Geisha lessons teach the art of glamor and graceful behavior

 Mai Kuriyama, learning how to the art of being a geisha, gets rouge applied to her lips.    Yomiuri Shimbun
Mai Kuriyama, learning how to the art of being a geisha, gets rouge applied to her lips. Yomiuri Shimbun

Geisha lessons teach the art of glamor and graceful behavior

by: Naoko Moriya | .
The Yomiuri Shimbun | .
published: April 17, 2015

KYOTO, Japan — Many women of various ages are visiting shops and studios in Kyoto that offer lessons on how to dress and behave like maiko, the young entertainers of Kyoto's hanamachi entertainment districts known for their beautiful clothing, glamorous white makeup and graceful behavior.

Maiko are apprentice geiko, the term used in Kyoto for geisha. Maiko are usually aged from about 15 to 20 and perform Japanese dance for guests at banquets. They also train in singing, playing the shamisen and other Japanese traditional performing arts to become geiko.

I asked former maiko Shigeko Yasuda for practical hints on becoming a more sophisticated, charming woman through a maiko's routine. Yasuda, 68, operates a maiko program near the Gion entertainment district.

"I want you not just to wear the clothing, but also be interested in maiko's beautiful movements, and their courtesy and rules of etiquette," Yasuda said.

When I visited her shop in mid-March, two local women, Mai Kuriyama, 24, and her sister Mika, 21, were in the middle of transforming into maiko. They said they had not worn kimono since attending their Japanese Coming-of-Age Day ceremony.

Customers at Yasuda's shop are allowed to stroll around the neighborhood with their hair arranged, wearing makeup and kimono. A basic course lasting about three hours starts at about $130 plus tax.

The workshop begins with hair arrangement. As doing up the customer's own hair takes too much time, wigs are usually used.

After that, the signature white makeup used by maiko is applied. First, paste powder is dissolved with water and applied to the face with a brush. The eyebrows, eyelids and lips are then accentuated with a touch of rouge.

"It's like I'm somebody else," Mai said, looking at her reflection in a mirror. "It automatically makes me stand straighter."

Next, the kimono is put on.

"Let's choose kimono with motifs suited to the season," Yasuda said to the sisters. The kimono chosen for Mika bore a pattern of temari handmade decorative thread balls on a light blue background. Its refreshing design was perfect for springtime.

Her elder sister chose one with a large clam shell pattern on a vermilion background. Drawn in each shell were images of the seasons' flowers and traditional elements in various colors.

After putting on the kimono and some accessories, they went to the nearby Yasui Kompiragu shrine to pray. Both wore a heavy wig and pokkuri wooden clogs, the heels of which are about 4 inches thick.

"Straighten your back and pull in your stomach. Tighten your rump, too," Yasuda said to them. "Maiko learn this posture through practicing Kyomai traditional dancing."

If a maiko stoops even slightly, she is scolded by her teachers to straighten her back.

According to Yasuda, maiko learn even courtesy and etiquette from the instructors who teach them performing arts. Also, they should always stop walking and bow whenever they see acquaintances on the streets.

"When you greet people, you shouldn't do it while doing something else," Yasuda said. "As you can't remember everyone's faces at first, you should greet anything nearby on the ground, even utility poles — so maiko are told."

I want to stand up quickly and gracefully after sitting on my heels on the floor for a long time. Yasuda shared a secret for not letting your legs go to sleep: when you sit on your heels, place one big toe on the other so your right and left legs form a V shape. Then place your hips on them.

Maiko make a habit of having an extra pair of tabi Japanese socks in the basket bags they take with them to banquets. That way they can change their tabi if they get dirty when they're taking off their clogs before the banquets.

"I feel I could learn a bit about the secret of a maiko's beauty," Mika said.

I also learned that it's not just about beautiful makeup and wearing gorgeous kimono. Keeping a beautiful posture, walking and moving gracefully, having knowledge of Japanese traditional culture, showing consideration for others — acquiring these elements can make any woman more sophisticated and charming.

The daily items used by maiko also give hints of their feminine grace.

A sankaku-bukuro, literally a triangular cloth bag, can hold your raincoat after you take it off and your folding umbrella. An ozashiki-kago is a drawstring basket that maiko bring to banquets with them, made with varying patterns and materials. A tenugui case is meant to hold tenugui cotton towels, but it would probably look fashionable if you use it for handkerchiefs.

These items can be purchased online and at stores specializing in Japanese fashion items in Kyoto and elsewhere.

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