“… living only for the moment, savouring the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms, and the maple leaves, singing songs, drinking sake, and diverting oneself just in floating, unconcerned by the prospect of imminent poverty, buoyant and carefree, like a gourd carried along with the river current: this is what we call ukiyo.”
Edo 17th century. Shogun ruled with an iron fist. The society was heavily stratified with a land-owning samurai class at the top and the merchants at the bottom. But while the samurai began to decline and grow poorer the merchants grew wealthy. What merchants lacked in respectability they more than made up for in money. They spent that money freely on kabuki; courtesans and other pursuits found in the pleasure quarters. Ukiyo-e embodied a live for today attitude, live while the money is flowing, while the samurai prepared for death. Stark contrast between two cultures.
The merchant class popularized woodblock images, “heroes of Ukiye-o” because they had kobans and ryo to burn on mass consumption, the acquisition and the patronage of artists whose images graced their homes. It’s not surprising that the more conservative government wanted to stamp out the images. They feared that woodblocks would infect the mass culture of Japan with a licentious greed. Waves of artist persecutions came and went, but in the end people loved woodblocks. Merchants wives and daughters copied courtesan style of the day. They imitated flashy kimono and piled their hair high with pincushions of expensive kanzashi hair sticks, which led the government to enact more, futile sumptuary laws.
Everyone wanted to dress like a courtesan and that was the problem.
In the 19th century some of the greatest artists became inspired by the woodblocks of the Ukiyo-e. Van Gogh was rumored to have seen an Eisen woodblock of a famous courtesan when he was painting abroad. The style of the floating world swept opera, musicals, furniture and china, styles that became known as Japonaise. What was largely a hedonistic art form born in a city ruled by a dictator went to Paris.
Some examples of Japonaise art.
Van Gogh’s La Courtisane.
Another charming example of the style, La Japonaise by Wordsworth.
Those who walk barefoot in life, hold their pain within and withstand much.
The foot in Asian culture has long been revered an erotic appendage, but the courtesans who scooted around cold, dark floors, even in the dead of winter were a breed all their own.
The courtesan was a unique creature. She wore flashy layers of silk kimono and padded outer coats called uchikake that rippled as she walked-for a courtesan took five steps to the one everyone else took. She hobbled around engagement to engagement with nothing on her feet. Even during dochu procession, a courtesan walked with her bare feet shoved inside stilted shoes to show her height and her majesty amongst a short-statured culture. The bare foot set the courtesan off from the rest of dull womanhood and was not merely an erotic enticement. The barefooted courtesan showed herself to be tough, resilient, flowering, thriving like beautiful red flowers in a place flowing with tears.
She had to be tough. She came to the brothel as a small child. She was exposed from a very early age to the ugly paying business between men and women. If she was lucky and beauty was on her side, she was groomed by a sponsor to become a courtesan herself.
Exalted beauty had a price. She had an iron-clad contract with her employer, the brothel keeper, that was heavy and one-sided. Everything was charged to her account. She was expected to purchase her clothes and accoutrements for entertaining clients which naturally was designed to keep her in debt until her contract could be bought out by a wealthy daimyo. Sometimes her beauty waned before that could happen. Sometimes she succumbed to disease or death first.
There are no old tayu in Edo. Tayu do not grow old.
The courtesan, a complete creature of the artifice dare not show any concern for ordinary cares, even hunger. The number two rule, after though shall not take non-paying lovers, thou shall not eat in front of a client. Parties and entertainments could well go on for days. Sake flowed, noodles were spilt but the courtesan would never allow one bit of noodle powder to grace her red lip. Men might have thought it was more erotic, the brothel owner decided men did not need to watch women eat. Brothels kept their girls starved and they were allowed to eat to their hearts content one day of the year, on New Years.
Good thing dreams were free.
