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Sara Al Mheiri: Japanese thrills
November 14, 2014
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I feel so foolish. I look at my neighbour sitting on the left and the first thought that comes to mind is: stunning. Even the makeup artist working on her is cooing and awing over her beauty. I make eye contact with my artist and I immediately regret it. She is smirking at me; as though to say “You can try as hard as you want to be one of us, but that will never happen.” Thank God my face was absolutely caked in white paste, it hid the embarrassed blushing perfectly!

The ‘one of us’ I was painfully attempting to be was a geisha. For those who don’t know what a geisha is, she is a traditional Japanese entertainer who wears an intricately designed kimono, with her hair decorated with flowers and jewels. To top it all off, she has very high wooden clogs and of course, the white makeup. From the day I heard the word geisha, I was hooked. I spent days of my life just watching documentaries about this fascinating historical profession. I knew everything there is to know about being a geisha but I hadn’t even met one. That was till last week when I was given the amazing opportunity to travel to Japan for a week for a photography trip!

During this trip we got to hike through the mountains, stay in traditional Japanese inns and visited over a hundred temples. And I could honestly say I had the best time of my life. But the thought of going back home before I could meet a geisha and even dress up like one was just heartbreaking to me. It’s not every day you get to go to Japan!

Our tour guide saw just how much I was yearning for this and set up a special surprise for me. After another visit to a beautiful temple, she separated a few other women from the group and I and ushered us into a taxi. We drove to a small part of Kyoto where the Japanese tradition clearly flourished and there I saw them. My heart stopped and my jaw dropped; I just simply couldn’t believe it. We were in an area of town where the Maikos (training geishas) came to live and work. I was right in the heart of it all. She then led us through the narrow streets to a small house. A woman handed us baskets filled with undergarments and special socks. That’s when I realised: we were about to be geishas. I rapidly changed and dutifully sat in the makeup chair ready to go. I was sitting amongst a few Japanese women who also wanted to have the experience and within five minutes we were all unrecognisable. They place a thin layer of wax on your face, then paint your entire face (including lips), back and front with a thick white paint. She then powders it and applies more makeup on top to make you look as ‘feminine’ as possible. Now, as I look over to the rest of the women, I could have easily bet over $100 that they were real-life working geishas. Then take a look at me and my Arab features couldn’t have been more prominent. The stereotypical nose, large black eyes and sharp features clearly indicated that I was merely a wannabe geisha, not even a pretty one. Even without my features, I was too tanned for a geisha!

They placed a wig on my head and bound me tightly with silk and cotton and draped a heavy kimono over my shoulders. Followed by some more bounding. Finally, two hours later, I was finally ready. They gave me some extremely high clogs and in broken English, told me that I had exactly one hour to go outside and ‘be a geisha’. Then nicely shoved me out of the door and into a random alleyway. I stumbled about like a new fawn in the clogs and heavy clothing but by the time I found the main street, I got the hang of it!

Not even two seconds onto the street I heard gasps. I turned around and there was a crowd following me. I stopped in bewilderment and stared back at them. Nobody made a move, until a bunch of school girls broke the spell and shyly approached me. They wanted to take a picture and I wholeheartedly obliged. As they said their thanks and goodbyes, one of them whispered to her friend “tsu-ku-shi” (beautiful).

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Sara Al Mheiri is a young Emirati woman who is currently living
in Boston, USA, where she is specialising in media studies with a
focus on women's studies. Sara is the ultimate nomad who flits
between countries observing new societies and their culture.

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