Thursday, 14 February 2019

Love and the Courtesans of the Floating World - by Lesley Downer

The time to see the Yoshiwara to the best advantage is just after nightfall, when the lamps are lighted. 
Algernon Mitford, 1871

Living only for the moment, giving all our time to the pleasures of the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms and the maple leaves; singing songs, drinking sake, caressing each other, just drifting, drifting; never giving a care if we have no money, never sad in our hearts, only like a gourd bobbing up and down on the river’s current; that is what we call ukiyo - the Floating World.
Asai Ryoi, 1661

Tayu (Kyoto courtesan) playing a kokyu

Courtesan promenading in the Yoshiwara,
 Utagawa Yoshitora (died 1880) 1859
In old Japan the man in search of love and romance knew exactly where to go - the pleasure quarters. There, so the saying went, the women all told their customers, ‘I’m crazy about you’, while the customers told their lovers, ‘I will marry you.’ Neither were to be believed.

The most famous pleasure quarters of all was the Yoshiwara. It offered far more than sex. For men it was like Las Vegas crossed with Hollywood, full of marvellous things to see and do, where you could play out your fantasies and where the normal rules of life did not apply. It was known as the Nightless City, because there the lights never went out. It was a sort of never never land, where a man could say and do pretty much anything he liked and start again with a clean slate the next day - a dream of romance with no strings attached.

Going to the Yoshiwara

Japan Dyke by Ando Hiroshige (1797-1858)
The Yoshiwara was a good safe distance outside the great city of Edo, now Tokyo, well away from the everyday world of work and family. Pleasure seekers left at sunset, taking a boar’s tusk boat up the River Sumida along the eastern side of the city or going on foot or on horseback. Then they walked across the marshes along the Japan Dyke. From there you could make out the lights of the Yoshiwara glimmering enticingly in the distance like a fairy city, much as, so they say, you can see the neon of Las Vegas twinkling across the desert.

Finally they’d glimpse the Looking Back Willow and the crooked road that led down to the Yoshiwara - crooked to ensure that no one could see into that magical place from outside. They’d cross the Ditch of Black Teeth and arrive at the Great Gate and leave their swords with the gatekeeper. In front of them was the broad main street lined with latticed rooms where the lowest level of women sat like goods in a shop window, waiting to be chosen, like in the red light district in Amsterdam.

Latticed room in the Yoshiwara - Night Scene
by Katsushika Oi (Hokusai's daughter) - before 1860
A Courtesan Parade

Then, if they were lucky and their timing was good, they’d hear the tootle of flutes, the thump of drums and the clanging of metal rings at the top of staffs. They’d see masked dancers cavorting and lantern-bearers advancing with measured tread as a huge procession of retainers, attendants and gorgeously-apparelled lower-level courtesans appeared, making its way very slowly along the street. The crowds would draw back, whispering. It could only be one of the oirans - the courtesans - on her way to a teahouse.

And finally they’d see her undulating along, a good head above her attendants on foot high wooden clogs. Resting her hands on the shoulders of two sturdy male attendants, she’d swing her foot out to one side and scrape the edge of her clog along the road, then bring it in front of her, then slowly, deliberately do the same with the other foot in the famous ‘figure of eight walk’, named not after our ‘eight’ but the Japanese ‘eight’ which is a bit like a circumflex. She performed the whole complex routine with her hips thrust forward, with ineffable coquetry, fully aware of her magnetic appeal. Her face was painted stark white, her teeth lacquered black, her lips bright red and she wore a vast ornate headdress, glittering with ornaments.
 Courtesan procession from J.E. de Becker,
History of the Yoshiwara Yukaku, 1905

For the crowds shoving to catch a glimpse of her it was like seeing a movie star on Oscars’ Night. But unlike a movie star her body was not on display. It was hidden under layer upon layer of lavishly embroidered kimonos, all wrapped around with a huge brocade obi. While other women and geisha too wore their obis tied at the back, the courtesan’s was tied at the front in an enormous knot, the message being that if a man was brave and rich and patient enough, he might - just might - get to untie it.

The only part of her body on view was her little bare feet in their clogs poking out from under her skirts. It was the most erotic sight. It sent a shiver down all the spectators’ spines.

Where a low class merchant might imagine himself a prince
Yoshiwara Matsubaya oiran. 
The green brocade 'apron' is her obi.

But unless a man was incredibly rich, patient, good looking and lucky, that was the closest he’d get. The courtesan was to be seen, not touched. For her it was all performance, highly choreographed. She was an artiste justly proud of her artistry.

