Latest Event Updates
Cherry Blossom The Flower of a Warrior
My heart belongs to Kyoto…..
It’s that time again. Kyoto, lovely Kyoto is blooming with Hanami, the kimono are out in droves and the viewing parties are in full force. Oh to be in the Land of the Rising Sun now.
I always get a little weepy at this time of the year. The cherry blossom is as important to Japan as the kimono once was. It’s an enduring, iconic symbol, delicate, long admired for a transient reminder that the beauty of life is all too fleeting.
During the feudal age of Japan, the samurai chose the cherry blossom as the flower of contemplation. They wrote haikus and death poems devoted to flower that fell in a gossamer stream for a few short days every spring.
The Way of the Warrior is death. The samurai knew life was brief. Because the samurai code-the Bushido, The Way-preached readiness for death, when they looked at the five-sided blossoms thin as paper or held one in their hand they felt deep affinity to the beauty and the shortness of life.
“An old Edo proverb hold’s whoever find’s a three-sided cherry blossom, will always have love in their lives.”
The sakura, or cherry blossom is the flower of the Geisha. When the young Maiko come out to showcase their spring matsuri dance, they are always waving the cherry blossom.
Cherry blossoms are so revered that they are floated in tea or served with dinner and desert.
The best kind of snow to fall in Northern Japan’s Hokkaido is perfumed snow.
Washington DC’s Cherry blossoms came from a gift in 1912 from Japan.
Cherry blossoms come in a range of colors from pinks, to deep magentas to whites and peaches.
The cherry blossom is hardy enough to bloom in the snow covered lands of Northern Japan.
Cherry blossom viewing parties are called Hanami and everyone get’s out to enjoy the scenery.
Cherry blossoms are edible.
Boleyn Family-A Story of Pride and Extreme Predjudice
I’m a sucker for the Tudors. I love that period of history. I’m half English myself so it cuts deep. I love costumes and the velvets and rich damasks and the tales of courtly love when Ladies were Ladies and Gentleman got down on bended knee for a whiff of their heart’s desire. Today, the men I see on trains would push me away for a seat. Sigh. But I wonder if I could really hack it at the Tudor court. All is not what it seems. Soft velvets won’t break your fall if you happen to be born on the wrong side of the blanket.
Whether you prefer the old English Bullen or the fancified Boleyn spelling, they were a family to be reckoned with. They came, according to the genealogy from Norfolk County, England. We’re concerned with the Fifth generation. Sometime between 1500-1504 Mary was born. She was the eldest of the family trio who landed at court and became embroiled in a scandal that destroyed the Boleyn name and the family reputation. Next to nothing is known about her-except she was schooled in France like Anne and became Henry’s mistress. She bore him a son. She seems to have quietly faded into the background, rather than stepped aside for Anne as Philippa Gregory suggests in, The Other Boleyn Girl.
Whether the two were close or rivals is unknown and pure speculation. But that’s fiction, right? Brilliant. Gregory came under fire for her historical inaccuracies, and her portrayal of Mary as innocent bystander. What Gregory was doing was putting a fresh spin on a story that has been told over and over (and keeps us coming back!). The story is written first POV through Mary’s eyes, the perfect showcase for a new telling of the Anne and Henry saga. Nothing particularly new to add. Nothing that doesn’t fall lock-step with what we’ve already heard. Great story though. If you understand story, you understand why Gregory had to make Mary the perfect-root-till your drop protagonist and Anne the selfish, if a bit unbalanced antagonist. Story. Not history. I love the book. It’s well written and one of my favorites, but if you’re a history-lover you’ll take umbrage with the main premise. There is no evidence Anne Boleyn was guilty of any of the crimes she was convicted of, much less incest with her brother George. Not one man would dare to go against the king. Not even Anne’s uncle.
Now that we’ve moved away from story, I’ve always hated that particular incest charge, because it’s so unbelievable, it’s overkill and once again we see George’s name dragged through the mud. Unimaginative. Give me a George who is heroic. He was born around 1503, not much is known about him either but he has gone down in history as the most hated Boleyn because of what he may have felt for his sister. I don’t buy it. It’s too bizarre.
