They say the feeling of pure silk against the skin is as close to heaven as it can get. But it wasn't the lightweight material I touched that day. My body carried over 30 kilogrammes of heavy garments, decorations and headpieces. For the first time, I wore a Japanese Kimono. Almost two decades ago, I became obsessed with the Japanese lifestyle. I studied Japanese manners and customs as a hobby and spent countless evenings reading about the tea ceremony and historical events.
When you think of Japan, you inevitably imagine people wearing a traditional kimono. Of course, nowadays, westerns clothes and yukatas are used for everyday wear. Nevertheless, the beauty of a Japanese kimono remains seen as great work of arts, usually sewn by hand and made with exceptional skill.
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Having read and watched the Memoirs of a Geisha, I only dreamed of dressing up in a traditional Japanese kimono. For the day, I was no Geisha, but an Oiran.
G and I met our guide, Kota, from Beauty of Japan at 8 am in the morning. It was a sunny day of May, long after the cherry blossom. We were in a quiet district, 30 minutes away from the centre of Tokyo.
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I did not know what to expect from the day. I was excited and nervous, and rather fidgety. We got into a small white minibus which smelled like cigarettes and looked like it has too many stories to tell. I didn't ask anything. I stayed quiet for the whole duration of the trip. We stopped close to a beautiful Japanese garden and made our way into a secluded traditional tea house. The fence was made from bamboo whilst maple and cherry trees dominated the frontal zen garden. As I walked through the door, a secret Japan was revealed to me. The floors were almost entirely covered by tatami. There were sliding doors and paper windows.
A few women welcome me with a huge smile and guided me into a room full of Japanese kimonos. They carefully select the Japanese kimono dress I was meant to wear, the Japanese robe, and of course, the kimono obi. Full of excitement, they tell our guide and my husband to wait outside so they can get started.
The Oiran Japanese kimono experience
They tell me to undress and wear a white robe for the preparation. I don’t feel awkward, but comfortable like I've known these ladies forever. The room is filled with joy as if we are all part of a secret woman society. They see my tattoo on my back and start giggling. They gather around and exclaim "kawaii". They ask if they can touch it and they marvel at it. "Gomen'nasai" I kept on saying. I felt the need to apologise for being tattooed, as I know it's rather taboo in Japan. One of the ladies shows me a small, hidden and cute tattoo and everyone laughs.
I am being taken into a new room which has a view towards the pond. There are turtles and beautiful Japanese carp meandering the water. Green trees and bushes are dotted all around the water, creating the perfect balance between beautiful and calm.
The ladies grin and tell me to get ready, as the preparation will take a few hours. One of them takes a box of white paint usually used in kabuki, starts painting my neck and moves onto the nape. The nape of the neck is considered a primary erotic area in Japanese sexuality. She is delicate but precise. She leaves two stripes of bare skin exposed at the back.
My face gets painted, and various powders are being applied. My European skin soon becomes the imitation of a porcelain doll. Red eyeshadow and black eyeliner are being carefully applied. My lips are being transformed by an intense lipstick, recreating the perfect Japanese makeup. Small lips are considered beautiful in the Far East.
The preparation of the hair takes the longest. Long hair is ideal for the recreation of the style, but worry not, there are plenty of extensions available to match any hair colour. Fake hair is applied under my natural hair, to create volume and shape. A perfectly coloured matched wheel is fixed and wrapped around with the aid of my own natural hair. My head becomes heavy and my neck is having difficulties holding straight.
“Women suffer for beauty,” they say. As difficult and heavy as it may be, I find this hairstyle incredible. I wish I could wear it every day. “They used to do this hair once a week and sleep on a hair pillow. Very difficult until you get used to”.
For the next half an hour, my hair becomes a white canvas, as the artist decorates it with coloured threads, crowns and myriad pins.
“It’s time to put on the Japanese kimono”. My heart is pounding with excitement. I dreamt of this day for so many years. “It’s going to be very heavy,” they tell me. I can’t imagine anything heavier than my hair.
I first put on a white robe called Nagajuban. This is a practical item which is machine washable and ensures the actual kimono doesn’t get dirty. Nagajuban is usually white and only show at the collar. The colour for an Oiran is folded in a triangle and shows the red collar of the Juban.
A Datejime was used to tie the Nagajuban.
My kimono of choice was a furisode. This means swinging sleeves, averaging 39 and 42 inches. The silky material really felt like heaven. It was red and white with cherry blossom all over it. I was mesmerised by its beauty.
The way of wearing a Kimono as an Oiran was called “Ohikizuri” (dragging tail). After wearing the “Uchikake” (over robe) the Oiran was supposed to drag it.
