One of the most enduring images of Japan, at least in the minds of westerners, is the geisha. Few other professions have reached such a mythological status as the geisha. They were the most refined entertainment money could buy back in the old days. They knew the popular songs, they could play all the instruments, dance and sing and entertain both men and women who were stressed out from work or social responsibilities. In an age before mass entertainment, if you had the cash you hired a geisha. The social practice still lives on in Japan (and elsewhere), but these days it is in the much more egalitarian (in that it is available for both men and women and that training is fast and simple) and affordable in the form of hostess clubs, host bars, “pubs” and other variations of trades still know by the old euphemism “the water trade”. The traditional geisha of old still exists in modern Japan, but they are more viewed as beloved carriers of centuries old tradition and culture than mere entertainment. And the prices are still of the reach for ordinary mortals.
Tokyo has several areas known as “Yoshiwara”, where the were large concentrations of geisha houses, in the traditional entertainment districts (always near the richest areas) of the city. The most famous one is the Yoshiwara in Asakusa, near the Sumida River in the north east of central Tokyo. During the annual and massive Sanja Matsuri (Festival of the Three Shrines) a few of the local geisha take part in the parades, as much for the benefit of their neighborhood as for advertising themselves I think. They are followed by their entourage of fan bearers or parasol carriers and maid servants holding up signs with the names of the geisha and their houses. For most people, this is the only chance to ever see a geisha in real life. Where once there were geisha houses in every city across the country, these days there are very very few remaining. I was once lucky enough, many years ago, to be invited to a geisha dinner in Kyoto, the dinner tab must have been astronomical! Of course I couldn’t help but asking the geisha seated next to me, a young lady at 25, what she did on her days off: “Oh the usual, I go for walks, I like to travel, I go to the movies or chat with friends online”. The geisha of Asakusa, at least the ones in these photos, regularly perform in dance, theatre and culture shows in and around Asakusa.
The Sanja Festival in Asakusa is one of those epic moments of Tokyo, something that has to be seen to be imagined. For just a very few days an entire city within the city, attracting between a half and and a million people on each of the three days it takes place. Over one hundred omikoshi, porable shrines, are paraded around the streets and most streets are blocked for vehicle traffic. If you are in Tokyo May 17th to May 20th, consider yourself lucky! However, a lot of Tokyoites can’t stand the Sanja Festival, due to it being extremely crowded and by Tokyo standards very rough and rowdy. Still, considering the size and the amount of alcohol consumed by both participants and tourists, it is remarkably safe and relaxed. It is great to see all aspects of modern society united to celebrate a local festival: young families withs strollers share the streets with old couples in wheelchairs while young bravados carry huge shrines through the streets as gangsters pose with their posses next to police officers patiently watching to make sure there are no accidents, all in the same scene, the rich and poor, the young and the old, the law and the outlaws, all together in the spirit of the festival. Or as I like to say, a civilized society in good working order.
This year too I was lucky to catch the geisha participation at the annual Hachioji festival in western Tokyo’s Hachioji City. This year they didn’t limit themselves to the parade but also had a wagon of their own, pulled by supporters while the geisha inside performed beautifully with singing, the stringed traditional shamisen, flutes and drums. One day I hope to be able to afford a proper night out with these ladies! The stories they could tell would make this japanophiles heart burst!
Hachioji City is often overlooked by many people living in the center of Tokyo but it is more densely populated than central London and has both a vibrant city center and quite a lot of nature. It might not be worth a visit for the casual Tourist but if you spend any length of time in Tokyo I recommend going there, especially if you have the opportunity to see one of their festivals! Hachioji is easily reached by the central JR Chuo Line from Tokyo or Shinjuku stations.
A couple of weeks ago I saw these two wonderfully dressed up girls taking part in the annual oiran parade in Tokyo’s Asakusa district. You might remember my post about the much bigger oiran parade in Kitashinagawa last year, where I wrote more about the history of the oiran women of old Edo. These girls took on the part of maids to the older oiran and the parade is meant to reenact the oiran ritual of going out to visit a customer at a restaurant. Real oiran (which were the predecessor of the much more famous geisha) haven’t been seen on the streets of Edo (or Tokyo) since the 18th century and even then they were considered old fashioned.
These two maids did great in the cold weather and intense sun of this unusually sunny day. It is very difficult to take good photos when there is too much or too little light though! I hope you don’t mind.