Oiran Parade – Shinagawa-Shukumatsuri
This weekend saw the annual two day Shinagawa-Shukumatsuri (品川宿場まつり), most famous for its Oiran parade. The festival is to celebrate the hugely important old Tokaido, which was an ancient “highway” connecting all the province capitals of the southern central part of Japan. In Edo times, the main part of the route started at Tokyo’s Nihonbashi (hence the old saying “All roads lead to Nihonbashi”, not Rome, in this case) and ended up in Kyoto. The trip which was 487.8km took 12 days and was absolutely all inclusive. The road was well maintained with paving, guards, toll stations and trees were even planted along the road to protect the travelers from sun and wind. On the road there were 53 waystations, or Shukuba (宿場) where travelers could change horses, hire porters or palanquins, get fed and find a place to sleep. Naturally the Shukuba competed to attract customers so there were also entertainment, bars, souvenirs and special food to entice people to spend their nights. You can still see these traditions carried on at the many highway rest stops around Japan. The word “shuku” is often to be found in place names, so it is easy to figure out if place used to a shukuba on the Tokaido or any of the many other classical highways in Japan. Shinjuku is a good example, the word meaning “the new shuku”.
The first of the Shukuba was the one in Shinagawa (only 7.8km from Nihonbashi), in present day Kitashinagawa. Being so close to Tokyo it must have been popular with people who wanted to get rested before the final part of the trip or even people from Edo not traveling but still wanting to sample the atmosphere. At Kitashinagawa the highway is still there and the width of the street has been preserved. To celebrate the old shukuba tradition the oiran parade is held on the first day of the festival. Unlike the Oiran parade in Asakusa, there are several oiran taking part in this one and the popularity of the festival is increasing for every year. This year there was quite a lot of media coverage and of course the crowds grew quite a lot. The parade stretch is about 2km though, so if you avoid the most crowded spots you should be able to find a good spot to view it!
Oiran are famous for these parades which used to be held every evening when the oiran (think a very old fashioned geisha) used to go from her house to the restaurant or home of a client. The lavish parade was part of the high status, and she was always accompanied by an umbrella carrier, an assistant and any number of hanger ons, staff, apprentices and bosses. Oiran would wear very tall, three pronged clogs and walk in a slow fashion, sweeping her legs in front of her at every step of the way. It must have been something to see and I can imagine quite inconvenient for people in a hurry along these narrow streets.