Month: February 2014
I read an article today on NBC news that said women obsess about their looks 6 x more than men. Ha! No shock there, we have been trying to make ourselves lovely since Cleopatra donned famous khol-lined eyes to reel in Julius Caesar. Adornments are an important part of culture and a rite of passage that signals to the opposite sex one has passed from childhood.
Ohaguro “Iron Drink”
Crazes come and go. Today, everyone wants bleached out, movie-star sparkly teeth. Therefore, it might seem shocking at first glance, but the history of tooth blackening in Japanese culture is an old and storied one. The practice died out in the Meiji era, 1868-1912, but you can still see Maiko’s and Tayu of today adhering to the practice. Ladies at the imperial court in Kyoto and even ordinary women engaged in blackening their teeth. The allure was related to admiration of black, shining lacquer. Married women were required to blacken their teeth through a mixture of iron and vinegar, mixed with tea powders that would stick to the teeth for days. It was a mark of maturity amongst women, when motherhood and wifely duties were taken up.
So, why would courtesans want to engage in this ritual, I mean they were supposed to be different right? Stand out, be special, hold an air of mystery. Well, according to John Stevenson, courtesan’s of the Yoshiwara used the practice as part of a new courtesan’s coming out ritual, to define her as shinzo-teenage courtesan in training. It may have also protected the teeth, ironically from decay as the heavy kohl seems to have had antibacterial properties for the Egyptians. Black teeth were considered beautiful, so it makes sense that the courtesan would want to add this to her arsenal.
What do you think? Do you think its beautiful? When I was researching Japanese beauty rituals for the sequal to my book, The Secret Life of Concubines, I debated very heavily to add this to the main character’s beauty ritual as she works her way up as top courtesan in the Yoshiwara, unsure how the practice would be received by Western audiences.
An old secret-Nightingale Dung
Like I was saying, kicks come and go and no one really knows what beauty treatments work to stave off age. You can go to a few select spas around the world, not just in Asia, but here in the US and get a Nightingale poo facial massage. Before you scoff at the notion, there maybe gold in them there hills. The mark of true beauty in the Edo period, and before that was white skin. To achieve this, women used a lead-based powder on their face. But there were courtesans so stunning with truly dewy complexions that made men weep. They needed no powders and no cover-ups. To ensure they stayed that way, a lengthy massage was employeed by the brothels to keep their top stars in shape and ensure a graceful aging process. It’s also a known fact that courtesan’s lied about their age, and they could because they looked so good. The nightingale droppings were harvested and added to white clay and water to make a treatment that was hailed for lightening the skin and smoothing out the texture.
The dung contains the amino acid guanine and is rich in urea which encourages the skin to retain moisture. These ingredients give users a boost to the complexion, and a lighter, softer glow. Even Oprah has endorsed the product. Still not convinced? If you wear cosmetics, chances are your already wearing guanine, and its what gives fish scales their iridescent sheen.
I’m curious, and I’m a product junkie so I might try this.
Japanese Courtesans 101
So now you know that the geisha is not the same as the historical courtesan who ruled the Pleasure Quarters over three hundred years ago, and the geisha was a little opportunist who slid into the vacuum created by the decline of the courtesan. You’re interested in the Flower and Willow world of the Edo period. Great. Don your kimono and geta but don’t don’t call a Tayu an Oiran. Here’s why.
In Cecile Segawa Seigle’s definitive book, Yoshiwara, she makes the case that early prostitutes of Edo’s red light district Yoshiwara, were daughters of displaced daimyo and high-ranking samurai who were disgraced and fell on hard times, dismissed as ronin, masterless. In other words, these women already possessed some of the skills necessary to become a high-class courtesan; grace, extraordinary manners, refinement, classical training in the arts, calligraphy, and if they were lucky, pleasing beauty. Many brothels rose up in the shrewd hands of wily ronin who carved out alternative livings as brothel owners or scouts for potential new blood.
In the beginning there was the yujo, or sex worker with no distinction, other than the anecdotal evidence that the prostitute was easily recognizable by her sash or obi which was tied in the front.
