How to Put on Makeup Like a Maiko

How to Put on Makeup Like a Maiko

A Maiko is a label for a lady who is studying to be an entertainer in Kyoto, fully trained in Japanese time-honoured arts. She typically puts on makeup to make her skin appear paler, as well as accentuate her lips and eyes. This is called shironuri style which translates to ‘Japanese Traditional White Style’, and is named after the white foundation used. Maikos wear traditional makeup products, as well as recreate their famous eye and lip shapes in keeping with the techniques handed down from Ancient Japan.

Geisha makeover experience 5 maikoya

There is a range of makeup items that maikos use and they have a traditional Japanese names.

These include:

Bintsuke abura: A soy-based wax used to help the foundation paste stay on and appear smooth. It also protects the skin from the makeup getting into the pores and causing irritation later. Beni-hake: A traditional small brush, usually made from goat hair. Typically used to apply eye and lip lines in Japanese styled makeup. Bintsuke abura: An oil or wax mixture used before Japanese white foundation make up is applied. This is to help the paste stick to the skin, as well as stop the pores from being clogged. Hake: A traditional brush, usually made from goat hair. Typically used to apply the white foundation in Japanese style makeup. Kabuki oshiroi: The white foundation or paste. Komata: The Japanese name for the nape of the neck. This is seen as a sensual area on a woman. Kona oshiroi: A white powder typically used to smooth out the white foundation paste. Shironuri: This word translates to ‘painted in white’. This name is given to the colour of the foundation which creates the unique Maiko look.
The Makeup of the Geisha

Here are the maiko make-up steps

  1. Firstly, the skin needs to be prepared before the makeup is put on. You should wash your face thoroughly and remove any products or residue. Brush or wet your eyebrows so that they stay flat and in shape while you put on your makeup. Professional maikos use a mixture called bintsuke abura on their skin and eyebrows so the foundation attaches better. Maikos recommend putting your hair up now in order to prevent it from being covered in products and spoil the flawless appearance you are creating.
  2. White foundation or shironuri paste is now prepared. This foundation was once made with lead, however, is now made using white cosmetic powder or more traditional rice powder. Kabuki oshiroi foundation packs can now be purchased to make the foundation application process simpler. Traditionally, the powder would need to be ground and mixed with water until a consistent paste was formed. More modern ingredients mean that making the paste can be simplified. Once the white foundation paste is the correct consistency, apply it to all areas of the face. Many maikos use traditional hake brushes for this process, but cosmetic sponges work as well. Focus on trying to achieve the same consistency and smoothness to all areas.
  3. If you wish, a layer of kona oshiroi powder can be applied. This powder smooths out the paste underneath and brings a shine to the white foundation. A wider hake brush, powder puff or foundation brush can be used here.
  4. Maikos also apply the shironuri foundation to their neck, ears, upper chest and upper back. One area that is not covered is the nape of the neck or komata. A ‘V shape’ is left so the maikos natural skin colour is showing. This is seen as a sensual area, and this komata area will peak out subtly once the kimono robe is put on. On special occasions, such as holidays or when a maiko becomes a geiko for the first time, a ‘W shape’ may be unpainted instead. It is also important to remember that show off a band of skin at the hairline remains untouched. This is a sign that maikos are wearing their own hair, and have not earnt the wigs that the geiko ladies wear.
  5. Next is painting over the eyebrows. In olden times, crushed charcoal was used. This has been replaced with eyebrow liners and pencils. Maikos should have thinner black eyebrows, with a thin line of red or pink underneath. Professionals mention that colouring the eyebrows should be done carefully, because if done incorrectly all previous layers of makeup have to be removed and started again. This hint should also be considered for the rest of the makeup instructions to do with eyeliner and eye pencils.
  6. Contouring around the eyes is an important step for any makeup artist, and maikos are the same. Modern eyeliner products are used, but should be black. Outline both top and bottom areas around the eyes, from the caruncula to the outer corner. Many maiko designs have a slight ‘wing’ or flick near the outer corner if you wish to include this, but it must be symmetrical to the design on your other eye.
  7. Afterwards, we add the red makeup around the eyes. The first area is around the caruncula, or the inner eye next to your nose. A small downwards flick is added to make your eye appear larger. This flick should only be half a centimetre or so in length and is usually done with a red eyeliner or pencil. The next area around the eye is near the outer corner. A small circle of red should be drawn and coloured in, either with an eyeliner or eye pencil. This circle should only be a centimetre or so in diameter and should start where the middle of your iris is. This design covers both outer areas of the eyelid and underneath and eye, but you should aim for the circle to appear more on the upper eyelid, where you have put your slight eyeliner flick. A simpler design is to add red eyeliner above and underneath the black lines already drawn on, starting in line with the iris.
  8. The use of blush sets apart the maiko from the geisha (geiko). Senior geisha prefer a more subtle look, while maiko use more pink and red in their appearance. This is greatly used in the blush around the cheeks, so choose either pink or red tones to compliment your look. Many maiko comment that blush should be used sparingly, as you don’t want the blush to take over the white foundation you have put in previously. You can put your blush on with a hake brush, though a blush brush can be used as well.
  9. The final step of putting on maiko makeup is the lipstick. Lipstick in ancient Japan was first made by extracting colouring from red safflower, mixing it with water and then making a gloss with sugar crystals. Nowadays, the lipstick is generally applied with a small lip brush or beni-hake.

The reason why a brush is used is so that the maiko or makeup artist can colour only part of the lips in red lipstick. This is because the lips are covered in white foundation and you can create the illusion of smaller, pouty lips. This appearance dates back to early geisha and maiko days, as the lips appear more feminine to traditional Japanese aesthetics. Many guidelines to how lipstick is applied is still enforced. First year apprentice maikos only wear lipstick on a small part of the lower lip only. Once they have mastered a few techniques, the maikos can wear both lipstick on both upper and lower lips. Some maiko still keep with traditional lipstick ingredients and mix sugar into their lipstick – making their face sweet to look and taste!

If you have time, look online for online tutorials and step by step instructions to how to achieve your maiko makeover at home! In case you do, you might want to know how you take all these layers of makeup off again! There are new makeup removal mixtures that have been designed especially for shironuri paste. Many makeup artists recommend other makeup removal wipes, though some maiko have shared that baby oil is another great makeup remover.

Of course, how much makeup a maiko wears depends on the event she is attending. A more formal event requires heavier makeup, as well as more elaborate clothing accessories. Judgements and styling techniques are taught for many years while the maiko is training, as it is expected that they will be able to make appropriate choices by themselves before they graduate. This includes putting on all the layers of makeup by themselves. Many talented maiko have this process shortened to thirty minutes or less!


Maikos are usually found around the Kyoto region, where they continue to give high class performances to professionals as they have done for hundreds of years. Many maikos have found a calling to demonstrate their traditional arts to tourists and visitors, just like those found at the Maikoya Centre.

Don’t miss out on a chance to meet such a refined symbol of Japanese culture today! BACK TO Geisha Experience Reservation Page