The Asakusa Kannon-ura Ichiyo Sakura Matsuri takes place in former Yoshiwara district in Tokyo: let’s discover what this is as well as an interesting legend about a fox.
This is one of the three great festivals held in the 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. Walls surrounded the districts and they were within a certain distance from the city center; one of these was Yoshiwara in Tokyo, today roughly corresponding to the district where the festival takes place. 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.
In Yoshiwara, only the high-class prostitutes were called oiran, with the term later applied to all of them. The oiran were above all entertainers, and some often became real celebrities outside of the pleasure district. Their unique 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 less formal – and often less expensive – approaches of geisha replaced the rigid formalism and entertainment style of oiran. By the end of the 19th century, geisha had replaced oiran as the companion for wealthy Japanese men. 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.
What happens during the festival
The Edo Yoshiwara Oiran Dochu-Procession rearranges the walk of oiran around the quarter to escort their guests. The crew and cast dress up with help from professional dance and kabuki makeup artists, hairdressers, and costumers.
The procession starts with the oiran, in her glamorous outfit weighing about 30 kilograms, getting ready to wear her high and heavy wooden clogs. Kamuro attendants precede her and may help her during the walk and will also perform with her later. The head of the procession is a tekomai geisha who sings. The oiran’s wig and geta clogs weigh the same (about 7 kg 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.
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. They then perform shortly but spectacularly, before gold folding screens, with koto music and dance that make a real visual treat. After the show, the Oiran Dochu procession holds its return trip and the show is very similar to the first.
The Yoshiwara fox legend
Now that you know about the Asakusa Kannon-ura Ichiyo Sakura Matsuri, it’s time for the Yoshiwara fox legend. 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. Once, a black fox descended from heaven and landed on a rice field owned by a farmer in Yoshiwara. The man later built a shrine for the animal, traditionally 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
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
Cover photo: Kondo Atsushi (originally posted to Flickr as OIRAN @ASAKUSA) [CC BY-SA 2.0]