Like les grandes horizontales of Paris in the mid nineteenth century or the Venetian courtesans of the 16th century, Japanese courtesans were the most accomplished women of their day. The courtesan parading so grandly down the street hosted literary salons which the great writers of the day competed to attend. She was beautiful, witty, brilliant. She wrote poetry, painted and danced, was an adept of tea ceremony, conversed delightfully, and could talk knowledgeably about politics if the customer so desired. She had a lavish wardrobe of kimonos for every season and every occasion, paid for by wealthy admirers and occasionally laid out to view. And she was demanding and proud, she held court like a queen.

Such a woman does not come cheap. In fact some of the most famous courtesans never slept with anyone. It would have lowered her value were she to make herself too freely available.
'Completely out of his league ...' - customer with oiran

If a man was brash enough to want to spend the night with such a woman, he’d first need an introduction. If he was new to the district he would be turned away, no matter how rich, famous or well-connected he might be. He would have to go to the teahouse where he was a regular to book her, where he would be told he’d have to wait several days. He’d order food, drink, hire entertainers, then order food for the entertainers. All this cost money. Only a big spender, a generous man prepared to throw around his money would be worth her consideration.

Then the next day or the day after he might be able to meet her and sip sake with her and make an appointment to meet her again another day - if she so chose. The patient wooer could imagine he was a lovelorn Prince Genji exchanging poems with a beautiful princess and forget that in reality he was a despised merchant and she a sex worker. She would flatter and flirt, and, if the man ever got the chance to find out, he’d discover she was most likely brilliant in bed.
Oiran at the Yoshiwara Matsubaya 

She was in fact completely out of his league, were it not for the fact he was paying vast amounts for it all. Money would buy this extraordinary woman, her smiles, her caresses, her swooning interest in everything he said. This gorgeous creature would persuade him he was brilliant, handsome, that she was madly in love with him. What man wouldn’t go for that?

Working women

Meanwhile the women of course were working. The courtesan’s job was to make the customer fall in love with her but to keep him at arm’s length so that he would visit more and more frequently and spend more and more money. Everything was there to enhance his pleasure. The pleasure quarters were where you went to find aphrodisiacs - charred newt, eel, lotus root, dried rings of sea slug to fit over the penis. Grilled viper was also an aphrodisiac, as was the toasted fin of the fugu, the famous blowfish whose liver, kidneys, ovaries and eyes are deadly poisonous. There was always a titillating link between sex and death.

Courtesans wrote beautiful love letters. Some would offer a lock of their hair or a finger nail as proof of her love. And when the customer left the pleasure quarters in the morning she would escort him to the gates and be ostentatiously wiping away tears as he turned at the Looking Back Willow to feast his eyes one last time.
Yoshiwara oiran surrounded by attendants 1910 - courtesy 
University of Victoria, Canada, via Wikimedia Commons

For the women the difficult balance was between playing at love without ever falling in love. If they did fall in love it was invariably a disaster. It was always the wrong man, not the rich client who’d become her patron and support her but a son whose father had marriage plans for him and who would disinherit him if he disgraced the family by running away with a courtesan or, even worse, a young poor clerk. When that happened many couples decided that the only way out was to commit ‘love suicide’, to this day still considered the ultimate demonstration of love.

The Yoshiwara reached its height in the eighteenth century. By the early nineteenth century it was already becoming a little seedy. Geisha with their pared down chic replaced the overblown courtesans and the prohibition of prostitution in 1872 was the final blow. From having been a government sponsored pleasure quarters the Yoshiwara went underground and was taken over by yakuza gangsters. It’s still there, however. If you study a map of Tokyo you can make out the legendary Five Streets, beyond Asakusa in the north east of Tokyo, though the Yoshiwara is not actually named on the map. You can even go and visit.

My novel The Courtesan and the Samurai is set largely in the Yoshiwara of the mid nineteenth century. There’s also lots about geisha and courtesans in my Geisha: The Secret History of a Vanishing World.

My latest novel, The Shogun’s Queenan epic tale set in nineteenth century Japan, is out now in paperback.

For more see

Woodblock prints and old photograph courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Photographs mine.


Ann Turnbull said...

I love this - fascinating stuff!

Lesley Downer said...

Thank you, Ann!

Sue Purkiss said...

Intriguing and mysterious - like, I suppose, the courtesans!

Lesley Downer said...

Indeed! Thank you, Sue!