Monday, 17 December 2018

Studio Shiki Maiko Henshin Review

Studio Shiki Maiko Henshin

To carry on from my oiran henshin (courtesan makeover) review, I thought it'd be best to follow suit with the maiko (apprentice geisha) henshin I experienced in Kyoto during the same trip to Japan, at Studio Shiki. It was my first trip so I really went all out in making sure I had the best, most memorable trip with every experience I wanted to try, since I wasn't sure when I'd be able to visit again (spoiler alert: I ended up going the next year, for twice as long). I did my maiko henshin before my oiran henshin as the maiko one was the one I knew I 110% wanted to do, and I wasn't sure if I could afford both experiences during one trip. I ended up throwing caution to the wind and booking the oiran transformation after my maiko experience because I knew I couldn't let the opportunity slip me by. I did these experiences in January 2016 but checked recent TripAdvisor reviews to see if my experiences are still relevant, which I believe they are. The only thing that may have changed is the prices/conversion rate changing slightly.

I gave a little bit of information on what an oiran was during my last post, but I feel like people may know more about maiko and geisha. However, some of the knowledge may be untrue or exaggerated, such as they were prostitutes. Like oiran, maiko and geisha are first and foremost artists and entertainers. I could go on and on about the difference between maiko and geisha (called "geiko" in Kyoto because they were thought to be higher quality and more talented than geisha from anywhere else), why people think geisha were prostitutes and more but I'll spare you from that. All I will say, that relates to the post, is that a maiko is an apprentice geisha who wears more hair accessories, cuter make-up and more decorated kimono and accessories than a geiko. This is because the emphasis was on the maiko being the epitome of young beauty, and that when she graduated to full geiko status, she didn't need to rely on more accessories and flashier kimono to attract customers. Her skill, talent and subdued beauty would be more than enough. You could only be a maiko up until the age of 21, then you had to graduate (known as "turning the collar") as a geiko, and if a woman wants to become a geisha after the age of 21, there is no maiko stage and she debuts as a geisha immediately after training. I was 21 when I had this makeover so I was juuuuuust in time haha! I had the experience in January 2016 and my birthday is in February, phew! Of course, you can have a maiko henshin at any age, but I got extra pleasure from being just the right age. Now I have done a maiko makeover and am a bit older, I would love to do a geiko henshin to compliment and compare.

I did some research and settled on Studio Shiki for my maiko henshin as they seemed one of the highest quality studios, with a large selection of authentic kimono and accessories, and had consistent good reviews and service. Their transformations look more authentic than other studios I have seen. Their head shop is located in Gion, the most famous geisha district in the whole of Japan, let alone Kyoto, which was a definite selling point to me. They also have another branch in Higashiyama called the Sakura Branch. Studio Shiki's prices were reasonable and they had a sale running when I visited. They also had a sale on when I last checked their website recently for writing this article, so they may be one of those shops that have continuous sales. It seems the package I went for is no longer available, it was inbetween "Studio shoot with strolling plan" and "Executive plan". I can't remember the exact price but as the "Studio shoot with strolling plan" is currently ¥18,900 (about £140) and the "Executive plan" is ¥33,900 (£240), I think it was around ¥20,000 (£150) at the most. In my plan, after hair, make-up and dressing (in which you keep the white tabi socks they give you to wear as an additional souvenir and for hygiene reasons), I had four studio photos taken, around 40-60 photos taken outside, a rickshaw ride, 30 minutes of free strolling outside in the attire, all the photos on a CD and 8 photos in a full colour photo book. The "Executive plan" comes with postcards and phone charms which mine did not, so they have updated the packages slightly. I wouldn't be particularly interested in postcards or phone charms so I'm glad I visited before they changed the plans.

Another titbit for you: all maiko/geisha makeover studios are required to dress you with a couple of inaccuracies at least (very small inaccuracies that a regular person wouldn't be able to spot, such as slightly out-of-season hair accessories, kimono or accessories) so that you can be distinguished from real maiko and geisha. There is one studio I know of that can dress you completely authentically, but you aren't allowed to go outside, you can only have photos taken in their studio and garden.

Geisha makeover review

The studio was very easy to find using Google Maps, and I was greeted by the staff. There was an slightly older lady being served when I entered, and she was enquiring about having a geiko henshin instead of maiko and they said it was no problem. I was taken to a changing area, and changed into a white "nagajuban" robe, which is worn under kimono. I put my clothes, shoes and bag in a lockable locker.

