‘Oiran’ was a name given to a courtesan or prostitute who was very popular and highly regarded, mostly for her beauty. An oiran was like the pinup girl of the Edo period — many of the bijin-ga (pictures of beautiful women) that exist as woodcut prints are of oiran.
As such, oiran were different from ‘Geisha’. A geisha was (and still is) a trained entertainer who is very skilled in song, dance, playing an instrument, and otherwise entertaining guests. (But although not primarily prostitutes, some did sleep with clients and many “successfully” retired by becoming the mistress of a client.)
One of the characteristics of Edo culture was the method used by citizens, both the samurai bureaucrats and the merchants and artisans, who formed the civilian basis of Edo and the other major cities to entertain themselves. As expected, especially in communities which were dominated by men, part of this entertainment was prostitution which was organized in closed systems-districts in all big cities. In Kyoto, it was Shimabara, in Osaka it was Shinmachi and in Edo Yoshiwara, first near Nihonbashi and later in today’s Asakusa, in the area now called Senzoku.
Yoshiwara was something beyond a cold bazaar of flesh: its teahouses and “houses” were for many years a magnet for the artists and the esthetes of Edo, all those who developed the idea of the “floating world” (uki-yo) and impressed it in their writings, their poems, their paintings and their plays. And in the meetings of those people, the top courtesans of the Yoshiwara played an equal and often protagonistic role, covering partly what would later pass to the hands of the geisha (who, incidentally, were also born in the exact same places).
Although Yoshiwara was completely demolished after the American occupation in the end of the 1950s, together with the outlawing of prostitution, the citizens of Asaukusa have brought back the traditional flavour of the period with the Ichiyo Sakura Matsuri”, marked by the parade of oiran, called the ‘Oiran Dochu’.
And although the people (mostly women) starring in present-day Oiran Dochu are just amateurs living in the area, the event allows for a taste of how things must have been back then, at least visually.
Heading the procession are dancers and musicians wearing masks of the fox “Kitsune” symbolizing the god Inari, patron of the Yoshiwara women
and followed by night watchmen and others with heavy make-up to alert the crowd,
the “tekomai” geisha wearing men’s clothes and hairdos, the “chochin-mochi” holding the paper lantern with the name of the “tayu”, the top courtesan, the “kamuro” (her servants)
and finally the tayu herself accompanied by her “katakashi no otokoshu” supporting her while she performs her “soto-hachi-moji” step in her high clogs and her “kasa-mochi no otokoshu” holding her enormous umbrella.
Closing the procession are the apprentice oiran called “furisode shinzo”