When I began spending time with the geisha, they would schedule me to interview them in between formal appointments. Thus, I only saw them in full costume with the flowing kimono, delicately painted white faces and vermillion lips. Pictures rarely do justice to their otherworldly appearance because the harsh glare of a flash bounces off the white makeup and creates an extreme effect in photography. In person, the geisha’s makeup glows under the moonlight and has an almost transparent quality.
As the geisha began to truly welcome me into their world, I started to spend time with them as they rested between classes. This was when I realized the real story behind a geisha’s beauty: Underneath their iconic white makeup is the most breathtakingly pure skin I had ever seen in my life. I have met trainee geisha as young as 19 and senior geisha as old as 70, but regardless of age they all share the same exquisite complexion. The Japanese actually have a name for skin like this. They call it “mochi hada,” which refers to the pure, gleaming, soft quality of a baby’s skin. Given the demanding hours geisha keep, the full makeup they constantly apply and perspiration that comes with their intricate and demanding dances, I never expected these women to have such beautiful skin. Naturally, I had to ask what their secrets were and, amazingly, their ritual is simple and straightforward:
Purify: Removing makeup and environmental impurities from the face is the most important secret to mochi hada skin. Geisha must be diligent about this step because of their white makeup, so they use a tsubaki (camellia) classical cleansing oil to melt away the day.
Polish: Gently releasing dead skin from the surface of the skin daily not only leaves skin with a soft, healthy gleam but also improves the efficacy of any treatments used afterwards. For centuries, they have used komenuka (Japanese rice bran) to polish the skin.
Brighten: When geisha are not in performance makeup, they are required to keep their skin fresh and free of makeup, but they are still expected to have porcelain complexions. As a result, they are keen on addressing age spots and have found licorice root extract extract to be amongst the most effective natural ingredients for preventing and improving the appearance of hyperpigmentation—without sensitizing the skin to the sun as so many modern day brighteners do.
Nourish: The final step in the geisha’s ritual is nourishing and sealing in moisture with luxuriously lightweight creams. A popular classical ingredient for such moisturizers is silk extract, which forms a weightless, invisible network on the skin to hold moisture in all day without the heaviness of oils and butters used conventionally in the Western world.
Blot: During makeup application and throughout the day, keeping the skin petal-fresh without disturbing their intricate makeup is essential to keeping the geisha’s complexion clear. This is how they discovered the benefits of the gold-leaf beauty papers.
Drink Sake (optional): Geisha swear it works.