Unlike the Geisha kimono, I had a “Manaita Obi” which was tied in the front. There are several reasons why the belt was tied in front: to make it easy to untie in bed, to show off the wealth of the client and to show the vain of the Oiran.
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To top it all up, I had a beautiful Uchikake reserved for me. This is a highly formal kimono worn only by a bride or at a stage performance. It is supposed to trail along the floor, this is also why it is heavily padded along the hem.
Overall, the layers weight over 20 kilogrammes. You need strength and grace to walk around in such exquisite clothing, without falling or being uncomfortable. The dedication of this way of life took me by surprise.
To walk around the garden, I wore Oiran Getas, which were incredibly tall and very difficult to walk in.
Alas, I was ready for the photo shoot. A professional photographer prepared one of the rooms so I can showcase my beautiful Japanese kimono. In due course, my husband was also being dressed up in his own kimono. G’s kimono was much simpler consisting of just five pieces without the footwear. He also explained that his kimono was not heavy, but rather comfortable. It had a luxurious feel and very much enjoyed the idea of Tabi (Ankle-high, divided-toe socks) and Zōri (Traditional sandals worn by both men and women, similar in design to flip-flops).
Once both ready and the room was fully prepared, we both took our turns to take pictures. We were being specifically directed on how to sit or stand, hold our arms and necks. There were so many people taking tonnes of photos. We felt like celebrities. No photoshoot would have been complete without going out into the back garden, taking pictures whilst elevated on my oiran getas. I had more than 3 people helping me walk and set up. Nevertheless, I felt beautiful and glorious. People from around the tea house started taking an interest in my costume and asked to take pictures with us.
We then moved onto the front, zen garden and created the right setup to showcase our Japanese kimono. People who were walking by were now peeking over the fence and sneakily taking pictures. It felt interesting to have so many people wanting to just have you in their photographs.
We spent more than an hour taking pictures from all angles. We knew that by the end we will have lots of photos in us wearing traditional Japanese kimonos.
I felt more special and more looked after than even during my own wedding day.
A couple of hours later, exhausted and satisfied with my photo shoot, we went back to take the kimono off. The ladies removed all my make up with a lot of care. My diva time has come to an end. In all honesty, I was starving. After so much preparation, all good celebrations come with amazing food. The lunch was a bento box which contained more food than I could possibly eat. You have to love the Japanese lifestyle. I wish I could have moved into that beautiful tea house, enjoy being taken care of every day, prepared for photographs and fed great food.
What are the secrets behind the traditional Japanese kimono?
During lunch, we had the chance to ask questions about the Oirans. Before the makeover, I knew little to nothing about Oirans, and more often than not I would have thought there is no difference between Oirans, geishas and maikos. In fact, there was so much to be learned.
The first entertainment quarter was built in Kyoto in 1589 and it was called “Yanagi no Bamba”. Tayu (the highest ranking Oiran) and Oiran exited between 1643 to 1763. Oiran were courtesans in Japan. The Oiran were considered a type of yūjo "woman of pleasure" or prostitute. However, the Oiran was vested the Senior Fifth Rank by the government. The Senior Fifth Rank was equivalent to the feudal lord. The colour of the Senior Fifth Rank was red so by showing the red collar, the Oiran could display her rank. Oirans were prostitutes, but they were proud courtesans with higher rank than ordinary citizens.
I often wondered why girls became prostitutes in the first place. I learned that it wasn't really a choice. Many came from poor farming and fishing villages and were sold for money. Lower rank Samurai often sold their wives and daughters too. Some offered the woman as payment for debts, whilst others were fooled and sold in the end by bad men. Some girls were even abducted and sold to become Oirans.
The current value of women sold ranged from 300,000 yen (approx £2100) to 1.8 million yen (approx £12,500). Once the girls entered the Yoshiwara gates, there was no turning back. If any girl fled, they were hunted down, caught and tortured.
The history lesson was getting a little heavy for lunch. But I wanted to understand more about the Oirans and their history. These women clearly went through a lot, and wearing a heavy Japanese kimono dress was nothing compared to being taken from your loved ones and having to sell your body.
I learned that only a few girls actually made it as Oiran. The debut as a prostitute was around 16-17 years old and most needed to have a client every day. Some girls with undesirable features went on to become managers of the house, whilst the popular ones made it to Oiran.
There were rules and terms for service for prostitutes. They need to serve from around 16-17 till 28 years old. The years of prostitution were referred to as the “10 years of suffering death”. As our guide already told us, there was no escape from the house, but there were three exceptions which allowed the girls to leave the days of prostitution behind. If they could return the debt during the “10 years of suffering death”. If someone else could redeem their debt and the future earnings or if they died. Here's how much they needed to pay back in order to leave the house:
- Lower rank prostitute: present value of 4-5 million yen (approx £35,000)
- Middle rank: present value of 10 million yen (approx £70,000)
- Oiran: present value of 100 million yen (approx £700,000)
Many died of illness and sexual diseases and others died because of too many abortions. Some committed collective suicide with their lovers. Even after their service, many continued to stay in the house as they never been able to repay their debt.
