WARNING: this post contains my big fat face. It may be the only time this ever happens, though, and it's covered with make-up, so don't be too scared, but proceed with caution.
Kyoto, Japan. Summer, 2003.
After Julie and I are settled into our (gorgeous) hotel room, Fushiko knocks on our door. She has a surprise for us.
The sign over the door says "Yumekoubou Studio," but there's not sort of indication as to what it's a studio for. Until we walk down the hallway, and every inch of the wall is covered in pictures of geishas. Geishas on the street, geishas against a backdrop, geishas on the temple stairs. There's a rack of kimono's against the far wall, next to a line of make-up mirrors, and across the room from a colorful back drop. It's a dress up studio. Julie and I get to be made up like geishas. It's somehow more elegant that those tourist trap studios on every boardwalk, the ones where they drape garments from the Old Timey West over your real clothes, then sepia tone the pictures.
One woman puts a hairnet over my head when I sit down at the mirrors, and sets to work geishafying me. It looks pancake thick, but that white make-up is a powder. I barely feel it go on. I'm more concerned about that hairnet. My hair is the shortest it's ever been at that point (not counting that time I was bald, several years later), but it's just long enough that being crunched under a hairnet and stuffed under a wig that I'm going to have such fly-away hair by the end of it. I'll ask for a comb when the wig comes off, any thing to push it back into shape, but to no avail. I have to walk back to the hotel looking like I've stuck my finger in a socket.
The make up goes on quickly. It's the wig an kimono that are the difficult parts. My head's not quiet the right shape for these (heavy) headpieces. They put on and take off at least three different pieces before they find the one that doesn't pull away from my face and threaten to fall down my back. It takes three of us to put on the kimono: I hold my arms up away from my body like an airplane, and the first woman folds the sleeves around my elbows. She then folds the heavy silk skirts up against my stomach while a second woman circles me with strips of linen, tying it all in place. The obi sash is relatively painless, until they hook the big bow onto the back. Between the wig, the bow, and the heavy kimono, I must be wearing an extra thirty pounds. I avoid stepping into the high platform sandals as long as possible.
"Look here," says the photographer. "Don't smile." Not that I would. I take pretty good care of my teeth, but against the white make-up they look horrifyingly yellow. If you didn't know me, you'd think I'd smoked since birth. Hauptmen Sensei, my Japanese teacher back in the states, says that you don't see many smiles in Japan; she told us it was because quality dental work used to be hard to come by, and no one wanted to show off their less than perfect teeth. I don't know if that's the reason, but I do know this - I have a series of photos taken of Julie, Fushiko, and myself as we visit the temples of Kyoto. Julie has a big, toothsome smile in all of them. I smile in most of them. Fushiko doesn't even grin in any of them.
Julie's Vietnamese by blood, so the whole thing sits on her much better than it does on me. It really emphasizes just how much this geisha make-up is designed to highlight the natural beauty of Asian features; the roundness of the face, the shape of the lips, the slope of the eyes. Look at the pair of us - Julie looks beautiful. I look like a rogue Cirque du Soleil performer. But I feel beautiful, too.
After, when the make-up comes off, and I'm running my fingers through my hair, trying to make it lay flat, Fushiko tells us to pick our three favorite photos, then surprises us with bookmarks with our faces on them. Julie's photos look a bit more authentic than mine, which I remember at the time thinking wasn't quite fair, but there's really nothing I can do about being so achingly caucasian. No, I wouldn't make a very pretty geisha, but after all the trouble to trying to look like a fake one, I don't envy those women who do.