Asakusa Kannon-ura Ichiyo Sakura Matsuri is held every year on the second Saturday of April, when the cherries blossom, and it is especially dedicated to the double-flowered variety yaezakura.

By Kondo Atsushi (originally posted to Flickr as OIRAN @ASAKUSA) [CC BY-SA 2.0]

This is one of the three great festivals held in Kannon-Ura area, the former traditional geisha district of Asakusa: every year, people flock to Asakusa Komatsubashi-dori, lined with Ichiyo sakura trees, to enjoy a variety of shows and flea markets (below, the schedule and access info). The highlight of the festival is the Edo Yoshiwara Oiran Dochu procession, which reenacts the grand oiran (courtesan) street processions of former times. A true representation of Edo culture, this procession involves local residents dressed up as oiran of varying ranks, attendants, tekomai singers, and so on.

Courtesan culture arose in the early Edo period (1600-1868), when brothels were restricted to pleasure quarters, walled districts within a certain distance from the city center, one of these being Yoshiwara in Tokyo (today roughly corresponding to the district were the festival is held). The quarters soon grew into proper self-reliant neighborhoods where one could find all sort of entertainment, from dinner to performances, and frequently also festivals and parades.

By Kondo Atsushi (originally posted to Flickr as OIRAN @ASAKUSA) [CC BY-SA 2.0]
In Yoshiwara, only the high-class prostitutes were called oiran, with the term later applied to all of them, although oiran were above all entertainers, and some often became real celebrities outside of the pleasure district: their style, in the form of both fashion and art, set trends that make their tradition still preserved today. Although there are often modern references to oiran as geisha, these are actually two terms that identify different roles. Indeed, proceeding with the modern era, the too rigid formalism and entertainment style of oiran were supplanted by the less formal – and often less expensive too – approaches of geisha, which by the end of the 19th century, had replaced oiran as the companion for wealthy Japanese men. The finishing blows given to oiran were caused by the straitened circumstances following World War II and the anti-prostitution laws in the 60s: the women seen in parades are actresses, the figure of the oiran no longer exists today.

The Edo Yoshiwara Oiran Dochu-Procession rearranges the walk the top courtesans used to make around the quarter to escort their guests, with the crew and cast dressing up with help from professional dance and kabuki makeup artists, hairdressers, and costumers.

At the starting point of the procession, the oiran, with her glamorous outfit weighing about 30 kilograms (more than 60 pounds), gets ready to wear her high and heavy wooden clogs, preceded by the Kamuro attendants, who may help her during the walk and who will later perform with her, and by the head of the procession, a tekomai geisha who sings. The oiran’s wig and geta clogs weigh the same (about 7 kg or 15 pounds each) to keep her head and feet balanced. Unlike normal kimono, she wears the obi sashi in the front instead of the back: this is so she can show off her beautiful obi, which would otherwise be covered by the outer garment.

By Kondo Atsushi (originally posted to Flickr as OIRAN @ASAKUSA) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Four ladies in waiting called shinzo, representing the future oiran, follow her as the procession proceeds slowly. The procession ends near the main stage, in front of which the oiran and her attendants pose and bow before going backstage. They then perform shortly but spectacularly on the stage, with gold folding screen, koto music, and dance that makes it a real visual treat. After the show, the Oiran Dochu procession is held again for the return trip and the show is very similar to the first.

Another one of the many colorful traditions of Yoshiwara district was the Kitsunemai, or fox dancing. The reason for the presence of the foxes may derive from a legend, where a black fox, descended from heaven, landed on a rice field owned by a farmer in Yoshiwara, who later built a shrine for the animal, traditionally a messenger for the rice god, Inari. Therefore, the fox-god became the protector of the quarter. This fact, along with an association made with the fox’s reputation for trickery and the known courtesans acts of deceiving, inspired nicknames for the oiran related to the fox.

Schedule of the festival:
the second Saturday of April, every year, from 10:00 am to 04:00 pm, around Asakusa Komatsubashi-dori Street (North of Sensoji), Asakusa 4-chome to Senzoku, Taito-ku.

Ginza Line, Asakusa Station
Tobu Skytree Line, Asakusa Station
Asakusa Line, Asakusa Station
Hibiya Line, Iriya Station

More about Asakusa: Hidden gems: Azuma Shrine in Asakusa, Tokyo, & the legend of Prince Yamato Takeru


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