Now we come to Anne. All too often, history has portrayed Henry’s second wife as a termagant and a shrew. Well, she did persuade a king to divide his church and cast off his wife. She was born sometime around 1501. Sent to the French court as a young girl, she came back a woman of intrigue. She was not an English beauty with thick blonde hair and rosy cheeks or a well-formed bosom, but possessed a sallow complexion, with sleek dark hair that matched her keen, black eyes. She was confident and dressed well. No gable hoods for her. She wore French. Witty, and quick-minded, she was bound to attract attention.
Eric Ives, preeminent historian accuses Thomas Cromwell as the architect in Anne’s downfall. We know that she didn’t get a fair trial-her own uncle, the Duke of Norfolk sat in judgment of her. The charges against her. Adultery. Treason. And, Witchcraft. The confessions extracted by torture from the men accused of committing adultery. Remember, this is an era where one’s religious life was of the utmost importance, and Henry wanted to get rid of Anne. He saw he could do it before with Katherine, and he wanted out. What better way to absolve himself of a woman he despised by claiming he was bewitched?
Anastasia The Lost Grand Duchess Still Grabs Us
It’s the kick off of Blogging A-Z yeah! It’s a few minutes past midnight-officially April 1st.
The Last Russian Imperial Family. One of the most enduring mysteries of the 20th Century. Following the turbulence of the Russian Revolution Tsar Nicholas II abdicated. Following house arrest, after a lengthy imprisonment in Siberia, sometime during the night of July the 17/18, 1918, the family was ushered into a dark cellar to await their fate: death by firing squad. And as the Bolshevik guard who took part in the carnage boasted, “The world will never know what we did with them.” We didn’t until the remains were found in a remote forest, near an abandoned mine shaft in the 1990’s.
They were an appealing family in so many ways; the four sisters, The Big Pair, The Little Pair went by a variation of their first names when signing autographs-OTMA for Olga, Tatiana, Marie and Anastasia. But it was the youngest Anastasia who was destined to grab hold of history.
In the 1920’s a woman was pulled out of a canal in Germany claiming to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia of Russia-she was vague, didn’t want to talk about it and had an uncanny memory or certain details only the real Anastasia could know. Her supporters pushed her claim but still her grandmother the Dowager Empress of Russia refused to receive her. This woman was the infamous Anna Anderson.
In the late 1980’s, I became absolutely mesmerized by the story of Anna Anderson when I read Peter Kurth’s book that was adapted into a mini-series. That show ignited my love of Russian History. I read everything I could get my hands on. I felt like I knew each member of the Imperial Family. I wanted so badly to solve the mystery.
Though I wanted to believe, fantastic as it was, this young girl survived a hail of bullets and bayonets by hardened revolutionaries. So I compared photos of the real Anastasia to Anna Anderson. No one changes that much. I saw NO resemblance whatsoever to the Romanov women or the Grand Duchess Anastasia. I knew I should see a glimmer, a shred. I looked at my own photos through the years, and I saw a lot of changes as a young woman from a child. But I saw something that made me see I was the same person, and I’ve read the German court cases, seen the plaster casts of Anderson’s ears and feet. People saw what they wanted to see. She was a fraud. Ten years before the DNA evidence unmasked her as a Polish factory worker. I knew through my study of Russian History that one sees pretenders over and over that this was nothing new; Tsar Peter III, Pugachev and a host of others. People have also popped up through the years pretending to be the other sisters, there was a Grand Duchess Olga of Lake Como who recognized a false Grand Duchess Marie.
One thing we know, the real Grand Duchess Anastasia who loved to pull gags on people and was a quick study, will continue to capture our imagination long into the future.
Hold Backstory back for a reason
As I look back on my journey as a writer, I am always amazed at one thing; we all seem to come imprinted with how to write a bad book. Writing is like any other skill. We crawl before we walk, we walk before we run, we run before we can cross the finish line. Now, just the shear will it takes, the passion and drive to actually get the thing done is a major accomplishment. Most people who dream of being a writer, and surveys tell us there are LOTS, will never get that far. Why? Writing is hard. Yup, so if you have stars in your eyes, good you’ll need them. You’ll also need to be a little crazy and obsessiveness doesn’t hurt either. Writing is not fun-though there are moments of intense joy. But most of the time, life has a way of interrupting and if you heed the call despite all the distractions and negative self-talk, and get your first draft done, pat your self on the back!