With the later modern period, the brothels began to be licensed as a way to control what the government could not stop and had very little will to do so. It should be understood that Japan had no shame or condemnation of sexual relationships outside of marriage. A wealthy man was encouraged to take a mistress, and visit his courtesan, if he could afford it. Prostitutes, like kabuki and other fringe elements of society were looked down upon as low cast, yet that didn’t stop the men from visiting or the artists from singing their praises. They came in droves and soon a subtle caste system began to rise within the brothels and tea houses themselves.
The more money a man could pay, the higher ranking beauty he might obtain.
The ranking system was well underway by the 1700’s. It worked like this. A girl might grow up in a brothel, she might show great promise, work as a kamaru, child-helper to a high-ranking courtesan, carry her tobacco box and wait on her while the courtesan entertained her clients, hope to find a sponsorship, an Onee-chan or Big Sister as she climbed the ranks to teenage apprentice, or shinzo. But she might be pretty, she might be smart that doesn’t necessarily mean she had that special something, the X Factor, to become a Tayu. Sometimes your little sister could grow to become your greatest rival.
Cream Rises to the top
The Tayu was the top courtesan of her day, a precursor to the famous Oiran. She was a woman of singular grace, beauty and charm, a woman so sought after, if she played her cards right, she had her pick of any man, and could turn down anyone not to her liking. Of course, the unwritten rule, that new Tayu, very indebted Tayu, didn’t turn anyone down..in the beginning until she built some political clout in the brothel. This could take years. Time and tide were a courtesan’s worst enemy. It was a race to beat the clock before time took away her greatest assets, and only the most beautiful and sought after could hope to attain the prize; to be bought out of one’s contract by a wealthy benefactor.
The Tayu dressed beautifully, in layers of billowing, rare kimono of exquisite weave, though less ostentatious than the Oiran, with less kanzashi hair sticks and the trappings we associate with the over-the-top Japanese Courtesan.
The Tayu like the Oiran, walked in a grand procession down Nakanocho Boulevard in her impossibly high shoes. So high, she needed the assistance of men workers at the brothel, wakamono. When she wasn’t sleeping till ten, or entertaining clients, she walked barefoot-with a pale pink wash over her feet. The foot was erotic, but the bare feet was to show a courtesan’s toughness and fortitude.
“Those who walk barefoot in life hold their pain inwards and withstand much.” JM Ledwell
The Oiran-Something old is new
By 1750 things were shifting. The Yoshiwara was a bastion as well as a den of iniquity, often called the Nightless City, it thrived, despite several run ins with reactionary councilmen and near fatal fires. The Oiran, etered the stage. The sumptiary laws were written during the Kansei Era by a man named Matsudaira who wanted to stamp out what he saw as dangerous displays of silk by the lower order of society. People loved the courtesans, they came watch the processions, or Dochu and artists like Utagawa and Utemaru only served to spread their popularity. The most famous courtesans, like Tamigiku and Takao sold out in hours. Efforts to proscribe what was seen as ostentatious dressing, even certain colors, gold threads and certain silks were never successful for long. As a result of these waxes and wanes in the laws, the Oiran was poised to take the center stage.
Dochus became ever longer, shoes became taller, and courtesans hair-gigantic knotted wigs stuffed with kanzashi– became the Oiran’s stock and trade. The obi, tied in front for tradition to showcase her very availability, seemed to cascade like a mountain to the knees.
There are a few ladies today in Tokyo who are keeping the Tayu tradition alive. If you go to Kyoto, and know where to look, you may just see a living, breathing artifact from he past.
Today, the Oiran’s popularity show’s no sign of stopping. She’s frequently the topic of manga and anime. One of my favorite movies, Sakuran, stars the lovely Anna Tsuchiya who plays Kiyoha, a kamaru sold to a brothel as a child only to work her way up and find heartbreak in love, where she only wants to see if the cherry blossoms bloom the same outside her prison walls. Fantastic costumes. Fantastic soundtrack, the whole package.
If you are interested in Tayu and Oiran, you must see this movie. If you’ve seen Sakuran, let me know what you think.
This is the trailer. The opening song, Gamble fits the film in so many ways, Enjoy, peeps!
