My oldest daughter, J, was born in August. This makes it very difficult to schedule birthday parties with her school friends! Not only are most people gone on vacation at that time, but things are extremely busy as soon as school starts in September, leaving me with no time or energy to plan a good party. This past fall seemed unusually busy, then it was Christmas, and then the whole rest of the winter was so miserably cold that we just hibernated, and I didn’t get around to J’s party until April! Of course everything worked out in the end, and having a late party just gave me more time to make it awesome. J loved everything, and told me that it was absolutely worth the wait.
We decided on a Geisha theme more than a year before J’s birthday, so I had lots of time to surf Pinterest for ideas and shop around online for the best deals on decorations and favours and things.
Now before I go any further, I just want to clarify something: Geisha are not prostitutes. There was a class of courtesans for the extremely wealthy; they were called Oiran. There were also prostitutes who mimicked the Geisha look during WW II, and this is probably where that misconception comes from. Real Geisha, however, are entertainers. They are trained in the arts of dance, music (singing and instrumental), conversation, serving tea, and upholding tradition. Basically, if you want to host a very fancy party in Japan, you hire a Geisha to entertain and impress your guests. So having a Geisha-themed party is no more scandalous than having a Rock Star-themed party.
When I first starting looking for ideas online, all I really found was this page. It would seem that I chose a fairly original party idea! Not that I minded. I’ve been obsessed with Asian things for years, so I already had a pretty good knowledge base to draw from.
I’ve been doing themed birthday parties ever since I was a child, and I’ve learned that you need certain things to make them great:
1. Themed decorations
2. Themed costumes, or at least accessories
3. Themed activities
4. Themed food
5. Love your theme. It will show in everything you do!
(That second-last one is fully optional with children’s parties. Most kids that I know aren’t very adventuresome when it comes to trying “weird” new foods, and if you don’t have some old stand-bys like hot dogs or pizza, you’re going to have guests who just pick at their food. But at least do a themed cake!) If it sounds like too much work to pick a theme, rest assured that it actually makes everything else simpler. Once you have your theme, coming up with ideas for decor, food, activities, etc. is easy!
First: the invitations. Doing special invitations will let your guests know about the party’s theme in advance. Not only does this build excitement, but it also helps people to understand any special requests you might make. For example, we asked our guests to have their hair in a high bun if it was long enough. Such a directive would have seemed very strange if the invitations gave no other hint at the Geisha theme. Invitation information essentials include:
• The date, time (start to finish), and location
• Let people know what kind of food will be provided
• Ask for allergy information
• Request an RSVP by a certain date, or people really will leave it to the last minute, if they don’t forget entirely
You probably knew all of that, but I had to write myself a list that I check every time I make invitations, or I will forget something!
As you can see, I printed the information on some pink vellum, and attached it to the cards with brads. I also took advantage of the translucency of vellum to stamp an image behind the words. That’s something that I thought of on the fly, and I’m really happy with how it turned out!
I have a serious crush on all things sakura (cherry blossoms) and ume (plum blossoms), so I already had the perfect rubber stamps that I found on Etsy. We decided on a pink and purple colour scheme, so all I had to buy was a set of blank cards and envelopes at Michaels, and a couple of ink pads. I individually stamped each of the stamps in both colours on some scrap paper, cut them out, and played around with different compositions until I found one that I was happy with. I tried mixing sakura and ume together, but in the end, I decided that they looked best with just their own kind. So we did four ume invitations, and four sakura. Tip: if you’re stamping your own invitations, do them at LEAST one full day before you want to send them out. Ink needs plenty of time to dry thoroughly!
These are the inks I used. Being a total stamping novice, I didn’t know that there are different types of inks for different uses, but these worked just fine, so I must have lucked out. The Brilliance brand is definitely my favourite so far. They seem to be getting harder to find and are discontinuing a lot of their stuff, but you can still get them on EBay.
I wrote a whole separate post about the decorations, which you can read here.
