If you’re interested in Japanese history and traditional culture, you might have heard of “Yoshiwara” where there was an authorised red light district until the Anti Prostitution Law was enacted in 1958. Yujo (courtesans), expecially oiran (high-class courtesans) were said to be fashion leaders and stars in the Edo period and depicted in many traditional arts such as ukiyoe, kabuki acts and rakugo stories. Even now, many movies and dramas about Yoshiwara are produced. These women were bought and brought from the remote areas (most of them are said to be from the Tohoku region). To become oiran or high class yujo, in addition to beauty, they had to aquire lots of skills including poetry, songs, musical instruments, dancing and etc..
As I’m learning shamisen (there are many songs about Yoshiwara), I wanted to visit this area but hesitated to do so alone, because Yoshiwara is now crowded with the buildings offering sexual services. Indeed, although it’s quite close to Asakusa, there are a few people who visit there for sightseeing.
Some weeks ago, I visited there with my husband for the first time. First we visited the Ichiyo Memorial Museum. Ichiyo, one of the most famous female novelists in modern Japan, is a lady depicted on the front side of the five-thousand-yen note. She was living just closed to the Yoshiwara district for some period and got inspiration for her novels.
After that, we walked around the area, tyring to find the traces of the glory of Yoshiwara. Well, the inside of the Yoshiwara district was totally disapponting for women… (never expect traditional buildings like Shimabara in Kyoto…) but with a map, we could easily find where exactly the Yoshiwara district was. Around the area, there are many historical shrines and temples including the famous Otori shrine. But what struck me the most was the story I heard at Yoshiwara Benzaiten Shrine. This place was built to commemorate the courtesans who passed away from the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923. The quake caused a big fire and the women tried to run away, but the grand gate was intentionally locked. At that time the district was surrounded by a moat to prevent them from escaping. So they jumped into the pond (now reclaimed) located on the opposite side of the grand gate in order to escape from the heat wave. As a result, only a few women survived and approx. 500 women lost their lives, included small girls…
This shrine is small but beautiful, having a bright and warm atmosphere. Many locals and volunteers seem to come here to pray and clean.
Just close to Yoshiwara Benzaiten, there is Yoshiwara shrine. This shrine is getting attention as a spiritual place that would give luck to women.
It’s hard to express how I felt exactly, but visiting Yoshiwara was certainly a sobering experience.