By Keith Wyss
The image of geisha and maiko of Kyoto’s Gion district running around narrow alleys to entertain high-class guests at tea houses is burned into the minds of anyone with even a remote interest in Japan. Even if you have not visited the area, many have dreamt about the lifestyle of geisha thanks to productions like “Memories of a Geisha” or the older “Shogun” television series. It is no wonder that many Japanophiles are searching for an authentic geisha experience.
One of the very same hairdressers that trained and worked in Kyoto is Seiko Sawada. Working as a live-in hairdresser at a maiko’s beauty salon for six years, she mastered the rare technique of Nihongami. Don’t let the underwhelming translation of “Japanese hair” fool you. This ancient technique is a closely guarded secret with supposedly less than a dozen top-class hairdressers in Japan today. And she is the only one in the entire Tohoku region, and naturally Sendai where the shop is.
Seiko operates Nihongami Beauty Salon Sawada. In addition to offering hairdressing, the shop can rent gorgeous kimonos and help you get dressed in them, and apply white make-up for the whole geisha experience! There are a few differences in the styles of geisha, maiko (apprentice) and oiran (high class) female roles. Seiko can explain the difference and provide whatever you are looking for, ensuring you look your very best on such a special occasion.
This year the shop added “tachiyaku” male roles, such as kabuki actor. I tried dressing as an Edo era townsman. I may be young, but I lost my hair a long time ago. Seiko affixed a special wig which is carefully groomed and kept, then proceeded with some specific techniques and ointments. Before I knew it, I was reborn with the same iconic hair I saw in all the old samurai films! Those with hair can get a bald cap then the traditional hair added on top. Seiko dressed me in an appropriate matching wardrobe and I was ready for my photo shoot!
Although I have done the dress-up Japanese style experience before in other tourist locations, this time was different. While the starting price of 15,000 yen may seem expensive, it is worth every yen for the unmatched service and quality materials, I believe. In fact, Seiko often works with stage, television, and movie period dramas to do their hair in an authentic way. In other words, she is the real deal. Of course she is very professional, but I also appreciated how friendly, warm and welcoming she was. It really helped me relax before my transformation. Recently Seiko went to visit a new customer in Tokyo because she could not find an expert for nihongami service. Even in Tokyo this service is extremely hard to find, I found out. I imagine she is the only hairdresser at such high level that welcomes tourists.
Are you ready to experience a disappearing part of Japanese culture? You can add on a professional photo shoot or hire Seiko for a wedding or special event, too. She is in high demand around the prefecture and able to travel to meet if her schedule allows it (additional cost). Appointments by reservation only, in Japanese or English.
From JR Sendai Station, take a five minute subway ride on the Nanboku line south to Kawaramachi Station. Nihongami Beauty Salon Sawada is a three minute walk away.
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Justin Velgus (ジャスティン ベルガス) is a long-term resident and promoter in the Tohoku region. He has been a content producer for JapanTravel.com since 2012 and was the Miyagi Prefecture Regional Partner 2013-2015. Justin’s over 300 published travel and culture articles come from a background of studying in Akita, teaching English in Miyagi through the JET Program, and working for the government in Fukushima. He lives in the gyutan capital of the world, Sendai. Justin is an expert in local culture and history. He was the first foreign volunteer at Sendai City Museum and regularly advises the local volunteer guide group GOZAIN , which he is a veteran member, on guiding techniques and hidden locations in the city even locals don't know about. In his free time he enjoys delivering original walking tours, such as his Dark Sendai Tour (ghost tour) or Kokubuncho Mystery Tour (redlight district tour). Justin is also a Certified Sake Professional.