Costumes and Accessories
For a Geisha party, kimonos are the obvious costume choice, but they aren’t terribly fast, cheap, or easy to make. That being said, each of my girls does have their own kimono that they wore last Halloween when we three dressed as Geisha, but they were kind of too small by this party (kids grow so fast, don’t they?). Plus it’s difficult to do most activities with such long, drapey sleeves. My solution? The kimono wrap top from Habitual! I initially planned to make one for all of the girls at the party, but Japanese cottons are a bit pricey, and with other aspects of the party costs going plenty high, I decided to just make one for each of my two girls. J decided at the last minute that she didn’t like pink and purple anymore, so I made her kimono top in a blue print. A, however, is still smitten with pink.
Since J’s friends wouldn’t have their own kimonos, I thought of other ways to make them feel and look like Geisha. The heavy white make-up was out of the question, but another essential part of the Geisha costume is kanzashi. Kanzashi are beautiful hair ornaments, most often floral. In keeping with the pink and purple colour scheme, I bought several branches of pink faux cherry blossoms and purple faux wisteria at Michaels. I used the cherry blossoms to make hair combs that the girls put in their high buns. You can read all about that here. The wisteria were meant to be the dangling (shidare) type of kanzashi, but they were a bit of a fail. I couldn’t find inexpensive hair sticks, nor could I think of a way to attach the faux wisteria to a hair stick, so I just left them on their existing stems. Unfortunately, the stems were quite rough and uneven, and caught rather badly on the girl’s hair. After putting J’s in, I decided not to inflict that kind of torture on her friends, so I just let them take those home at the end.
Of course hardly anything is more Asian than hand fans and paper parasols, so we had to get those. I ordered from Luna Bazaar, since they have a great selection of colours and are one of the only places that will ship to Canada. You can also find fans and parasols on EBay, but Luna Bazaar was cheaper for me. I had also ordered from LB before, so I knew what to expect. In keeping with our colour scheme, I got 32″ parasols in Bellflower, Lilac, Cassis Pink, and Bambina Pink. The paper hand fans were purchased in the same colours, though I did get one in blue for J. The parasols seriously ended up being a HUGE hit with the girls! I got several requests of “Can we keep them?” during the party, and they were delighted to discover that they could. I did buy more parasols and fans than there were girls, so that hopefully each girl could get her favourite colour. We ended up with two extras; perfect for playing dress-up! I wish I could recommend all of these products, but the truth is that every single one of the Cassis Pink parasols broke upon opening. I think the paper was just sized a bit too small, and they tore along one of the spines when pushed fully open. Not obvious tears, but disappointing nontheless.
I also find that you cannot trust the colours of items as shown on the Luna Bazaar website. I know that it’s standard practice for etailers to have some kind of disclaimer about computer monitors all being different and therefore showing colours that may not necessarily be true to life, and blah, blah, blah. However, I have NEVER ordered anything that was so far off from the colours I saw on my computer than what I have gotten from LB. For this party, it wasn’t super-crucial that we got exact shades of pink and purple, but if you are ordering stuff for a wedding, I would highly recommend ordering just one inexpensive trial item in a few different shades of the colour you are after.
The LB fans, in any given colour, matched the parasols and lanterns in that same colour perfectly. So if you need, for example, 5 dozen green lanterns for your event, just order one paper hand fan (the cheapest thing at LB) in Chartreuse, one in Lamb’s Ear, and one in Grass Green, and decide which shade you like best when they arrive; then place your big order. I know returns are free in the USA, but in Canada, you would actually pay more in return shipping than you paid for the original items!
We chose two activities to do for our Geisha party. Both are classic Japanese things that everyone knows about: Origami, and making Sushi. We actually made the sushi first, opened presents, and then did origami, but since the Sushi ties into Food, I’ll discuss the Origami first.
I have an enormous papercrafts book that I got as a birthday present when I was just a girl. An entire third of that book is all about Origami, with detailed instructions on projects for beginners, intermediates, and experts. I bought some lovely patterned origami paper at Michaels and chose what I thought would be an easy thing to make: a butterfly.
I turned out to be kind of wrong though. . . for starters, I was out of practice myself, and neglected to make a practice butterfly beforehand. As a result, I was having to figure out the instructions at the same time as trying to teach it to the girls, and I definitely made a couple of mistakes. There was also one step in particular that was a bit tricky even for me, so I ended up having to do that part on each of the girls’ butterflies. Despite my less-than-perfect preparation for that activity, everyone ended up very happy with their butterflies, and it was a nice, relaxing craft to do at the end of the party. You, dear reader, can learn from my mistakes. Pick something truly easy, and practice it first!