Girls with beautiful features were trained properly in order to become Oiran. There were getting first class education in classical literature, Japanese poetry, calligraphy, tea ceremony, samisen, Japanese harp, game of go and shogi.
Buying with a lower rank prostitute was easy, but with an Oiran there were so many procedures in place. A client had to apply to a tea house and show off their wealth by using a lot of money there. They also had to offer expensive gifts to the Oiran, such as several Japanese Kimonos. The Oiran would come and see the client wearing the traditional kimono she was given by him.
During the first encounter, the Oiran would sit on an upper seat and evaluate the client without exchanging a single world. If the Oiran concluded the client was not appropriate (rank, wealth etc) there would be no second time. During the second encounter, the Oiran would approach closer, but continue to check the client. During the third meeting (najimi) the Oiran would finally become acquainted with the client. After giving the handsel, he could sleep with the Oiran. Once he would be acquainted with the Oiran, the client was not allowed to play around with other prostitutes. If he was found to do such a thing, he would have to pay a great deal of compensation. However, should the client call the Oiran, she would have to comply and show off her beautiful figure.
Costs the client had to pay:
- First time encounter : present value 1-2 million yen (approx £7000-£14,000)
- Second time encounter: present value 1-2 million yen (approx £7000-£14,000)
- Najimi: present value 1.8 - 3.3 million yen (approx £12,625 - £23,000)
After hearing all these, I couldn’t help but wonder, how come that many people could even afford the Oiran. Why would they pay for an Oiran as opposed to just get married to any other Japanese lady? Clients, such as wealthy samurais and business people, loved being in possession of Oirans. It was a way for them to showcase their status and endless wealth.
After seeing the Memoires of a Geisha, I couldn’t help but think the movie got it all wrong. Chiyo was not a Geisha. surely, but an Oiran. How could such simple distinction be omitted? Oiran were high-class courtesans who sold themselves as prostitutes, whereby Geishas only sold their artistic skills and not their bodies. Oiran was breathtakingly beautiful, well educated and had elegant behaviour. A Geisha was not as beautiful, nor well educated, but she entertained her clients her shamisen and dance performance. It was said that the Geisha served as a warmup act. Before becoming a Geisha, a Maiko is is a 16-18-year-old apprentice. You can distinguish them, by the way, they dress and wear makeup.
We finished our lunch. We were invited to walk around the pond and admire its natural beauty. I couldn’t help but think how a Japanese kimono has so many meanings. How it was used for as many reasons as patterns it carries. I am grateful I could dress as an Oiran and feel like a high-rank celebrity for a day. In a way, it’s interesting to think that back in the days, people used to pay to be with an Oiran, whereby today many women pay to be one. Whether is past, present and perhaps future, the Oiran remains a dominatrix over our wallets. I am grateful that I could do this, and feel like I am part of Japan’s history, even though it was only for a few hours.
It must have been around 3 pm when we came back to the tea house, from our walk around the garden. We received many pictures on a pen drive and two huge printed photos enclosed in a beautiful dossier. Of course, everything was given to us in a celebratory bag which had a little crystal attached to it. I love Japan, have I told you that? Kota told us that many Japanese women come for the makeover. Nowadays, it is very sought after in Japan to look as beautiful as the Oiran once was. I am not surprised, I would love to do this every day if I could.
The pricing for the makeover is 142,600yen (£1000) for women and 178,200yen for a couple (£1250). Is it worth it? Absolutely. I can’t imagine going to Japan and not having this experience. I am already saving for my second makeover when I return to Japan next year.
I was overwhelmed by the number of warm hugs I received before being sent off. I retraced my steps through the zen garden, towards the white minibus which was waiting to take us back to the train station. The sun was shining, kids were playing outside, and families were walking and eating ice cream. It's so interesting to think about the past and the Japanese lifestyle which shaped the country the way it is today. As good or bad as it might have been, I can't imagine a different Japan, to what I adore so much in the present.
As we were riding the train back to Tokyo, G asked me if I enjoyed my Oiran makeover. I loved my day and of course, I jokingly tell him I want an authentic Japanese kimono for my birthday. I don’t think I’ve ever felt more glorious, than when I got the chance to be a sought-after, Senior Fifth Rank Oiran for the day.
Thank you, Beauty of Japan for helping us make the most out of our day. We loved your patience, service and of course, history lesson. We had an amazing day!
Do you want to be an Oiran for a day and wear a Japanese kimono dress? Tell me what you think in the comments section below.