Geisha as Courtesans
It was the 1990’s. Memoirs of a Geisha had just come out. The debate was raging. Everyone wanted to know. Are Geisha prostitutes? Are they simply artistic creatures? I admit, I was fascinated by this question and the radio silence imposed within the Geisha community seemed to fan the flames. Mineko Iwasaki, on whom the book is loosely based was ostracized for speaking out about this topic. I have my own opinions. I don’t think sex was a job requirement, yet I question the relationships that arose between the men who supported their geisha. The truth may never be known, and isn’t that part of the mystique?
It certainly wasn’t in the beginning.
The geisha quietly rose to prominence in feudal Japan somewhere at the end of the Eighteenth century as tea house entertainers. They often worked in teams, hired out for parties, they stayed in the background dancing and singing, while the courtesan held court over her suitor. A typical evening with a courtesan could break a man, and required a near bottomless income that only daimyo and the shogun’s could afford.
The courtesan was required to sleep with her patrons, like the geisha she was highly trained in the arts. The stars of the day, with endless subjects of woodblocks that were devoured by a public hungry for more. There was a glamor around the courtesan, with her bare feet and her high geta shoes, she walked in an air of untouchable glamor, yet like the geisha they were deeply in debt. The only escape was being married to a prominent daimyo who would then buy out their contract from the brothel. The geisha hoped to find a prominent patron, or danna who would support her, and enable to pay off her debts to the okiya, the house who sponsored and trained her.
For the courtesans, the cost of maintaining their precarious lifestyle, layer after layer of priceless kimono, ensured they were stuck in the life. Times changed. As prices for the most famous courtesan rose too high for even the daimyo to afford, their reign ended, and the reliable, quiet entertainer in the background proved she could take up the slack of the courtesan, for a whole lot less. But they were never supposed to be prostitutes. And there lies the question, did she open kimono or didn’t she?
A pleasure city rises in a city that was once a swamp
“Lust will not keep…Something must be done about it.”—so said doggerel scrawled at the entrance to Yoshiwara’s great gate.
The Yoshiwara was not Japan’s only Pleasure Quarter. There were several licensed areas where men came to carouse, entertain themselves and seek out the company of women. The Shimabara district in Kyoto, and just over the bridge leading out of Nagasaki are a few, but the Yoshiwara was arguably the most famous. With quintessential lantern-lined boulevards and wafting cherry blossoms, Edoites who wanted to get away from it all, daimyos, wealthy merchants with their wives, and gate-hopping monks, would wend their way toward the crowded entrance of the pleasure quarters.
For women living on the inside, enslaved to brothels who wiled away late nights in tea houses, the gate was a solemn reminder they were never allowed to leave.
A man ready for love would stop here, check his clothes and run his hands though the jungle in his kimono wad, just outside the Yoshiwara was known as Primping Hill.
His choices were limited to the amount of coins he possessed, unless he could afford to buy his evenings on credit. If he wasn’t lordly, he couldn’t arrange a meeting with the regal, high-ranking courtesan-Tayu-later Oiran, who walked with her own court in attendance. Every man dreamed of Tayu, but few could attain such moments of sublime for themselves.
Instead, he patrolled the avenues of the lower house courtesans, who showed off their wares behind latticed walls.
Japanese Castles are not really castles. They are so much more.
Elegance in the Clouds
True, like their European counterparts, they were meant to impress and they were heavily fortified, set up high usually on a hill in a strategic location or a false facade of stone. They were just wood and stone which made them incredibly vulnerable to fire during attack. The tiniest spark and they went up in flames, in fact most of the buildings of the Edo period were built of wood. Don’t underestimate these tigers. From the outside, they look silent-simmering bastions, standing testament over the brutal history of samurai clans.
After years of warring, in 1603 the Tokagawa emerged as the first shogun to rule over the carpet that was Japan. He set up his capital in a little known swamp, and a great city rose up around Edo castle, in what we know today as Tokyo.
A small city, a Castle Town, soon sprung up like mushrooms around the fortification, which would house the shogunate’s retainers, his concubines, the samurai, or hatamoto who served him, and from there outward, merchants set up trade, vendor stalls were thrown up and Edo was born.