But don’t submit that manuscript. Resist the challenge to think of your work as done. It’s only just begun. If you’re new to this thing called writing, craft will help fight your way out of the bad book. I recently took part in a national writing contest, and after results were posted, I was stunned to read how many new writers had submitted a first draft they barely edited or a NANOWRIMO project still being fleshed out from November. Let’s admit it. It’s exciting to finish a project, especially if this is your first novel-you might feel as if you’ve climbed a mountain, but I’m here to tell you, you’re only at Base Camp 1. The summit is still a long way off. So polish first, edit and re-edit till you can’t stand your story. If you can afford an editor, do it. Don’t have a writer’s group? You’re not serious.
I started writing novels at 16. Like most newbie’s learning and feeling my way, they were rambling and had no structure, (and were probably much more fun to write in my blissful ignorance). I loaded them first with Backstory. I had paragraph after paragraph of the protag’s physical description, and details of ball gowns and complex family trees because I thought it was my job to educate Reader. Throw as much in the opening that I could so no one would be in the dark-in short I stripped the story of any magic and took out a reason to turn the page. I agonized (for years) about what to show, what scene should be in, I wanted every little step the character took to be mapped out. I wanted a blow by blow and a play book for the Reader.
BACKSTORY = Anything in your character’s remote past or childhood. There are times when this is germane to the story, your job and your skill is to weave it in such a way Reader won’t feel drenched in sriracha sauce. Backstory is like a spice, too much, and we become bored. It needs to be dosed in just the right amount, like breadcrumbs or your writing will fail before it’s even out of the gate. But don’t add too little either, or we won’t know what the heck is going on. When you start your story, resist the urge to lay an infodump or tell everything that is in your head about the protag’s history. Do this experiment. It’s going to feel weird, you might even feel clammy and shaky, you won’t believe what I’m saying, but HOLD back. Writing coaches tell us that too much Backstory in the beginning is our way of “warming up” our story in our minds. Backstory when dumped at the beginning, pages and pages of it, is self-serving and adds no benefit, so that’s why we all crawl at the same pace when we learn to write. We think we need to hand the Reader a snapshot because poor Reader is incapable of putting pieces together. When in reality the opposite is true. Reader needs very little to go on. Imagination can do the job just fine.
Think of it like this; someone you’ve only spoken with on the phone. You may know her basic stats, blue eyes, red hair and voice, yet your mind will create a picture and when you meet, you will be shocked because she doesn’t look like what you pictured. When you unleash your story on the wold, if you’ve done backstory and character description right, Reader will form his/her own mental picture even though you’ve given them very little to go on. So don’t tell everything upfront. If you still feel you must, write away but cut off the first three chapters. Your writing will sail much more smoothly.
My writing improved markedly when I started trusting Reader. I didn’t need to show every step the character took to get from point A to point B. I knew Reader could fill in the blanks and that was what made the difference in my writing. Trust Reader and you’ll never go wrong. So keep the Backstory back where it belongs.
Tolstoy’s Love Affair With Film
If Tolstoy were alive today, he’d be astounded by the size of the book deals, movie options and tie-ins that would no doubt be thrown at his feet. He might also be shocked at our word counts and trends for tight, fast moving plots. But he was writing in another time. When people took weeks to move from dacha to country house to palace. I love long books. I love Tolstoy. I never found him long-winded. I read War and Peace when I was in college one summer for pleasure and couldn’t put it down. I was so in awe of his skill-the way he created wonderful feminine characters-that I wanted to go back in time during the Imperial Age of Russia and dance at those balls, sit in those drawing rooms, fanning my blushed cheeks, ears perked on the gossip that so inspired Tolstoy. For better or for worse, I wanted to walk in the shoes of the women he created. And many ways, I did. That was his genius.
And he knew it. Oh, yes he knew it. To look at him, you’d never think the old curmudgeon could understand the girlish excitement of a first ball, feel the sharp, exquisite pangs of unrequited love or a forbidden passion so volatile it destroyed everyone in its wake. Over the years I’ve tried to lock Tolstoy down. I’ve read a lot about him. I’ve read his novels that were not so popular, his short stories and I’ve penned a paper or two in college. And I think this makes him so special-his observation skills and his love of women.
Tolstoy’s life is a complex, drama-ridden contradiction. He was a count by birth, a member of the aristocracy but chose to live in later life dressed as a peasant with bast shoes and simple Russian shirt. After years of turbulent marriage to Sonya Tolstaya, he abandoned his beloved characters and wrote didactic works of little artistic merit, and refused to discuss the novels that made him so famous.