Of course, very few contracts were ever bought out. The girl had to be extraordinary. Famous, a sensation of her day. If she rose to the very top, she might get out of the life while she was still young enough to enjoy what was left. Before she left the Yoshiwara behind for good, she would wash her feet at the well and walk away free and clear of the quarter and into life with her feet covered as a sign she was retired. Respectable.
A beautiful orphaned girl grows up in a brothel from kamaru to top courtesan amongst female intrigue, jealousy and costumes that demand attention. What’s not to love?
If you haven’t seen the 2009 film bringing the Japanese manga artist Anno’s beloved world of the Yoshiwara to life what are you waiting for?
Kick off your geta, untie your sash this is one spectacular feast for the eye.
Anna Tsuchiya (Kamikaze Girls) plays Kiyoha, a girl traded to a brothel who undergoes a transformation to reach the top courtesan. But she doesn’t want to be oiran. She’s rebellious. She has a dream to see if cherry blossoms are the same as ones outside of the brothel gates. It might sound simple, but courtesans were rarely allowed to cross the great Omon gate for more than a handful of festival days. But while Kiyoha dreams of a life beyond the brothel, grasping elders see her spirited nature as a sign. This girl will rise as a great oiran. The older, house oiran already fears her as her greatest rival in the making. As she grows the tensions escalate to delicious fun.
Rivals aside, and who doesn’t love that, the film explores the courtesan’s peculiar state of being. She’s schooled in the ways to please men but for the love of God, thou shalt not fall in love. To take a lover was the end of a courtesan’s career, a hidden trap that could expose her to pregnancy, blackmail and disease. If a man takes a courtesan to bed he must pay for the privilege. To fall in love was a weakness. To give away favors for free was a disgrace. Dismissal was the price to be paid for disobedience and the contract, thousands of ryo, was due and payable to the brothel upon expulsion. Woe to the courtesan who didn’t steal her heart and was wise in the ways of love; who didn’t wait till the time was right for love after her contract was bought out. This is Kiyoha’s down fall and why we love her so much.
Will Kihoya get to see the cherry blossoms on the outside of the brothel gates and what will she find? You’ll have to watch but trust me this film just has it all. Stunning costumes; allusion and symbolism; terrific cast; amazing cinematography and a fabulous soundtrack. They also nail the figure-eight step.
If you don’t have time to watch the whole thing check out the song below Gamble by Sheena Ringo for a montage of the film.
The kago drops the daimyo off to the House of Great Muirya-a prestigious brothel where the lawns are manicured into impossibly, charming little gardens and cedar floors lead into a labyrinth of assignation tunnels.
This is not the daimyo’s first time or his second. He’s paid a bundle in ryo just to negotiate a meeting with the high class courtesan. He hasn’t been accepted. She’s late. She didn’t even show up the last time the meeting was requested. He’s donned the inevitable straw hat disguise, so no one knows he’s moving about such an infamous place.
The hat is of course a joke. Many samurai wear the same disguise but it seems a ritual that is tried and true in the Yoshiwara. He’ll give up his daishi and sword at the door before he enters the brothel. They don’t want any trouble, and besides everyone knows he’s here. His name is posted outside. If she accepts him, the room will be sumptuous. He can think of little else. He hasn’t seen her. There’s been drinking games, endless sake, geisha entertaining and he’s getting poorer each time but that’s the brothel’s idea. Make him wait. Spend his money. It’s been months and he’s a man of position and power. But still the courtesan refuses him. He’s determined all the more to have her, at least till his ryo runs out.
Yabo jingles kobans in his sash. He’s saved a lifetime all for this moment. He has enough for a meeting at the tea house to request a night with the famous courtesan. He wonders if his countrified airs will count against him. He jingles kobans again. He’s not handsome and the courtesan may well turn up her nose. Money will pay for anything, even a night with the girl of his dreams.
The shoji slides and she floats into the room, with a trail of silk and jasmine flowing behind her. The yabo and the daimyo look at each other. Who will she choose?
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!