February 17, 2014
by Maria Kakiuchi and Akane Ogawa
Oiran was a kind of ‘woman of pleasure’ of the Edo period (1600~1868) in Japan. Unlike common street prostitutes, oiran were glamorous courtesans, who were cultivated in the traditional Japanese arts, the classics, calligraphy, tea ceremony, waka poetry, the shamisen (Japanese harp), and the game of go. This made them primarily entertainers. They were very popular in the brothels of the Yoshiwara in Edo (now Tokyo), Shinmachi in Osaka, and Shimabara in Kyoto. One can read about oiran in traditional Japanese literature, as well as see images of them in ukio-e, a genre of woodblock prints and paintings. Of course the oiran seen in ukiyoe works is more opulent than real.
The Way of Oiran
Back in the Edo period, sometime prostitutes were put on display behind bars for potential customers to look at. This practice was called harimise. Oiran, however, did not practice harimise. On the contrary, oiran took an active role in the process of selecting a customer. In this way, we might say that the oiran chose the customer, rather than the other way around.
If a man really wanted to be with an oiran, he first had to make contact with a tea house and have lots of money. Next, he had to engage in a three-step process to get together with an orian. In the first step, the oiran just sits and observes the customer. She does not eat, drink, or talk, but rather just gets a feeling for the potential customer. If he passes that stage, the next time he comes, the oiran gets closer to the customer, but doesn’t interact much. This is also a testing period. Finally, if the man makes it to the third stage, he can go into a room with the oiran. He must present her with a set of chopsticks with his name engraved into them, along with an envelope of congratulatory money. From that point, he is forbidden to visit other prostitutes. To do so would be considered cheating, and would be seen as a great insult.
What is Oiran-Dochu?
In edo period, the oiran would dress in their best costumes to go and collect their valued customers and bring them to the teahouse and on a special day. Then they would parade around the area of the pleasure quarter with their most beautiful and ornate clothing on display. This included the wearing of two combs, and six Japanese hairpins in the front and six in the back. This style of Japanese hairpin was particular a sign of nobility.
Differences Between Oiran and Geisha
Some people might certainly ask the question, “What is the difference between a geisha and an oiran? Aren’t they the same thing?” The answer is, “No.” Although they appear to be similar, in that they both dress up in beautiful traditional clothing and entertain guests, the geisha never were involved in prostitution like the oiran were. Instead, the geisha specialized in playing the host at private parties, with dancing, music, and games. In fact, the rise of the geisha corresponded with the fall of the oiran. They were much more accessible to the common visitor, rather than just for rich men who wanted sex.
Dress Up Like Oiran for a Day
Although the oiran have died out, the tradition of dressing like one still remains. In fact, you can experience dressing like oiran yourself right here in Kyoto! The place is called, Oiran Keiken Studio Yumekoubou, which translates into something like ‘Oiran Experience Dream Studio.’ If you want to take some amazing photos of yourself dressed like an Edo period Oiran, there are the steps you need to take:
1. Call to book an appointment. You should try to book one as soon as possible, because sometimes it’s already fully scheduled.
2. Go to the studio on the day and time of your appointment and the staff will give you some information about oiran.
3. Get your face made up by professional make-up artist. Then, if you have an image that you want to be, for example, looks big eyes, be sexy, pretty and so on, just tell your image to them and they will make it happen. It doesn’t matter if you are already wearing make-up or not when you arrive. They will take care of everything. If, however, your skin is weak or has some alleges, you should tell your artist about it before he or she gets started. It’s okay to put contacts on, but it could be a bit uncomfortable, so make sure you bring your contacts case with you in case you have to take them out. Also, if you really want to put on the make-up by yourself, you can. But there is no telling how it will look.
4. Choose your hairstyle. There are mainly 2 styles.
Classic style. This is a wig. Ornamental hairpins are the main characteristic. We recommend it for people who have short hair.
Modern style. This is done with all of your real hair. No wigs involved.
You can choose the hairstyle you want, and the artists will do it for you.
The classic style is popular with most customers because it gives them the traditional image of being Japanese, just like the oiran really were back then.
5. Choose a kimono. There are about 30 different kinds of kimono in the studio, so you can choose the one you want to try. Kimono are all the same cost, so you can choose the color and design freely.
6. Take pictures. A professional photographer will take your picture. The purpose of taking the picture is you get right into oiran. Then, the photographer will capture your beauty. A space is also provided so that you can take pictures with your own camera. You can’t have an experience like this so often, so this is a perfect opportunity to capture your memories of Japan.
The authors of this article dressed as oiran.
7. Choose the photos you want to keep. If you see some really good ones, you can buy them directly from the studio.
Points to note
* Pregnant women cannot dress up like oiran, because of the tight girdle they must wear.
* There is no parking area. Therefore, you should come by bus or taxi. The studio is very close to Gion bus stop.
How to get there from Kyoto station…
- Use the bus…Catch the bus that number 100 or 206 and get the bus off by Gion bus stop. Then, your back toward to Yasaka shrine and go straight the Shijyo-street. When you can see “Akaneya”(あかねや), turn right.
- Use the taxi…Tell the driver “Shijyo-kiritoshi”. You go about 50m in Kiritoshi, then the place is left side.
- Any photos you buy are sent to your house one month later.
- It takes about 3 hours from start to finish to complete the dressing up like oiran process.
- There is no age limit, so anyone can dress up like oiran.
- There are people who can speak English, so don’t worry about language.
You want to make good memories in Japan, why don’t you try it!
Oiran Keiken Studio Yumekoubou
Kyoto-city, Higashiyama-ku, Yasaka shinchi sueyoshi86