War and Peace made him physically ill to read. He considered Anna Karenina his first real novel, though that came after. He seems to have suffered from a form of artistic shame akin to an actor being unable to watch himself on film. He lived over a 100 years ago. Yet, he’s as vital and relevant today as when his greatest novels, War and Peace and Anna Karenina were first editions.
His books have been adapted with varying success. Not every one hits the mark.
In War and Peace, the story revolves around the ebullient Rostov family during the Napoleonic Wars and leads into the War of 1812 when Moscow was invaded by Bonapart’s Grand Armee. The story opens on a charming window of the main character, Natasha Rostova, about to attend her first ball. The character is loosely based on Tolstoy’s sister-in-law Tatyana. She’s at the age where she is not yet a woman, but still childish. Everything is new and she’s excited, and who wouldn’t be with Tolstoy at the helm we know we’re in good hands.
We see Natasha grow in her love for Prince Andrei, and a wordly widower who wants to marry her. Overnight, she is transformed from the girl who sings gypsy songs, with the shawl hanging off her shoulder to a woman deeply in love and desperate.
Audrey Hepburn played Natasha in the 1956 film with Henry Fonda. I’m not a huge fan, but she captured the quirkiness and youth of the character, in her Audrey Hepburn style and maybe that’s why she’s not my definitive Natasha Rostova.
Clemence Posey’s portrayal in the 2007 version-captured the closest essence of Natasha as I see her, hopeful, a little fragile and awkward in the beginning, reemerging a stronger, more sober woman, after the death of Prince Andrei. I admit to being shocked when Tolstoy killed off the Prince, and I never understood why he did that; I didn’t like the ending where Natasha and Pierre marry. It was my throw the book moment. 600 pages into a doomed romance and I felt a little cheated. But Tolstoy had other plans. I do understand that Tolstoy puts himself his novels. He’s Pierre through and through so perhaps it reflected author wish-fulfillment to marry these two chums in the end. Both of them were searching for something in their lives and it was a good way of creating surprise.
It was 1873 Anna Karenina first appeared as an installment serial in the Russian Messenger. Tolstoy had turned his back on his loveable Natasha Rostova and dove into, “the first novel that I have attempted.”
He got the inspiration from attending the autopsy of a woman who committed suicide by walking in front of a train. That death was a touchstone that ignited his imagination. The woman became a temptress, locked in an unhappy marriage to a cold, older man who abandons her son for a Russian officer only to never have peace for her decision, and ultimately to take her own life.
The novel is considered the greatest ever written. I don’t doubt it. There are two main character arcs. Anna and Levin, another Tolstoy avatar. While Anna’s happiness rises at realizing her love for Vronsky, Levin’s happiness plunges because of unrequited love for Kitty who is also in love with Vronsky. The arcs are near mirror images that intersect and overlap. Anna has no choice, she seems driven to leave all for Vronsky and once their passion is ignited, Anna’s steep nose dive into tragedy begins, Levin by contrast, has won over Kitty’s heart and their happiness is soaring. It is interesting to note, the character of Kitty reminds me of an underdeveloped Natasha Rostova, in Levin, I see a bit of Pierre. The contrast also between the two characters is striking; Anna-dark, Kitty-fair, Anna-fallen woman, Kitty-loyal wife. Brilliant characterization. Cautionary tales for what happens when love is right, warning for love that has no place.
My favorite film adaption is the 1997 version with Sophie Marceau and Sean Bean. The novel is dark, it’s tragic. I don’t get that sense from the 2011 re-telling with Keira Knightly.
I’ve noticed that if I like the Vronsky, I will like the Anna actress, but if I don’t like the actor cast as Vronsky I won’t like Anna. I loved the pairing of Marceau and Bean. I thought it brought the right amount of chemistry together and stayed true to the novel’s vision.
Anna appears carefree, unconcerned even until she meets Vronsky at the train. Terrific foreshadowing.
The sense of inescapable tragedy and destiny are only enhanced through this beautiful film. It’s as if she can see her own ruin in his eyes as he pursues her almost to stalking. She tries to resist but she’s torn. She has to walk the road to perdition. One doesn’t feel so much the pull of a great and tender love, rather two people playing out desperate roles that they cannot escape because society has no place for them.