I purposely chose to avoid the responsibility of feeding a large group of girls a full meal for this party. (It saved me a bunch of work, too!) Since the party was in the afternoon, all I had to provide was a snack, and of course this was a birthday party, so we had to have cake!
One thing I learned years ago: kids will not eat a full piece of cake. It doesn’t matter how hard you worked on it, how amazing it looks, or how good it tastes. Maybe you’re very chill about kids not finishing their food, but I just couldn’t stand it when I had to throw out more than half of a cake that I had spent hours on. Almost by accident, I made a discovery one year: kids LOVE cupcakes! Even though the amount of cake and icing is pretty much the same when you compare a standard-sized cupcake to a 12th or 16th of a four-layer 8″ cake, kids will eat the entire cupcake 95% of the time. Even if the cake and cupcake recipes are identical. I have no idea why this is; I just go with it! And it’s just as well; cupcakes always seem to be less work to make and decorate (at least to me).
My daughter J wanted chocolate cupcakes (I’ll share that recipe another time). I saw loads of ideas on Pinterest for different ideas on how to decorate cupcakes with cherry blossoms, or how to make them look like little sections of kimono fabric (WAY too much work!), but in the end I ignored them all and the idea of using royal icing came to me. Royal icing is made from egg whites or meringue powder and confectioners sugar (with a bit of water to thin it down), and is usually reserved for cookies. I couldn’t see a reason why it wouldn’t work for cupcakes though, so that’s what I did!
If you want to do something like this, you need to fill your cupcake cups only half full (or even less) with the batter. You actually don’t want that perfect domed top, and you want the cupcake edges to be lower than the tops of the cups. This is because you need to pour a layer of thin royal icing on top of the cupcakes, and you want it to end up level. You need the cupcake liner to hold the icing in place until it hardens, because royal icing that is thin enough to pour will just keep pouring right over the edges if you have domed cupcakes that filled the whole cup.
I decorated the cupcakes in keeping with the pink/purple colour scheme and the ume/sakura invitation designs, using royal icing tinted with Wilton dye gels. I also added a blend of vanilla, orange, and almond flavourings so that it didn’t just taste sweet. As you can see, the first layer of icing that I poured on was white. I then made a thicker icing (just add more powdered sugar) for the basic flower shapes and border edging. Last, I used an even thicker consistency (in darker colours) for the detail work, with a few white sugar pearls added for extra flair. Using white in the details also helped tie the foreground to the background.
My sakura furoshiki cloth ended up being the perfect compliment to the cupcakes, and the girls positively devoured them! To my surprise and delight, the royal icing had not only sealed the moisture into the cakes, but it had added a bit more. They were really very good, if I do say so myself.
Unfortunately, a mouse thought so, too. The night before the party, the cupcakes were all sitting out on the counter so that the royal icing could dry and harden like it’s supposed to. The next morning, I discovered that two cupcakes had been nibbled, and one had been walked (and pooped) on. Those three went in the garbage, and I was SO glad that I had made extras! Always make extras. Not only could you mess up while decorating them (the first ones I did were pretty sloppy until I got the hang of it), but an animal might decide to ruin a few.
I combined an activity and food in one when we made. . . Candy Sushi! It is seriously SO fun, and So. Good. I give you a full tutorial on how to make it here. We had done candy sushi before when my son had a Ninja Party, so we already knew how great it was. The girls just LOVED making their own Maki and Nigiri. They ate a few pieces, and took the rest home with them in zip-lock bags. Helpful hint: There was a bit of a lull while I set out all of the supplies and cut pieces of “rice” for the girls to use. The girls were all just sitting there watching me silently, and I could tell that they were about to be bored before we even started. I used that time to strike up a conversation about Geisha, asking the girls if they knew anything about them, and when I found that most of the girls weren’t really sure, I taught them. They were very interested, and we had a great time talking until everything was ready.
Making candy sushi definitely takes a while, so make sure you allow enough time for this activity if you want to do it. Having a second adult helper would also be incredibly handy! My husband is normally home for our kid’s parties, but this particular day he was driving my son around to two different birthday parties, so I was on my own. Thankfully, one of my daughter’s friends knew how to handle a chef’s knife safely (huge props to her Mom for teaching her!), so she helped out with the cutting. When the girls were all finished, they ran off to play for 10 minutes or so while I cleaned up.