First was make-up, as the white face make-up needs to be complete before hair styling or a wig is put on. They applied my make-up very expertly. At first the stark white make-up with no contour colour and your eyebrows covered is a bit shocking and interesting to see, but they fill in your eyebrows and contour your face with a light pink powder to add dimension and shadow, and of course do your eye make-up and lips. I paid a small surcharge (around ¥500-¥800; it's ¥800 now so I can't remember if it was always ¥800 or they put the prices up) to have false eyelashes applied as they look better in photos. Next was hair - you can choose between a full wig, or half-wig, where the back of your hair is covered with a half wig and the front is styled in the maiko hairstyle slightly overlapping the wig (like with the oiran henshin), and it looks more natural than a full wig. If your hair is not black, they can spray it black temporarily. Because my hair is long and black, it was a no-brainer to go with the half-wig and I wanted it to look as natural as possible. They styled my hair well, using wax to smooth my hair and wispy bits at the front. They put a couple of classic maiko hair accessories in my hair, such as the red fabric tied around the front "bump" of your hair, and a tortoiseshell comb. The rest of the hair accessories would come after kimono dressing in order to match them up.

After hair and make-up, you can choose your kimono and accessories. I went with a beautiful black kimono with pink and purple cherry blossom flowers, red and white collar (all maiko have a red collar and change to pure white when they graduate to geisha) and matching accessories. I asked for recommendations on obi and accessories to look better and was given a couple of choices with everything so the experience was personalised. After I was dressed in the kimono and accessories, they chose hair accessories (kanzashi) to match the kimono. I was very pleased they chose two short kanzashi: first year maiko have only their bottom lip painted red, and one short and one long kanzashi that trails down in their hair, whilst second year maiko have both lips painted and two short kanzashi in their hair. One common inaccuracy that studios sometimes do (as required) is that they get the client to wear a long kanzashi but paint both lips. Anyone who knows even slightly more than a regular person about maiko and geisha know these signs of a first and second year maiko, so I was pleased they didn't make that obvious (to me, at least) mistake with me. Obviously someone who knows next to nothing about maiko and geisha wouldn't know, which is fine. I'm sure someone more knowledgeable about maiko, geisha and their attire would be able to point out the inaccuracies of my outfit.

After I was dressed fully with accessories, hair accessories, my hair and make-up done, I was led to a small studio set up to have some pictures taken without shoes on. They gave me props like a traditional straw bottomed bag, fan and parasol to pose with, and advice on how to pose. To be honest, the studio backdrop was not very attractive to me, it was that kind of mottled blue similar to when you have school pictures taken so I wasn't particularly bothered about studio photos. Obviously I'd have them as I paid for them but I was more interested in location photos. After the studio photos, they gave me a pair of maiko shoes to wear, "okobo", which are wooden platform sandals with small bells in them to tinkle as you walk. Genuine maiko okobo are quite high, around 4 inches/10cm in height but I think the studio's okobo were a bit shorter. I'm assuming it's for client safety if they aren't used to walking in high platforms (being a bonafide goth, I would've loved to try my hand walking okobo with the proper height) and also maybe another slight inaccuracy they're required to do. I can't confirm this as I have seen photos of genuine maiko and their okobo vary slightly in height. After stepping into the shoes, I took my first steps outside (easy peasy) and the staff advised me on how to hold my kimono as I walk. They also said I could put my phone or camera in my kimono sleeve as opposed to using a bag so that my hands were free, and so that I could take photos during my time outside.

I was taken to some beautiful traditionally Japanese locations in Gion to have pictures taken in my ensemble. I was given further advice on poses and positioning. The photographer was lovely and encouraging. Whilst I was having my photo taken in some small quaint alley, a Chinese couple saw me and asked to have their photo taken with me! The girl was in a lovely white lace dress (kind of bridal style but I'm sure it wasn't her wedding day) and the man was in a black and white suit. It was very sweet, I would've tried communicating that I'm not a real geisha but the language barrier was a bit of a problem and they didn't seem to mind. The photographer asked if I would mind having my photo taken with them, which was considerate to ask.

Maiko makeover review

After the couple thanked us and left, we took some more photos in different locations, such as in the general hanamachi ("flower town", a name for the geisha districts), in front of shrine gates and other locations. I was then led to a rickshaw stand and a very friendly rickshaw driver, Ryo, was there to meet me for my rickshaw ride. The photographer told me he would take me around Kyoto for around a 20 minute ride, and then I would be able to stroll around for about half an hour before I was expected back at the studio to reverse the makeover. Ryo was so friendly and polite, he spoke a bit of English and was very eager to practice with me as well as encourage my Japanese by asking if I knew various objects and things in Japanese. Not only did he take me around Kyoto in a rickshaw, he also stopped to take photos of me in the rickshaw using my camera, pointed out local landmarks and places of interest and really went out of his way for a wonderful rickshaw tour of Kyoto. As he took me around Kyoto, people stopped to watch, some smiling, waving or taking photos, especially when we stopped for photos. My ride was a round-trip, and Ryo took me back to the rickshaw stand where we took a photo together, and he gave me a few small souvenirs free of charge, including stickers and postcards. Having a friendly and eager rickshaw driver added to the experience wonderfully, I could not have asked for a better driver. I felt like a celebrity being drove around Gion in a rickshaw and being photographed.

