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Shironuri – the White Make-up
A new Maiko of seventeen shows a genuine practice.
In Japan, the court nobles in the Heian period used to paint their face in white. It is said that there was a need to stand them out since it was so dark indoor. Similarly, the white make-up for Maiko (geisha) seems to be originated for some practical reason. There was a time when they used to serve and entertain customers at ozashiki under candle lights only. It was a device to look beautiful as much as possible with a glimmering light then, and they say that the past practice have been inherited to modern times.
I have chances to get to see various Maiko (apprentice geisha) and Geiko (mature geisha) from different flower towns at interviews. No matter if it is day or night, perfect white texture-like chinaware remains the same. But if you take a closer look, you see there is a slight tone of pink in white. They add pink powder before they do Shironuri (white makeup), this is why the face looks faintly pinkish. I suppose this can be explained as a secret technique for Maiko make-up. White as a color gives clean impression, at the same time it has cold feeling. But when you look at Maiko’s face, it gives a kind of ‘round look’; this is maybe because of this little device.
By the way, there is one thing that I always wondered. Firstly, Maiko’s kimono is called ‘ohikizuri’ and it has a trailing hem like a long wide tail. To make each one, it is said that two rolls of tanmono (roll of cloth) are used. And length of ‘darari no obi’ is more than 5 meters.
What is more, Maiko wear okobo on their feet. It is the 5 inches high-heel shoes made of paulownia wood with a weight of 1 kilogram. Can you imagine how heavy would it be? It differs by seasons, but I am told that it weighs nearly 20 kilograms totally in a coldest season. And my point is that they scarcely sweat, even though they wear all these things. Maiko should be human beings too…does physical condition change if they live in the world of Geisha even once? Or are there any special secret plans to control perspiration? In the last few months, I could not have questioned at any interviews and time just went by. But this time I’ve got at the truth. I would like to tell it to you with introduction of the white makeup by a new Maiko, Umechie-san of Kamishichiken. (photo shoot above)
First it is construction of a ‘face-base.’ This step is equivalent to apply ‘base liquid’ in general makeup, in Maiko’s case, ‘bindukeabura’ is used. It can be melted easily with hand’s temperature. Umechie-san took a little piece of it, kneaded well till it became a transparent liquid. Then she applied it on her skin directly by hand. To apply evenly is the most important point for the white make-up to be done beautifully, but it seems quite difficult.
She says, “If you cannot make it even, the white make-up would be awful. I just keep on practicing it every day.”
And now ‘oshiroi’ (face powder) is applied. By turns, she paints forehead, cheeks and neck with a brush. Her impression entirely changes when white color is added on skin. Painting is not the only thing to do, she uses a sponge to blend and make a flat surface.
She turned around remaining in ‘seiza’ position (to sit upright), started to paint the back by using two mirrors. From Elder Maiko to younger one, when the younger ones become Elder, they tell the next younger ones… I hear that a Maiko’s make-up is taught by word of mouth. It is a very custom of Kyoto where all things were inherited from person to person.
As Elder Maiko, Umeyae-san says, “We learn everything by watching and listening. It’s all about using one’s sense,” Onee-san (senior Maiko, literally means older sister) initiates new Maiko completely into the secrets of hanamachi’s style that were taught by her Onee-san in the past. But what is great is her thoroughgoing attitude. She watches Umechie-san until she manages to complete to the end.
“Keep in mind that Maiko should always have a soft look. This is what we taught by Elders. We draw eyebrow in red powder first. If it is only drawn in black, that gives you a strong impression. So we draw in red, then use black on top of it to adjust balance,”Umeyae-san says.
When it is more than a year since Maiko debut, they start arranging their own ways, for example, using eyeliners, and wearing strong red on their eyes and so on. But fresh Maiko wear no eyeliner; just add little color on corner of their eyes and cheeks in pink. Mascara is applied, but rather than make-up, it is to cover the white powder falling on eyelashes. When makeup is over, she fixes her coiffure, get dressed in ‘ohikizuri’ for evening work.
It was my first time to see Maiko doing shironuri. I was surprised to know that it is so much simpler than I thought, because they look so gorgeous at work, I may have expected something a bit more elaborate. I was very touched by considerate devices for each process and the fact that each of them has meaning and function.
It might be something different from those, but I would like to talk about ‘that thing.’ It is the reason why Maiko hardly sweat. Somewhat it seems the key was in ‘bindukeabura’, melting oil on hands. When they apply it, just like putting a lid onto something, pores are naturally blocked. And they tend not to perspire much spontaneously. The more I know, the deeper Maiko’s world gets. Well, it is likely to arouse my inquiring mind endlessly…