Sean Bean’s manic portrayal of hopelessness and terror at what his lust has unleashed is powerful. Let’s face it, Vronsky is the bad guy here, he’s the one who sets the whole thing in motion.
Jacqueline Bissett and Christopher Reeve also captured this tragic nuance in the eighties mini-series, Anna Karenina. I thought Bissett’s portrayal of Anna’s descent into paranoia and dependency on laudanum poignant and spot on. I like these two together.
I think it’s important to remember that Anna was older, passed the first blush of the ball room yet her beauty was still potent and vivid. And we get that sense of how potent indeed, when Kitty realizes, with sinking heart that Anna is not dressed on lilac, but black that showed her beauty off to the best advantage.
Finally, my sentimental favorite is the ravishing and tragic Vivien Leigh who seemed to be channeling the very character of Anna herself.
Anna Akhmatova – The soul of a Writer
As writers we are always fearful of that knock on the door-that call, that demand from the outside world that takes us away from our work. It’s what you do with that time and that knock on the door or the fear of it to keep on working that counts.
For me, writing is not a choice. It’s a drive, and when I’m doing it, it’s often hell more times than I care to admit. How many of us can say we would give up our lives, freedom, or livelihood, comfort-if something came between us and our writing? Could you sacrifice?
I gave up television four years ago to concentrate on being a writer. It was my little sacrifice.
I’ve been thinking what it means to be a writer. As writers we are forced to make choices in order to have our alone time away from family, responsibilities and friends who often don’t get why we do what we do. To non-writers, they can’t imagine suffering, whether its foregoing something fun, or getting up in the wee hours for the chance to put words on white space. They don’t have the itch.
But what if some shadowy, scary government type knocked on your door in the middle of the night and told you to stop writing? That your son would be imprisoned. That your husband killed. That you could no longer publish. That you would starve to death. Now imagine, that those things have happened. Your son is sent away to a prison camp, and your husband is killed.
At dawn they came and took you away.
You were my dead: I walked behind.
In the dark room children cried,
the holy candle gasped for air.
You’re told STOP writing. But writing is what you do. It’s your life. It’s how you process and see the world, and others don’t just admire you, they look up to you.
I should like to call you all by name,
But they have lost the lists…
I have, woven fore them a great shroud
Out of the poor words I overheard them speak. Requiem
To keep writing. To tell what you see in only the way you can tell it.
Today I have so much to do:
kill memory once and for all,
turn my soul to stone,
learn to live again…
Would you? Could you keep writing?
Akhmatova did. She kept on writing. And it could have got her killed. And Comrade Stalin was watching. She would go everyday to stand in line in hopes of seeing her son in prison. People knew she was the famous Akhmatova-one of the greatest poets of Russia. They asked her to put in writing their collective experience and so Anna wrote.
this woman is utterly alone,
with husband dead, with son away
in jail. Pray for me. Pray. Requiem
She wrote late at night, with the fear of the knock on the door, she wrote quickly and memorized stanzas when she was creating one of her best known works, Requiem. She burned the words after they were committed to memory. She wasn’t bitter. She still loved her country. She never fled, like so many following the upheaval of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.
I am not one of those who left the land
to the mercy of its enemies.
Their flattery leaves me cold,
my songs are not for them to praise.
She stayed and suffered in a cold flat with barely enough heat to warm herself and nearly starved during the siege of Leningrad and…wrote. She would have said she was rich for her words. And her country took her into the deepest part of their heart. She’s been there ever since.
If you’d like to hear one of Akhmatova’s deeply moving poems, “You thought I was that type…” follow the link. You won’t regret it and next time your struggling to get the words down, remember Anna Andreevna and that knock on the door. Remember the privilege and the tradition and the dedication.
And I swear to you by the garden of the angels,
I swear by the miracle-working icon,
And by the fire and smoke of our nights:
I will never come back to you.
Akhmatova died the year I was born. Yet she speaks to me. Her words touch me as deeply as if she is whispering in my ear and I am ever thankful, grateful and in awe to call myself a writer.
A Japanese Courtesan’s Beauty Secrets
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.
The view from above. Tayu or Oiran, Courtesan its all the same…not exactly.
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!
P.S. With Love From the Yoshiwara
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.
White Tigers Inside a Japanese Castle
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!
- ← Previous
- Next →