Playing maiko dress-up and tea ceremony in Gion

To experience traditional Japan, you can't go past historic Gion in Kyoto with its cobblestone streets and traditional tea houses. It is one of the few remaining geisha districts in Japan. Geishas are professional entertainers skilled in the arts of conversation, dance and musical instruments who are hired to perform and interact with guests during dinners and special occasions. A maiko is a young apprentice geisha learning the craft, whose kimono is often more colourful and their headpieces more vibrant and intricate. In Gion, many studios offer tourists the opportunity to transform into a maiko, and of course I could not pass up the opportunity.

I bought the cheapest package at Maica (6500 yen, or $67 AUD), the package included a selection of kimonos, a full wig and make up, one professional photo and one hour of photo taking with your own camera. A half wig, where some of your own hair is combed into the wig, actually gives a better result but is more time consuming and more expensive. Some packages can cost up to 20,000 yen!

The whole experience took 4 hours; 2 hours for make up and dressing, 1 hour to take photos and 1 hour to undress and clean up. First, I changed into a robe and the make up artist started by applying a layer of wax then white powder on my face, neck and chest. A "W" shaped area on the nape of the neck was left bare in order to accentuate this traditionally erotic area. The corners of the eyes were painted pink, eyes and eyebrows outlined in black and tiny lips painted a vibrant red. The wig was then put on the head.

Then into the dressing room. First a red under garment, then a white robe for the collar and finally the kimono. The kimono was then wrapped with two or three different belts before an obi (belt with the padded bow at the back) was tied. Finally a small buckle was tied across the front. It was a complicated process that certainly required someone else to help you with dressing and undressing.

They took a professional photo and then a staff member helped me take photos with my own camera. It was rather warm under so many layers of fabric, and the headpiece was very heavy and uncomfortable with the edges pressing into my scalp. The lengths that women go through for beauty! However I had thoroughly enjoyed the experience and it was amazing to see the visual transformation. 

After the maiko makeover, I walked around Gion to try and catch a glimpse of a real geisha or maiko, but no such luck. You have to be careful though, as some studios offer tourists an opportunity to walk around the neighbourhood in their kimonos. Fake geishas or maikos can be detected by their overwhelming enthusiasms to be photographed by you whereas the real ones tend to be a lot more low key.

My next stop was to visit Gion corner for a cultural show. First it was ikebana (art of flower arrangement) while the musicians performed traditional Japanese music on the koto (an instrument similar to a harp).

Koto players
Ikebana - flower arrangement

Kyogen is a type of slapstick comedy. This particular performance told of a story of 2 servants who were tied up while the master was away and how they managed to drink all the master's sake anyway.
Kyogen theatre

 This was followed by bunraku which is the traditional Japanese puppet theatre.

After the show I paid extra for the tea ceremony where we were taught the art of conducting this traditional ritual which I actually found to be the most interesting part of the evening. The tea ceremony is over 500 years old, laced with elements from Zen Buddhism, striving to achieve harmony, respect, purity and tranquillity by clearing the mind in total concentration of the moment. It is conducted in a purpose-built room, the chashitsu, decorated sparsely with a scroll and flower arrangement.

The steps of the tea ceremony as we were taught:
  1. Host bows to the guests
  2. Host uses a special handkerchief to purify the bottle of green tea (matcha) powder and the tea scoop
  3. Move bottle of green tea powder to the left hand side
  4. Move the tea scoop from on top of the tea bowl to the 5 o'clock position
  5. Move whisk from inside the tea bowl to the 1 o'clock position
  6. Move the cleaning cloth from inside the tea bowl to the 3 o'clock position
  7. Pour hot water into the tea bowl, clean whisk and inspect. Take the bowl in your right hand, pass it to your left hand, then pour the water into the waste water bowl
  8. Clean the tea bowl, holding the cleaning cloth over the side of the bowl, spin three and a half times, then fold cleaning cloth and clean the middle of the bowl four times
  9. Take two scoops of matcha powder into the tea bowl
  10. Pour some hot water into the bowl with your left hand
  11. Use the whisk to whisk hard until frothy
  12. Invite the guests to eat the sweets
  13. Pass the tea bowl to the guest with the pretty side of the bowl facing the guest
  14. Guest receives the bowl with two hands, resting the bowl on the left hand while the right hand is cupping the bowl. Turn the bowl clockwise twice to get the front of the bowl facing away from you
  15. Drink the tea with three small sips and a pause in between sips
  16. Wipe the place where you sipped with your thumb and index finger
  17. Turn the bowl so the front faces you again and return it to the host
  18. Wipe your hand on the handkerchief
  19. Host cleans the tea bowl by pouring some hot water into it, then clean the whisk, then take the bowl in the right hand, pass it to the left and then pour the water into the waste water bowl
  20. Return everything to the original position, wipe tea scoop with the cleaning cloth

The precise steps of the ceremony and the placement of all the utensils may seem pedantic but is important to achieve aesthetic balance, often taking years to master.

Other than the tea ceremony experience I was actually quite disappointed in the Gion corner show. The cultural show was basically catered for foreigners, whilst it gave an insight into traditional Japanese arts, it was in no way authentic.

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