Let’s delve into the vibrancy of the Asakusa Kannon-ura Ichiyo Sakura Matsuri, an annual celebration in the former Yoshiwara district of Tokyo. In this blog post, we not only explore the festival’s allure but also unravel an intriguing legend involving foxes from the historic Yoshiwara district.

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Yoshiwara: From Tragedy to Resilience

During the Edo Period, Yoshiwara was the epitome of indulgence, being the home of over 9,000 courtesans from across Japan. The district’s red-light allure required visitors to relinquish their weapons at the entrance, setting the stage for an equalizing experience. The grandeur of Yoshiwara reached its zenith during the procession of the oiran, the high-class courtesans who captivated the hearts of all who visited. However, the winds of change swept through with the arrival of the Meiji era in 1868, bringing new regulations that gradually eroded the district’s power. A devastating fire in 1913, followed by the destruction caused by the Tokyo earthquake in 1923 and the fire bombings of World War II, extinguished the former glory of Yoshiwara.

After World War II, Yoshiwara underwent a transformation into a conventional neighborhood. In 1968, a symbol of resilience emerged as the Yoshiwara Shrine was rebuilt. Divided into two parts, the first serves as a place for prayers and the acquisition of omamori. The second, a serene garden adorned with a pond housing koi fish and a majestic image of the goddess Benzaiten, pays tribute to those who perished during the earthquake. Additionally, a statue of Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy, stands as a poignant reminder of Yoshiwara’s tumultuous past. Currently, Yoshiwara Shrine stands as a shrine blessed by Benzaiten, the goddess of the arts, prosperity, and abundance. Her protective embrace extends to women and artists, embodying the district’s enduring spirit. As one of the few reminders of Yoshiwara’s bygone era, the shrine invites visitors to reflect on the district’s journey from tragedy to renewal.

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Today, Yoshiwara appears just like any other neighborhood in the Taito district in Tokyo, seemingly blending in with the modern cityscape. Yet, beneath the surface, remnants of its storied past persist – the grid-patterned streets, the enduring temples, and the surviving shrines. In this modern layout, the echoes of Yoshiwara’s past reverberate, encapsulating a legacy of strength, rebirth, and the enduring embrace of the goddess Benzaiten.

The Festival

Held in the Kannon-Ura area, the former geisha district of Asakusa, the Ichiyo Sakura Matsuri stands out among the three great festivals of the region. Visitors flock to Asakusa Komatsubashi-dori, adorned with ichiyo sakura trees, to revel in a multitude of shows and vibrant flea markets. The highlight of the festival is the Edo Yoshiwara Oiran Dochu procession, a spectacular reenactment of the grand oiran street processions of bygone eras. You can immerse in the rich heritage of Edo culture as local residents don elaborate costumes, depicting oiran of different ranks, attendants, and tekomai singers.

Chōbunsai Eishi, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Oiran: The Distinguished Courtesans

The term “oiran” collectively refers to the highest-ranking courtesans in Japanese history and originated in the red-light district of Edo, Yoshiwara, in the 1750s. This classification encompassed various ranks of high-level courtesans, each distinguished by their skills, training, and social standing. Yoshiwara served as the cradle of this enchanting culture, birthing a tradition that would captivate the imagination of historical Japan.

Distinguished from common prostitutes, oiran services were renowned for their exclusivity and expense, and were celebrated for their ability to captivate the hearts and match the wits of the upper class. Beyond their role in the pleasure quarters, oiran became celebrities, immortalized in ukiyo-e woodblock prints and kabuki theatre plays. Proficiency in singing, classical dance, music, and upper-class formalized conversation were integral to the repertoire of these distinguished courtesans.

However, during the Meiji Period, the oiran faced a shift in popularity, making way for the emergence of geisha. Geisha, with their simplified clothing, mastery of modern songs on the shamisen, and expressions of contemporary womanhood, resonated with the tastes of the merchant classes. Geisha’s ascendancy in the cultural landscape marked a transition from the extravagance of oiran to a more accessible form of entertainment, appealing not only to the extremely wealthy but also to the burgeoning merchant class. The straitened circumstances following World War II and the anti-prostitution laws in the 60s were the coup de grace: the women seen in parades are actresses, as the figure of the oiran no longer exists today.

MIKI Yoshihito, CC BY 2.0 DEED via flickr.com

The Edo Yoshiwara Oiran Dochu-Procession

The Edo Yoshiwara Oiran Dochu-Procession rearranges the walk of oiran around the quarter to escort their guests. A team of skilled professionals, including dance and kabuki makeup artists, hairdressers, and costumers, collaborate to transform the crew and cast into a living tableau of opulence.

Commencing with the oiran adorned in her glamorous outfit, weighing approximately 30 kilograms, the procession begins. The oiran dons high and heavy wooden clogs, showcasing a signature element of her regal attire. Preceding her are the kamuro attendants, who not only accompany her during the walk but also join in the performance later on. Leading the procession is the tekomai geisha, setting the rhythm with her enchanting song.

To maintain equilibrium, the oiran’s wig and geta clogs share an equal weight of about 7 kilograms each, ensuring a poised presentation. A departure from the conventional kimono style sees the obi sashi positioned in the front, allowing the oiran to showcase her exquisite obi that would otherwise be concealed beneath the outer garment.

As the procession advances, four ladies-in-waiting, known as shinzo and representing the future oiran, gracefully follow, adding a layer of elegance to the slow-paced progression. The journey culminates near the main stage, where the oiran and her attendants strike poised poses and bow with an air of regality.

The subsequent performance unfolds as a spectacular showcase, taking place before gold folding screens. The rhythmic harmony of koto music and dance enchants the audience, creating a visual treat for onlookers. The culmination of the show marks the procession’s return trip, mirroring the initial spectacle with equal grandeur and finesse.

The Yoshiwara Fox Legend

The Kitsunemai, or fox dancing, was a colorful tradition in Yoshiwara. Legend has it that a black fox descended from heaven and landed on a rice field in Yoshiwara, leading to the construction of a shrine dedicated to the fox-god, a messenger for the rice god, Inari. After that, the fox-god became the protector of the quarter. The oiran had nicknames related to the fox. since the fox is well known for its tricks and the courtesans used acts of deceiving.

Schedule of the Festival

Mark your calendars for the second Saturday of April, from 10:00 am to 04:00 pm, as Asakusa Komatsubashi-dori Street (North of Sensoji) transforms into a lively spectacle, captivating visitors with the Asakusa Kannon-ura Ichiyo Sakura Matsuri.

Follow the tag sakura guide for more places and events!


Cover: MIKI Yoshihito, CC BY 2.0 DEED via flickr.com