All of this was repeated by the lords or daimyo, who served the shogun. They had their households and retainers, concubines, family and samurai armies to house and feed.The castle town was a staple in feudal Japan. Though some were grander and larger in scale than others, they all had the basic components, some of which still stand today.
The Great Gate
One enters the castle bulwark first through an impressive central gate. The gate was to impress, to announce the might and great wealth to all who entered. A guard would be here and no one would get in, if he did his job right. Or he might have been bribed. Or he might be ninja.
The main tower or Donjon, is a five or six layer wooden straight structure with a beautiful tiled roof, shaped like the corners of a pie crust, often times adorned with koi fish and decorative tiles.
While the outside maybe imposing, soaring into the sky, with lovely understated gardens, the inside is deceiving. Barely no ornamentation graced the the walls, nothing but wood and narrow passages, this made for fast escape at night or when taken by surprise. It was much easier for startled feet to scurry along without thick rugs in the way.
In fact by European standards, it looks like a skeleton. No tufted furniture, no long lost ancestors hung on the wall, no priceless treasures to get in the way of an enemy assault. And while the accommodations were quite sumptuous, in comparison to how ordinary people lived, time and speed were necessary, for a lord and his samurai lived with only what was necessary to sustain life.
And More Wood
The rooms were sparse, simple and could be easily expended or slid for privacy.
Here the daimyo would kneel in front of his minions and hold court. No one would speak until spoken to, and no one dared raise their eyes lest they wanted immediate death.
The floors were the secret weapon. Outfitted with spikes hammered through the boards underneath, an ingenious method to warn intruders at night, they were a samurai’s best defense against the stealth of enemies or the dreaded ninja.
Check this out to hear the sound its amazing.
The existence of murder holes is something similar to European castles, slits in the wall where hot oil, arrows or water could be poured down on top of assaulting enemies.
The next important place is the daimyo’s armory. Samurai armor was complex and intricate and quite frightening to behold, as it was truly beautiful. This is the armor of the Matsumae, the ruling clan in my novel, The Secret Life of Concubines. They ruled over modern-day Hokkaido. Their kamon were four black diamonds encircled, in this way they show they were descended from the mighty Takeda clan.
The castle would have a shrine and temple where the daimyo family would pray and ask for victory before battle.
And that’s it, that’s the castle!
I owe so much to the Geisha. She’s such a powerful symbol, isn’t she, for something largely dying out; she’s still iconic; still alluring; unbelievably dedicated; enigmatic and somehow very very shrewd, I imagine. She enthralls us and has become part of our own pop culture. When I saw Katy Perry channeling her inner geisha at the AMA I had to smile. I’m also a really, really big fan of KP. But getting back to the Geisha….
I was searching for a project I would have passion for, something to sustain me over the long haul of writing and editing. I discovered the hidden, erotic world of the Japanese courtesan. They existed long before the Geisha, and are even more revered in Japan than the Geisha. I was smitten. But in doing my research for Concubine, I could never have gotten there without my love of the Geisha. The rustle of silk like water down her back, inches of bare flesh at a gaping neckline and that shy smile tucked behind a tilted sensu fan.
Going back fifteen or so years, too many to count, I became an ardent admirer and fascinated by this culture of Kyoto. This ancient, artistic and somewhat mysterious order of women who hand down the secrets of the tradition, and guard them well delighted me with a desire to know more. The glamor of these artistic creatures-for Geisha means just that-”artist” seemed to make my pulse beat a bit faster when I dreamed of beautiful silks rippling down backs, heard the tinkle-tinkle of teasing hair flutters and clip-clop of dainty little steps bustling on their way to tea houses.
I was hooked.
It also occurred to me that there are things I can borrow from this culture to make my life more magical, to feel more glamorous and to pamper myself just a little bit. In that way we best honor the Geisha. One day, I had to put this to the test. I decided to walk like a courtesan of Edo, doing four steps to the one to see if I could get my husband’s attention, it worked in the grocery store. I was doing an experiment for my book. I wanted to see how difficult this was to sustain on the foot and the body, in public, and to see how actively the conscious mind must engage oneself in order to adopt an extreme method of walking. I’m sure for the women of the Yoshiwara, it was like breathing, but it was not easy and my husband did notice. You don’t have to do that kind of experiment like I did to get something out of the Geisha or live like the courtesan. You can keep it soft and subtle, maybe only you know about it, maybe that’s part of the fun until someone else notices. Like my walk in the produce aisle. We all live these days life on a fast track and it can leave us feeling black and white, that we are living in a world devoid of color and mystery.
