Poised and impeccably elegant in their kimono, their faces famously adorned with vivid white foundation, geisha are instantly identifiable – even to those in the West who may not be all that clear on who the geisha are, and what exactly they do.
Misconceptions still swirl around the enigmatic world of the geisha. For example, they’re often incorrectly conflated with courtesans. The reality is that geisha are artisans (that’s how the word actually translates), with years of training in traditional Japanese music and dance. Since as far back as the 18th Century (when the original geisha were men), their role has been to provide companionship and cultural entertainment to discerning clientele. What they provide is a kind of momentary escape from the rough and tumble of everyday life. Entering an ochaya – the traditional tea house which is the domain of the geisha – is an act which transports the clientele into a realm of serenity, flirtation and music. The geisha will sing, dance and play games, in between conversing, flirting and generally being incredibly charming at all times.
It is a seamless performance, and, as with any kind of performance, appearance is all-important. Arguably the most iconic aspect of a geisha’s look is the white foundation called oshiroi. This strikingly contrasts with their distinctive red lipstick, and one way to identify a maiko (apprentice geisha) who is still in her first year of training is that these novices only paint their lower lips rid. Maiko at all stages of training will also make their faces particularly colourful with more liberal application of pink blush on their cheeks. By contrast, older geisha tend to wear increasingly more subtle makeup as they age, for a naturalistic look.
The nape of the neck has special significance for maiko and geisha. For most occasions, two triangular patches of skin leading down from the base of the skull are left uncovered when applying the white oshiroi – a pattern known as eri-ashi. For more formal and ceremonial occasions, this is elaborated with a third triangle of unadorned skin – a pattern known as sanbon-ashi. These patterns are created using a brush, either freehand or with a stencil.
Hair is also of crucial importance. Maiko will boast a succession of hairstyles corresponding with how far along they are in their training to become full geisha. The hairstyles are elaborate, voluptuous creations which require weekly visits to the stylist, who use traditional combs and wax to achieve the traditional, sculpted look that so many people around the world immediately recognise. For maiko, bad hair days aren’t an option, which is why they must sleep by resting their heads, not on a pillow, but a raised, cushioned support stand known as a takamakura. This austere, rigorous maintenance of the hairstyle would traditionally extend to sprinkling sticky rice husks around the takamakura, so that it would be very apparent if the maiko had accidentally slid off the cushion onto the floor in her sleep.
Maiko also wear decorative pins, combs and other hair ornaments called kanzashi, which are fashioned from materials including wood, gold, tortoiseshell and silk. The types and configurations of kanzashi will change according to the time of year and level of training. Meanwhile, full geisha have a distinctly easier time of things when it comes to hair etiquette, as they can use wigs rather than having to endure long sessions in the stylist’s chair.
The third classic component of a geisha’s look is her kimono, which is de rigueur for both full geisha and maiko alike. Just as their makeup is more ostentatious, the kimono worn by maiko are generally more colourful and vibrantly decorated than those worn by geisha. The shape of the maiko attire is also more flamboyant, with wide, dangling sleeves and long sashes (known as obi). Geisha, meanwhile, wear more subdued clothing with shorter obi.
The ritualistic reverence which geisha and maiko have for every aspect of their appearance is arguably one reason why these elegant artisans have become so mythologised in popular culture – in films, TV shows and, perhaps most famously, Arthur Golden’s multi-million copy bestseller Memoirs of a Geisha. And, while the rest of us may not be quite so meticulous when it comes to our daily appearance, Japanese know-how in the world of beauty is easily accessible thanks to the magic of the internet with leading Japanese brands selling hand-crafted beauty products online, making it possible for anyone to add a touch of Japanese rigour to their personal beauty regimen.