After I bid farewell to Ryo, I was left to wander Kyoto on my own. I didn't want to stray too far from the studio as I didn't want to get lost or arrive late back at the studio, but I also wanted to use the strolling time fully and not head back early. I stopped to take a couple of selfies on my phone, obviously, and strolled around for a bit. I didn't want to stop and browse stores as I could do that another day, and I was kind of pretending to be a real maiko so of course they wouldn't stop to look at window displays in their regalia. It would be more authentic to be power-walking daintily through the streets and alleyways of Kyoto, pretending I'm on my way to my next banquet or event as that's pretty much all you see of maiko and geiko outside in Kyoto, unless a new maiko is debuting or turning her collar to become a geiko. Lots of people stopped, stared, smiled, waved or took photos. I must admit, I don't normally care what people think of me or if they stop to stare or take photos, but I felt a little self-conscious in my maiko get-up. It was mostly down to myself and my weird pride; I knew I wasn't a real maiko and I didn't want people to think I was pretending to be one. There are plenty of photos of girls dressed as maiko and geisha in public, and people think they are the genuine article but they aren't. I just wanted to play make-believe in my head and stroll around for my own enjoyment. I didn't let this put me off though; I'd paid for the strolling plan after all, so after about 20 minutes of walking around, I headed back to Studio Shiki just to make sure I wouldn't be late. As I ducked into the studio in a small alleyway, I noticed people poking their heads round the corner to see where I was heading, so it was quite a nice touch to be heading into a traditional looking Kyoto building to add to the illusion.

Once I arrived back at the studio, I took the okobo off and was led upstairs to begin the process of undressing. Staff took off my kimono, accessories, hair accessories and half-wig for me, led into the original changing area, which had sinks, hair dryers and toiletries in it and told me to take my time removing the rest. I didn't feel pressured to hurry so I did indeed take my time removing the make-up and washing my face with the skincare they offer. They had a thick cold cream to remove the make-up by massaging and melting the make-up, then rinsing it off. I also washed the wax out of the front part of my hair using the provided shampoo and dried my hair with the provided hair dryer. I'm pretty sure they also had some make-up products to use as well but I brought my own. The amenities they provided were a necessary and thoughtful touch to keeping your experience perfect. No need to go out with lanky, waxy hair or specks of make-up still on your face. After I'd washed my face, washed and dried my hair and got dressed, I went downstairs to a waiting area, gave back my white robe and  was told to relax in the area whilst I waited for my CD of photos in digital format. I was given a photo book with 8 of my photos printed in full colour on thick, glossy photo card. They didn't ask me which photos to use, and I can only assume they print the photo book as you are having the rickshaw ride and stroll. The photos were okay and included the studio ones I weren't enthralled with, but you can't really complain when they also give you all the photos on a CD. Their logic is, quite rightly: make your own goddamn photo book if you don't like this one! They put everything in a bag for me along with a pamphlet for the studio and walked me to the entrance where they wished me a warm goodbye. I continued my day sightseeing in Kyoto, almost in a daze from the wonderful experience I'd had. I almost couldn't wait to get back to my hostel that evening, where they had a laptop free for guest use, so that I could see the photos on the CD and upload a couple to social media. I'd previously posted my selfie from earlier in the day and my friends and family were eager to see the rest of my experience.

My maiko henshin was my number one thing to do during my Japan trip, and it couldn't have gone better for me. It was worth every penny paid and I treasure the experience fully. The staff were warm and attentive, perfect Japanese customer service as always, and eager to find out I speak Japanese. They gave me full choice in kimono selection, and multiple options for accessories when I asked for advice. The photographer was lovely and my rickshaw driver, Ryo was the perfect attentive driver and tour guide. I highly recommend this unforgettable experience if you have any interest in a maiko or geisha makeover and want a unique experience during your trip to Kyoto! As I mentioned at the beginning of my post, I would love to do a geiko henshin now I have done a maiko one and because I am a little bit older. Some may find it pretentious but I sometimes remind myself of the notion that geiko are more refined and subdued in grace and style as they rely on their experience and talent to progress in life. I remind myself of this when I notice my fashion style evolve but still compare myself to younger girls and think "I wish I could look as cute as them!".

I hope this review was informative and in-depth without being too long. I wanted to cover every aspect for a comprehensive review but if I've left anything out or you have any questions, pop them in the comments and I'll get back to you.


  1. This was super interesting to read and really informative. Thanks a lot for sharing! (now to wonder if maiko/geiko henshins are only for women or if I, as a guy, can also get one...)

    1. Thank you! They do samurai and men's period kimono henshin, but I honestly can't say whether they'd turn away a maiko/geiko henshin if you're a guy. I mean, they love their visual kei guys that look feminine so...?