Tokyo studios photograph clients as samurai and courtesans

Minerva Wong, center, poses for photos clad in oiran attire with her husband, Joe, 37, at Henshin Shashinkan Studio Nanairo in Taito Ward, Tokyo, on Dec. 16.


By RYUZO SUZUKI | THE JAPAN NEWS/YOMIURI Published: January 23, 2018

Studios where visitors can have themselves dressed and photographed as samurai warriors or high-ranking Japanese courtesans are becoming increasingly popular in Tokyo.

At Samurai Armor Photo Studio in Shibuya Ward, seven sets of yoroi kabuto (samurai armor and helmets) are prepared. The outfits were manually reproduced by highly skilled craftsmen based on ones that were used by samurai commanders in the Sengoku warring states period, from the late 15th century to the late 16th century. The armor and helmets are made with metal, not plastic, and thus one set weighs about about 44 pounds.

Customers choose their favorite armor and helmets while listening to explanations in English about the historical background of the items. Then they change into traditional knee-length underwear and split-toed socks.

Staff members help the visitors put on kosode short-sleeved kimono and flowing hakama trousers. The visitors also don other gear, such as kote arm guards, suneate leg guards, breastplates, katana swords and kabuto helmets.

The photo studio was opened in May 2016 by a nearby firm that runs call center services. The company began the service as an in-house business venture to utilize vacant office space.

To start the business, studio manager Shimpei Takemura studied history and received training to help put on kimono and armor for about a year before the opening.

Takemura said that the number of visitors who used the service this year was about double that of last year. Most of the customers are foreigners — from the United States, France, Italy and other countries — who learned of the studio’s service on the internet, he said.

At Henshin Shashinkan Studio Nanairo, another such facility in Tokyo’s Asakusa area, customers can have their photos taken while dressed as oiran, or high-ranking courtesans. The oiran were considered a type of prostitute. However, they are distinguished from ordinary prostitues in that they were entertainers, and many became celebrities outside the pleasure districts.

After customers choose their favorite long-sleeved kimono, it takes about an hour for the studio to apply makeup and style the client’s hair in the elaborate and distinctive manner of an oiran. The customers’ hair is decorated with long kanzashi hair pins, traditional Japanese combs and many other hair accessories. Then they wear kimono and pose for photos on opulent sets.

The photo studio was established in December 2014 by the Kyoritsu Maintenance group, which includes companies that manage and operate dormitories for students and company employees. The corporate group began the service as a new business utilizing the group’s know-how.

Mie Ichikawa, the manager of the studio, said the number of users has been steadily rising. The number has doubled from that at the time of the opening.

It also lets visitors wear geisha and other costumes, but most of them want to wear oiran costumes. The studio said there are about as many Japanese users as foreign ones.

Minerva Wong, 36, a flight attendant who came to Japan on a 10-day sightseeing trip with her husband from Vancouver, Canada, was among the customers.

“I learned Japanese history and kimono when I was very young, in elementary school,” she said, adding that the oiran makeover was something she had never experienced before. The elaborate garments make it “very difficult to move,” she said, “but it’s very pretty, very beautiful. It’s a good experience, one of the best experiences in Japan.”

At Samurai Armor Photo Studio in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, shooting 170 photos in 10 different samuri poses in the indoor studio takes about an hour and a half. Fees for the standard course that includes photographs start from 13,000 yen (about $116) per person. A two-hour course is also available, in which visitors go out on the streets and have themselves photographed outdoors. Online: www.samurai.bz/en.

At Henshin Shashinkan Studio Nanairo in Tokyo’s Asakusa area, the oiran (courtesan) course takes about 2 ½ hours and the fees start from 27,000 yen (about $24) per person. Samurai, geisha and maiko packages also available. Online: www.nana-iro.tokyo/en/introduction.

A customer at the studio has himself photographed before going out to the street.