Walking the streets: remembering the red light district of the old Edo era.
For some reason I rarely venture out to east Tokyo, choosing instead to hang out in the back streets of my own western Setagaya district. I really should explore the east more though as it definitely has a more rustic feel. There are also a lot more traditional festivals over that direction, particularly in and around Sensoji Temple in Taito-ku. Last weekend was one such festival – the Oiran Dochu procession in the historic Yoshiwara neighbourhood.
Oiran were courtesans in Japan, considered a type of yūjo (‘woman of pleasure’ or prostitute). However, they are distinguished from ordinary yūjo in that they were also entertainers, with many of them becoming celebrities outside the pleasure districts. Their art and fashions often set trends and, because of this, oiran traditions continue to be preserved to this day. From 1600 until 1958, Yoshiwara was the location of the most famous brothels in Japan. And so once a year, a parade is held here to recognise the high-class courtesans from the Edo period. In contrast with their beautiful dresses, lives of women who were in the red light district were unfortunate. Taking guests as early as 17, many would die before the age of 23 because of syphilis or other diseases.
Despite the somewhat risqué nature of the subject matter, the festival has a family atmosphere, almost like a village fete. There are people crowded in shopfronts pounding rice to make mochi (a Japanese sweet) and little stages set up around the place for performers. Many of the women in the procession walk in tall clogs, and in a specific manner (sort of a figure-8), which was supposed to hypnotically entice customers back in the day. Check it out at the end of the video – it’s pretty mesmerising.