November 02, 2008
Yoshiwara today and yesterday

On Halloween, Jim & I went for a spooky walk around Taito-ku to visit some of the grim old landmarks he has been researching lately. He took me to see Jokanji, the Throw-Away Temple that he wrote an essay about earlier this week. It has a beautiful cemetery full of memorials and markers that note a sordid past. We paid our respects to the 25,000 prostitutes whose bodies were left anonymously at the temple over the years.

They had been carried there across the rice paddies from Yoshiwara, the “licensed pleasure quarters” where so many young women lived out their lives in debt. A few became classy courtesans with rich patrons who looked after them, but most did not. Many died in natural disasters when earthquakes toppled shoddy buildings and fire ravaged the walled precinct. Others died of natural and unnatural causes, but with no families to claim them, were dumped at the temple.

I wanted to see how the old pleasure quarter looks in modern day Tokyo, so we wound our way over there - not through rice paddies, but via the city’s busy roads and sidewalks.

I was surprised to discover that the area is still a pleasure quarter. It is no longer walled and the licensing rules have changed, no doubt, but the boundaries haven’t budged. There is the same square grid of streets, 400 meters on a side, exactly as it has been for hundreds of years. A winding road still leads into the district from the main road.

Most of the streets within Yoshiwara (which isn’t officially called that anymore) are lined with brothels. The buildings look like love hotels: garish exteriors in the shape of castles or fantasy villas, facades of old buildings, or glittering casino lights. The difference from love hotels is in the staffing and pricing. At a love hotel, you and your partner might choose a short “rest” for 5,000 yen, or an overnight “stay.” The Yoshiwara rooms ranged from 7,000 yen to 35,000 yen and include a companion for the duration of your 100 minute visit. At most entrances a man in a suit stands watching the passersby. As we walked by one brothel, the doorman/bouncer greeted a returning customer and ushered him inside. Where the doors were open, I saw head and shoulder photographs of the girls on display.

And in the hours between 3 and 4 pm, the girls themselves could be glimpsed coming into work. Some were simply dashing down from the dormitories nearby. One group of three girls wearing velour mini dressed chatted as they passed in the alley. Another woman arrived on foot, but was preceded by a burly, dark-suited bodyguard carrying her designer purse and a shopping bag. At a tight corner, we gave way to a taxi carrying a beautiful young woman with a long lovely legs (Jim’s observation) and a look of bored scorn (what I noticed). There were several women chauffeured in white SUVs. I imagine these girls are the equivalent of the classy courtesans of years past.

We walked out of Yoshiwara the back way towards the local shrine (which is not Jokanji), stopping first to take in the monument to an old pond and the people who sought refuge there after the 1855 earthquake. At Yoshiwara jinja, we discovered an extraordinary poster of local history, with four maps comparing the district during different eras, plus statistics, photographs, drawings and so much information it was impossible to take it all in.

After studying the poster for a quarter hour or more, we wandered out to the street to decide where to go next. We didn’t need to go anywhere because history seemed to come to us. Jim has a Hiroshige woodblock titled Yoshiwara (from one of his many “53 Tokaido stations” series) stored in his iPod and comparing it to the street we were standing on - could it be the same place? The curve in the road certainly looks right. We were excited. But I wonder now…was this Yoshiwara a station on the Tokaido road between Tokyo and Kyoto? If so, lucky travelers (I guess).

Posted by kuri at November 02, 2008 05:56 PM


Very interesting. I love these kinds of stories, the unearthing of the layers of events, circumstance, location and practices. Australia has always seemed flat to me, with no history, no layers. Its one of the reasons why Im so interested in learning more about Indigenous Australia, i know there is much more there under the paved roads and footpaths.

Posted by: j-ster on November 4, 2008 02:09 PM
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