In this ca. 1903 image, prostitutes from lesser bordellos, though dressed in splendid silk kimono, display themselves from behind wood barriers, sitting speechless and motionless -- sometimes for hours -- until they caught the eye of a passerby. Arrangements for a tryst would then be completed at a nearby machiai [teahouse].


A dream of Spring-tide when the streets
    are full of cherry blossoms.
Tidings of the autumn when the streets
    are lined on either side with lighted lanterns.

-- Fukuchi Genichiro, playwright

If any one area of Tokyo was able to hold on the longest to the mystique and charms of feudal Edo it was Yoshiwara [def: good luck meadow], the city's most famous "licensed quarter." The name "Yoshiwara" was liberally applied throughout the country to many of Japan's prostitution districts even after the Restoration. (Yokohama and Osaka both had Yoshiwara red-light districts.) Edo-era Yoshiwara was originally a district found within the city limits but was, in the aftermath of the famously disastrous Furisode kwaji [Fire of the long-sleeved garment] in 1657, relocated outside the city-proper by puriant authorities to paddy fields north of Asakusa. Fire and earthquakes would continue to change the outward appearance of Yoshiwara over the years but it would not be until 1958 -- 300 years after it was first incorporated -- before the bloom finally fell from Yoshiwara's blossom when prostitution was officially abolished nationwide.

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Yoshiwara and Machiyama
detail, ca. 1905.

Tokyo Yoshiwara was the most famous, most refined and most cultured of the city's licensed quarters. More so than at Shimbashi or Akasaka, Yoshiwara's customers crossed all manner of social class; the itinerant and the noble were given equal access to Yoshiwara's charms. (Samurai, however, had to surrender their swords before entering the gated district.)

Upon the Great Gate [O-mon] through which the district's clientele would pass was inscribed the Fukuchi poem above. Outwardly oblique, the stanzas referred to the custom of viewing in springtime (the "morning") the many blossoming cherry trees planted down the middle of Yoshiwara's main street, Nakano-cho, while the nighttime hours were alit with thousands of lanterns that mimicked the appearance of fall foliage (the "autumn"). Business in Yoshiwara was so brisk it was sometimes referred to as the "Nightless City."

The process of oiran [Courtesan] assignation retained a traditional asthetic into the early 20th century. Formalities were conducted at one of the many hikite-jaya [def: introducing-tea house] surrounding the quarter. A prospective client could choose a courtesan by introduction or by photograph. Once a price was negotiated, the client would then be escorted to the quarter by a brothel attendant. If anonymity was of concern, the client could rent amigasa [def: braided straw hat] to conceal their indentity. Lesser brothels would stage courtesans behind latticed wood windows fronting Yoshiwara's streets.