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No sight is quite as breathtaking as that of a geisha. Japan has enjoyed the beauty and mystery of geishas for centuries. Unfairly labeled as prostitutes by many, geisha has remained an iconic figure in Japan’s history. Not only is being a geisha a rigorous process, the beauty and makeup involved are very tedious and the process hasn’t changed much in many years. Find out how the geisha maintain their fancy makeup palette.
Loosely translated, the word “geisha” is understood to mean “artist” or “performing artist.” Geisha who practice the true tradition of the art form of entertainment distinguish themselves from prostitutes who use the same makeup and attire by wearing their sashes – called obi – in back of their fancy kimonos, while prostitutes in geisha garb wear their sashes in front.
There are conflicting stories as to how the whole ideas of geisha came about. One of the most popular stories involves the appearance of Europeans in Japan and immediate rumors that spread to villages of people with a “ghostly pale complexion.” Training to be a geisha can take between six months to a year, and often the younger the girls are, the better.
The first stages of geisha training involve working as maids, doing household chores and tending to the senior geisha. They are referred to as “shikomi.” After passing an exam, recruits graduate to the second stage of training, which relieves them of household chores and garner them the title of “minarai.”
The second stage of training involves learning intricate practices of activities such as pouring tea, playing instruments and dancing. Many geisha in training are given a mentor who acts as an older sister, teaching by example and introducing them to the daily activities of geisha.
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The third and final stage allows recruits to covet the term “maiko,” which are apprentice geisha. Maiko continues to receive more instruction from their mentors, called “onee-san” or “older sister,” until they are officially inducted as a true geisha.
The makeup application process is detailed and time-consuming. First, a wax or oil substance called “bintsuke-abura” is applied to the skin, followed by white powder mixed with water that is like a paste. A bamboo brush is used and the application starts from the neck up. The white makeup covers the entire face, neck, and chest. Afterwards, the eyes and eyebrows are drawn in using charcoal or more modern cosmetic items. Using a small lip brush, lipstick is applied.
The rich red color comes from melting the red stick in water and adding crystallized sugar for luster. The top lip is usually fully colored in, with the bottom lip only receiving a small curved strip. Newer geisha are expected to wear their full makeup almost daily. As they get older, the makeup can be more simplified, to showcase the aging geisha’s natural beauty. This stage of simpler makeup is often allowed after three years.
While geisha aren’t quite as abundant in Japan as they used to be, these mysterious beauties can still be found in Japan’s exquisite tea houses, restaurants and tourist locations.