-photo shoot only which wasn't really our style.

The makeup artists were experts at their craft. After stripping and donning the kimono underwear, they quickly painted our faces down to our collar bones and around the back white, added colour to our lips and eyes, and then moved us off to the wig station. We decided to try the "half" wig as it's supposed to make it look more natural. Really this should be called the 80-90% wig; most of our hair was kept back with only the first inch around the forehead and temples pulled free and dyed to weave back into the wig. 

The wigs were heavy. The questions come charging in: How much hair did a Geisha have to create the hairstyles sans wig? Could they have done their makeup alone? Or did they have partial assistance with the white? How long did they have to maintain the hair and makeup? Memoirs of a Geisha talks about needing to sleep carefully in order to keep their hair from going flat, but is that really true? Nowadays?

With hair and makeup done, I didn't recognize myself as we moved on to select kimonos. Shayna and I were going for the Maiko style which is more Geisha in training. Maiko are known to wear more patterns compared to the full-fledged Geisha who is more mature and... "subdued" maybe? We each stood in turn as these small Japanese ladies directed our arms like planes landing on a runway. I lost count of how many pieces of fabric they arranged on our bodies with ties.
Ready to stroll the streets!
Who first designed the kimono? How did they decide to use so many parts? Why?

Pretending to look pensive. Did it work?
Fully dressed, we heading out to the streets.

I struggled hardcore walking. The shoes have a thong like flip-flips but also have a reverse heel so that your toes are a couple inches above the ground. If you put too much pressure over your toes, you teeter forward. I tried so hard to be graceful and then ended up doing the awkward don't-fall-catch-your-balance-hand-wave more than a couple times as we wandered around the neighbourhood. Since people were staring, that was a little embarrassing. Some strangers asked us for photos, too.

Today, I wonder, do Geisha walk around fully-dolled up? Or do they travel more covertly? 

When at last we returned for the take down it was both sad and a relief. But this presented another obstacle. All that makeup did not come off easily. I think it took me almost 30 minutes of hard scrubbing using the provided oil and cleansing soap. Plus since part of our hair was dyed and waxed into place around the wig, that was another 10-15 minutes of soap-rinse-&repeat. A whole lot of work to take off some makeup. Does it get faster with practice? How long does a Geisha spend taking off their makeup? Would they be doing that every single day, then? Nearly an hour before they can retire to bed, only to wake to do it all over again?

I itch to dig deeper but currently lack the proper tools and time. The Geisha experience is one I won't soon forget. While it was fun to play dress up, I choose to remember the undertones and the questions, hoping to one day find the answers.

Where has the past Geisha come from? Where is she going now in the future?

Love & Hugs

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