Who doesn’t know what a geisha is? Apparently most people: they aren’t prostitutes, they aren’t exclusive to Kyoto and they do exist, even today. Obviously, though, in smaller numbers and for the most part they’re linked to very rich businessmen who want to entertain their clients in a “classical manner” by demonstrating they know how to behave with an “old world charm” (they usually don’t BTW, but that’s another matter!)
The reason most people confuse the geisha with prostitutes is that for a couple of centuries they co-existed in areas like the Yoshiwara in Edo (i.e. old Tokyo), the Shimabara in Kyoto and the Shinmachi in Osaka. Actually back then, the geisha would accompany the real stars of the, ahem, adult entertainment world, the oiran (i.e. courtesans). The oiran are the women usually seen labeled “geisha” in the classic ukiyo-e woodblock (hint: if the kimono’s sash has a huge knot on the front and if their hair is decorated with lots of pins, they’re not geisha, they’re oiran).
These areas have been closed down after WWII when prostitution became illegal in Japan but during their heyday (i.e. 17th-18th centuries) they were less of a sex market and more of a gathering place for the era’s dilettantes, artists and intellectuals (who, BTW, did know to behave with an “old world charm” the difference is that it wasn’t “old world” back then). This is why in areas like present-day Yoshiwara (which is called Senzoku and is about a 15-minute walk north of Asakusa), local associations hold events like the “Oiran Dochu”, which this year will be on the morning of Saturday, April 14.
For more opportunities to see Geisha in Tokyo – check here!
The Oiran Dochu is quite a spectacle: several girls from the area are dressed up as oiran of various levels with the top one, the tayu wearing a kimono way beyond anything that can be seen even in the most expensive kimono shops, 20 cm/7’8” clogs and a wig weighing several pounds. Accompanied by a group of men dressed as envoys or guards they parade across the streets of Yoshiwara/Senzoku for about 2km/1,2 miles and end up in a stage where they re-enact a meeting between the tayu and a customer in one of the “houses” of Edo’s Yoshiwara (usually the music is provided by real geisha active or retired).
These oiran parades/processions haven’t been invented for the tourists: during the days of the Yoshiwara they were performed every day within its confines and served as an advertising event for the various houses. Having the tayu walk stately on her tall clogs and in a specific manner (sort of a figure-8) each house tried to entice customers to come and see and meet them from up close. That even a 10-minute drinking session with them would cost them several day’s wages was a detail left unsaid and there are several Kabuki plays dealing with the aftermath of those meetings and the financial disaster they brought to many a rich merchant!
Oiran Dochu Tokyo Event
If you happen to be in the Asakusa area on Saturday, April 9 it’s worth catching a glimpse. For amateurs, the people involved are very competent in presenting a fairly accurate picture of one of Edo’s most (in)famous diversions. And it’s free although, like most things in Tokyo, you’ll need to get there early because the Oiran Dochu gathers quite a crowd. Although the closest station is Minowa on the Tokyo Metro Hibiya Line, getting from there to where the procession is actually held might prove tricky (try at your own discretion!) A simpler way would be to get to Asakusa station (on the Ginza or Asakusa lines), walk past Sensoji Temple, cross the Kototoi Dori avenue and then continue up Senzoku Dori street—after a few blocks you will notice the crowds waiting and the ubiquitous private security guards directing traffic and you’ll know you’re there!
BONUS: Here’s a video about the Oiran Dochu event featuring Tokyo Cheapo contributors John Daub and Grigoris Miliaresis.