At the Sanja Matsuri this year I was in time to catch a performance by the Furisodesan, a group of performers in the style of geisha, dancing and entertaining at the kagura (shrine stage) of the Asakusa Shrine just next to the famous Sensoji temple. The beautiful young women visit restaurants and entertainment houses to perform for the clients but sometimes they also give performances for the public, like on this festival. They were certainly hugely popular with the crowds at this sunny festival day!
More photos from the Oiran parade in Tokyo’s Asakusa district last weekend. I have been going for a few years now and this year the crowd was the biggest yet. Maybe word is getting out? There is a far bigger parade with several orian in Kitashinagawa every year that has far fewer people. I guess Asakusa is just better branded than Kitashinagawa (although Kitashinagawa also lays claim to some great Godzilla fame!). The day was sunny and the crowds wild. At the end of the parade I got a chance to sneak up in front and get some group photos of the main participants just before they turned around and went to their temporary headquarters in a nearby school. I love the face one of the young assistants to the oiran is making in one of the photos, she must have had an itchy nose!
The orian have a very special way of walking, as in every third step they take they sweep their feet very low in a wide arc, difficult to catch in photos but it looks quite spectacular and is unique as far as I know. You can tell from their three-pronged (remember that normal Japanese shoes have two prongs while monks and tengu have one!) shoes and the way they are scratched bare how low they go in that special step.
Saturday saw the annual Oiran revival parade through the streets of northern Asakusa, complete with fox dancers, one oiran and a number of geisha and various retainers and servants. The parade is just a reenactment of customs that were considered quaint and old fashioned even in the mid Edo-period (18th century). The location of the parade is not a coincidence, as it takes place a couple of blocks south of the old walled city within the city, the famous Yoshiwara district of Asakusa which was one of Tokyo’s most talked about pleasure or red light districts. Today absolutely nothing remains of the old Yoshiwara itself though except parts of the old street pattern. People today associate Yoshiwara with the old sex industry but in fact Yoshiwara was also home of comedians, professional story tellers and the 18th century equivalent of avant garde fashion houses.
The weather on this sunny Saturday was fantastic and I took plenty of photos, here are a first bunch, with more to come later on.
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.