No child’s birthday party is complete without take-home treat bags. Or in this case, boxes!
I found these perfect Chinese Take-Out Boxes at Michaels (I think they may be discontinued now; they were in the clearance section). I stamped them just like I had done for the invitations. At first I tried stamping directly onto the boxes, but that didn’t work at all. They were slightly glossy, and the ink just slid when I tried to press the stamp onto the surface. So I found some pale pink paper in my scrapbooking stash, cut it to size, and stamped those pieces. When everything was dry, I glued the papers onto the boxes with my trusty Scotch Quick-Dry Adhesive (acid-free) that I also use for scrapbooking. The girls who had gotten sakura invitations got ume treat boxes, and vis versa. J thought that everyone should get to enjoy both (so sweet!).
Of course everyone needs chopsticks with their take-out, so I decorated some plain chopsticks that I bought two years ago from Mrs. Lin’s Kitchen. They were supposed to be used for our Asian-themed 10th Anniversary Party, but they smelled weird when they arrived, and washing them didn’t help, so we bought different ones from the Dollar Store for that event. However, now that the old ones had been airing out for two years, the weird smell was gone! I dipped the ends in white paint (leftovers from painting the walls of my house: CC-70 aka Dune White from Benjamin Moore) and hung them to dry foooooor. . . a month. That’s right. One. Whole. Month. I’d seen this idea on Pinterest for dipping pine cones in paint, so I thought, “Hey, if that works, why should I spend time taping off a neat edge and painting multiple layers of paint on these chopsticks? Why not just dip them?” Thankfully, suspecting that they would take a long time to dry, I did them WAY in advance of the actual party. I do NOT recommend that you dip your chopsticks to decorate them. Not only were they in our way while they hung across our mudroom, drying for 30 days, but when you do one thick layer of paint, it can’t dry evenly, and it cracks and gets weird little wrinkly marks. Really makes me wonder about those dipped pine cones on Pinterest. . . At any rate, once they were finally dry, I used pink and purple nail polishes that I already had (the same ones from the Barbie Swimsuits!) and a dotting tool to make little ume flowers. I think they turned out very cute, and of course none of the girls even noticed the uneven paint. My girls still play with theirs, and they’ve held up very well. No chipping or anything like that.
Now pretty treat boxes are all well and good, but most kids really only care about what’s inside them, right? We put in. . .
These adorable little mini-pencils! I had them custom-made by maoiliosa on Etsy. She makes all kinds of lovely washi-wrapped pencils, and other items besides. Again, I stuck to the pink and purple colour scheme for a fully coordinated look. J had asked her friends ahead of time whether they preferred pink or purple, so everyone got what they wanted. Each girl also got. . .
A lovely little pocket mirror from GamiWorks on Etsy. I just LOVE Japanese washi paper. Pictures really don’t do the papers justice. They have a beautiful silk-like sheen in person, and my favourite ones have gold or silver outlines for added sparkle. You can probably also tell that I like Etsy! LOL I just love how everything on there is so unique, and the sellers are, by and large, wonderful people to deal with. I found both the mirrors and the pencils by simply searching the term “sakura”. In fact, whenever I am trying to find good treat bag items, I search Etsy and EBay. You never know what neat finds you’ll come up with!
Finally, each girl got a pair of sakura bobby pins in her favourite colour (another thing J had asked her friends ahead of time). I made them out of Martha Stewart Crafter’s Clay, with one of the molds that comes in the Nature Starter Kit. For a full tutorial, read this post (once I actually finish writing it). Having things nicely displayed always helps, so I used some of my Asian scrapbooking papers to hold the pins.
Normally I would also add some candy to a treat box/bag, but in this case, the girls were already taking home their bags of candy sushi. I figured that no further sugar was necessary! LOL
And there you have it! My longest post yet, and probably my favourite birthday party to plan and do so far! I’m already looking forward to when little A is old enough to have her own Geisha Themed Party. Don’t forget to read the related posts on Decor, Sakura Kanzashi, Candy Sushi, and Sakura Bobby Pins!