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Inside Tokyo's Red-Light District of Yoshiwara
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Inside Tokyo's Red-Light District of Yoshiwara

May 24, 2024

We introduce you to Yoshiwara, a former geisha and red-light district of Tokyo.

If you would like to learn more about Tokyo's Yoshiwara red-light district, we offer a tour where you can explore the remnants of Yoshiwara's red-light district, as featured in Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba.

Yoshiwara, Tokyo's former red-light district, is a fascinating area with a rich history of geisha culture and traditional entertainment. Still to this day, the area holds on to its reputation of mystique, representing the charm and culture of the Edo Period.


1b9a953d8dd2b459f99a68553bedcac2584c2936.jpgPhoto: Kusakabe Kimbei (日下部 金幣) (1841 - 1934) Public domain


The pleasure districts of Japan


Back in the Edo era (1603-1868), Edo (now Tokyo), Osaka and Kyoto were all home to pleasure quarters which were licensed by the shogunate. These were Shinmachi in Osaka, Shimabara in Kyoto and in Edo - Yoshiwara. In these walled quarters, the fashions and kabuki plays of the day flourished, and patrons could enjoy not only a companion but culture and music as well.

In the pleasure quarters of old Edo, the highest-ranking courtesans were known as oiran - the most cultured and learned of the women. They would walk around the licensed quarters accompanied by younger girls called kamuro, who were in training to be future oiran. The upper ranked prostitutes of Yoshiwara served wealthy merchants, government officers and shogunate and feudal retainers.

The district was lively, with prostitutes and customers drinking sake together in the brothel first. Wealthy customers would be treated to a night of food and entertainment before being led away to his companion for the night. The oiran had their own quarters at the back of the establishments, while the lower ranked girls took their customers into a communal area called mawashibeya.


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Photo: Yoshiwara Kōshisaki no zu (Yoshiwara Night Scene) ukiyo-e painting by Katsushika Ōi - Public Domain


What is Yoshiwara


Yoshiwara was the most renowned and refined licensed prostitution quarter in Edo, open to all levels of social class. It was located to the north of Asakusa's temples, with hundreds of cherry blossom trees lining the streets and thousands of lanterns lighting up this "nightless city" when darkness fell.

The brothel town was surrounded by thick walls and a moat, much like a castle. The only way in was through the giant gate at the front, the Yoshiwara Omon. No one could enter without permission, nor could the women leave freely.

The buildings inside Yoshiwara were grandiose and from the outside presented an appearance of richness and prosperity. The girls inside would be dressed to impress, sitting in rows in front of gold screens and protected from outsiders by iron bars, not dissimilar to the bars of a jail.

Unlike in some red-light districts, Yoshiwara was orderly and controlled - as noted in 1901 by a western visitor -

"As the whole quarter is under special municipal surveillance, perfect order prevails, enabling the stranger to study, while walking along the streets, the manner in which the Japanese have solved one of the vexed questions of all ages."
- A Handbook for Travellers in Japan, by Basil Hall Chamberlain & W.B. Mason, 1901


What was life like for the women of Yoshiwara?


Many of the 3,000+ women in Yoshiwara were there because their impoverished parents had sold them as young girls for money. The brothel-keeper then essentially "owned" them for life, and many were never able to escape this debt.

Their lives were difficult, with many dying young of sexually transmitted diseases and lack of access to medical care. The nearby Jokanji Temple was nicknamed "Nagekomi Dera", meaning the "throw away temple", as once they passed away their bodies were often simply discarded by being thrown over the walls of the temple for the monks to dispose of. In the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923, many of the women of Yoshiwara were killed as they were unable to escape the searing fire the engulfed the district.


What is Yoshiwara like today


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Yoshiwara was affected many times by earthquakes and fires, but it remained prosperous until prostitution was abolished in 1958 - over 300 years after it was established.

You can see the area where Yoshiwara once was near Asakusa in Senzoku 4-chome area. There are still many dubious adult businesses to be found, although it lacks the grandeur it once had. These businesses will quietly usher in visitors as these days brothels survive discreetly under a loop hole that allows them to remain in business.


If you would like to learn more about Tokyo's Yoshiwara red-light district, we offer a tour where you can explore the remnants of this brothel area where these women lived and died and visit unique stores and flop houses with a history of more than 100 years.
https://omakase-tour.com/tours/traditional-culture/exploring-tokyos-historic-wild-side-in-yoshiwara.html

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