I have a collection of rich kimono and some of the best beauty products coming out of Japan that have made my skin feel amazing. Camellia oil of course is a must for making hands and feet feel like butter.
Men do look at our feet. In Asian cultures, the foot was intensely erotic, and courtesans in Japan walked barefoot-even in winter to show they were hearty and hale, and also to showcase their erotic appendages. Sometimes they painted a pale pink wash over their toes, like my character Miyako did when she rose as top courtesan at the House of Great Muirya. Next time you give yourself a pedicure rub your feet with Camellia oil and wrap them in a pair of cozy aloe socks. The next morning, they will be like meat falling off the bone and lets see who notices after a date.
Will you be bold enough to paint a pale pink wash?
About Me: JM Ledwell is the author of CONCUBINE, a duaology set in samurai Japan. Her second book, the sequel is A DUTCH COURTESAN TAKES EDO.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geisha If you’d like to read more.
“Your time will come, if you wait for it, if you wait for it. It’s hard, believe me, I’ve tried…”
– Imagine Dragons
Have you thought about your passion lately? I believe that fiction should embrace a higher purpose, at least the fiction I write. That doesn’t mean a quick beach read doesn’t have a place, if you look hard enough you can always find theme…even in the beach read. I’m pretty passionate about the South of France, and Santorini.
Not that one, the other, the less celebrated, but more important and she never wrote a novel.
I want to know more. I didn’t know what I was going to write about this morning, I just let it come to me. I’m pretty sure Harriet’s passion was freedom. You can see the defiance set in her bull-dog face if you google her images. Picture after picture tell a story of bald defiance. And passion. And freedom.
I was thinking about what I could write about.
It didn’t take me long. Harriet Tubman is today’s Google doodle. I love the civil war era. My first, adolescent scribblings were about a Northern girl in love with a Southern soldier. As I hit the link that took me to Wikipedia’s page on Harriet Tubman, I was already sucked in. Yet as I read more about Harriet “Minty” Tubman, my feelings quickly turned to sobering empathy.
Minty lived over a hundred years ago, something like 1820. Not even she knew the precise date of her own birth. Minty was extraordinary. Gifted. Maybe because, not many slaves achieved what she did. She must have been over the-bar high in intelligence, but she had awareness. Awareness that she was living in a state that was fundamentally wrong when so many accepted their lot. They took it. Not Minty. She once said, she freed over a thousand slaves, and she could have freed a thousand more, if only they knew they were slaves. Awareness. I got the impression she didn’t suffer fools gladly. I was struck by the torture Harriet must have experienced, knowing she or her children could be sold at any moment- what that must have done to her emotionally.
Yet, she didn’t fall down in a pile. The injustice she witnessed made her strong. She helped so many with the underground railroad, at great personal risk, even after she had achieved freedom for herself. She never forgot them. She took on a system that could only crushed her like a bug. I was struck too by the human spirit’s never-ending quest for freedom. I understood why so many great minds from lamented over the human condition and tried to fix it. It all came down to freedom.
I’m not trying to get political. My point is this.
Imagine: you get up at dawn, you go to work, you don’t get paid, nothing. Maybe its picking cotton until you drop in the heat, or maybe your trapping muskrats, like Minty in the marshes, you feel lousy, you get no breaks, and when you get home, your mother or father, or your spouse are gone. Sold. Forever. When Minty was a girl, her mother threatened to split her master’s skull as he tried to enter her cabin. He was going to sell her son. Guess what, it worked. And little Minty, the woman who would become Harriet Tubman, saw a world of possibility open. She saw what a rebellion could do.
Freedom. I think as writers we need to be focused on our causes and our motivations and be passionate and determined to go into the god-awful trenches every day, like Minty, get as muddy and bloody as we can, and then, then we emerge as Harriet, with lanterns held high, till we grab our own brand of freedom. Whatever that is.