Many people may think Oiran is almost the same as Geisha because they both are women dressed in kimonos. However, unlike the Geisha and Maiko that still exist today, Oiran is now gone.
Still, there are spots where you can experience Oiran, and there is also an event called “Oiran Dochu” that recreates the situation at the time. In this article, we will introduce the history of Oiran, the event called Oiran Dochu, and the places where you can experience it.
We will also explain the difference between Oiran and Geisha.
What is Oiran?
Oiran(花魁) refers to the highest-ranked female prostitute in the Yoshiwara Yukaku (a red-light district.) It means “courtisane” in French and “cortigiana” in Italian.
Oiran and Yukaku
The Yukaku(遊郭) is a government-accredited place where prostitutes are gathered in the Edo period, and the Yoshiwara Yukaku in Edo (Tokyo), the Shimabara Yukaku in Kyoto, and the Shinmachi Yukaku in Osaka are known as the three largest Yukaku in Japan. The Yoshiwara Yukaku was established in the current Nihonbashi Ningyocho and then moved to Asakusa.
At the beginning of the Yukaku, prostitutes were divided into two grades: “Tayu(太夫)” and “Hashijoro(端女郎).” As the number of prostitutes increased, grades such as “Tayu,” “Koshi(格子),” “Tsubone(局),” “Kirimisejorou(切見世女郎),” and so on emerged as well. And then, Tayu came to be called “Oiran.”
Tayu was originally called “Keisei(傾城).” This is a word from China that means “a beautiful woman who costs so much that tilts a castle.” It took a huge amount of money, so playing with Oiran was said to be a sign of success in that era.
Oiran was not only beautiful but also intelligent in various arts and cultures. Only a handful of women could be Oiran.
Origin of the Name of Oiran
There are various theories as to why they came to be called Oiran, but the strong theory is that it came from the fact the apprentice prostitutes called the prostitute as “おいらの姉さん(oira no nēsan).”
Also, A young apprentice prostitute was called “Kamuro(禿),” prostitute’s protegees were called “Shinzo(新造),” and the male employee who did the day-to-day work was called “Genan(下男).”
What is Oiran Dochu?
The process of Oiran welcoming guests with a Kamuro, Shinzo, and Genan is called “Oiran Dochu(花魁道中).”
When a customer arrives at Yukaku, he first enters the store called the “Ageya(揚屋)” to call Oiran. After calling a familiar Oiran, the guest drinks alcohol or enjoys the Geisha’s work until she comes. Oiran picks up the customer at the Ageya and returns to her Girou(妓楼), a place where she will play with the guest. This welcoming journey is the Oiran Dochu.
One of the characteristic costumes of Oiran performing Oiran Dochu is the black-painted geta with three-heels. The way to walk wearing these high geta is called “Hachimonji(八文字).” There are two types of them, “Uchi-Hachimonji(内八文字)” and “Soto-Hachimonji(外八文字),” and it is said that Soto-Hachimonji, which is showier, had become mainstream.
It is said that it will take three years to learn Soto-Hachimonji, and walking with high clogs requires physical and leg strength. This also shows that Oiran is not just a beautiful being.
The Difference between Oiran and Geisha
Foreigners may find it difficult to understand the difference between an Oiran and a Geisha. Here, we will introduce the difference between them.
What is Geisha?
A Geisha is a woman who shows off the shamisen, singing and dancing to entertain guests. They are hospitality professionals who show arts and excites the banquet.
As introduced in the explanation of Oiran Dochu, while the customer waits for the Oiran at the Ageya, the Geisha perform the art and entertain the customer. Oiran and Geisha have different roles.
At that time, it was prohibited for Geisha to play with customers like Oiran. If a Geisha steal Oiran’s role, it will be serious trouble. Also, Geisha has pride that they will sell their art performing, not their body.
In Geisha and Oiran, Oiran was ranked higher. This may be because Geisha entertained customers while they were waiting for Oiran. Nowadays, the occupation of Oiran is gone. However, the Geisha still plays a role in communicating the traditional culture of Japan as an entertainer in the arts.
Oiran and Geisha have differences other than their roles. One of them is the Kuruwa Kotoba(廓詞).
The Kuruwa Kotoba was used to hide the dialects of prostitutes collected from all over the country. The feature is to add the word “ありんす(arinsu).”
Other than hiding dialects, it is said to have been used to give an elegant and noble impression. Kuruwa Kotoba is a means to fulfill men’s desire for Oiran to be a higher presence.
By the way, it is said that only the Yoshiwara Yukaku in Tokyo used the Kuruwa Kotoba, and the Shimabara Yukaku in Kyoto and Shinmachi Yukaku in Osaka used Kansai dialect.
Difference in Costume
Geisha are wearing plain clothes based on black. In terms of costumes, Maiko’s kimono is gorgeous, and it’s closer to that of Oiran.
Oiran’s costume is brighter and more luxurious than Maiko. They wore the expensive “打掛(Uchikake)” of 緞子(Donsu) or 金襴(Kinran). Donsu is a silk woven figured fabric with a soft, glossy, and heavy feel, and Kinran is one with a pattern using gold thread.
Another characteristic is the kimono belt. Normally, the obi is tied at the back, but the Oiran ties the obi at the front to make it look good.
Spots Where You Can Experience the Appearance of Oiran
In Japan, there are spots where you can experience the gorgeous appearance of Oiran. Here are some of those.
Studio Nanairo is a photo studio in Asakusa. You can make a reservation from the Internet, and you can dress in a kimono, set a hairstyle, and take a picture of yourself in Oiran costume.
Besides Oiran, there are also plans of Geisha, Maiko, and Samurai for men. They also have a plan to take a walk wearing kimono, so this shop is perfect for those who want to experience kimono in Japan.
ESPERANTO is a photo studio in Kyoto. They have a variety of Oiran plans, from reasonable ones to plans which offer a wide variety of costumes and studios.
There is also a couple’s plan that allows men to wear kimono.
An Event Where You Can See Oiran Dochu
“Asakusa Kannon Urara Ichiyozakura Festival Edo Yoshihara Oiran Dochu” is famous as an event where you can see the Oiran Dochu. This event is held on the second Saturday of April each year and is mainly performed by local people from Yoshiwara.
“Ichiyozakura Komatsubashi Dori,” where the Oiran Dochu is held, is also a famous spot for cherry blossoms, and you can see the gorgeous Oiran walking under the row of cherry trees. After the Oiran Dochu, the “Oiran show” is held on stage, making it a valuable event where you can experience the gorgeous world of the Edo period.
Oiran seems to be a gorgeous existence, but it is said that they needed to make hard work and efforts. When you wear the costume, you may be surprised at the weight and difficulty of movement.
Please try to experience the world of Oiran, where you can feel the glitz of Japan and the hardships of those days.