marky star

Posts Tagged ‘geisha’

What does Mukōjima mean?

In Japanese History on August 13, 2015 at 7:21 am

Mukōjima (island/s over there)

Take a good look at this map. You're gonna have to refer to it a lot.

Take a good look at this map. You’re gonna have to refer to it a lot.

Mukōjima is a postal address in 墨田区 Sumida-ku Sumida Ward. It’s located on the 隅田川 Sumida-gawa Sumida River, directly across from 浅草 Asakusa. Most tourists who visit Asakusa and check out the river have probably seen Mukōjima and didn’t even bat an eye. Today, it doesn’t look like much from that vantage point. After all, Asakusa is so lively and in every guidebook. On the surface, the area seems to be decidedly 下町 shitamachi low city, but if you dig a little deeper this town will give up some surprising secrets.

First, Let’s Look at the Etymology

The meaning of the name is obscure, but 2 theories exist. They’re both very similar and they’re both more or less plausible.  The word itself is written with two kanji.


over there,


The Sumida-gawa Palace

The Sumida-gawa Palace

One theory is based on the fact that the Tokugawa shōguns had a detached palace in the area.  The site was called 隅田川御殿 Sumida-gawa Goten Sumida River Palace and it was located on the newly developed lands across from Asakusa, the prosperous town surrounding 浅草寺 Sensō-ji Sensō Temple[i]. To the northwest of the property, the 内川 Uchikawa, literally the “Inner River”[ii], (a stretch of the 古隅田川 Furusumida-gawa, literally the “Old Sumida River[iii]) flowed into the Sumida. According to this theory, an island or fairly large sandbar lay at this confluence to northwest and was said to be called 将軍の向島 shōgun no mukōjima the shōgun’s island over there. Naturally, the people using that phrase were the inhabitants of Asakusa on the other side of the river.

A seafood restaurant in Mukōjima famous for serving 鯉 (carp)

A seafood restaurant in Mukōjima famous for serving 鯉 (carp)

A second similar theory states that before the coming of the Tokugawa and the massive waterworks projects undertaken by the shōgunate[iv], the east bank of the Sumida River in this area was littered with sandbars and islands. Over time, these islands were reclaimed and incorporated into the expanding city. Some of these islands were big enough to have names – many of which still persist to a certain extent today: 牛島 Ushima (cow island), 柳島 Yanagijima (willow island), 寺島Terajima (temple island – remember this name). It’s said that the people living on the west bank (ie; Asakusa) collectively referred to these islands with one name: 向島 mukōjima the islands over there.

Both theories were first recorded in the Edo Period, but I find the reference to the Tokugawa a bit suspect. I don’t know why; it’s just a gut feeling. I find the “pre-Edo Period” theory more convincing. Again, I don’t know why; it’s just a gut feeling. But with a few other place names in the area referencing islands (島 shima), it doesn’t seem to be unreasonable that the people who lived along the river might do such a thing.

Shamisen players relaxing at a sushi stand on the bank of the Sumida River in Mukōjima.

Shamisen players relaxing at a sushi stand on the bank of the Sumida River in Mukōjima.

In the Edo Period, the area was famous for its natural beauty. People came here to enjoy the seasonal changes. There are many 浮世絵 ukiyo-e prints of people relaxing in the area. At this time, Mukōjima was just a popular name for the area. However, in 1891, the name Mukōjima was made official. Since that time the area has changed a lot. Today, the area has a lot to offer and if you have enough money, you might be able to spend the whole day there in style.

Now, Let’s Look at the Area Today

mukojima desu

Mukōjima Hyakkka-en

One of the most famous places in the area is 百花園 Hyakkka-en “the 100 flower park.” The park was built by a wealthy antiques dealer from 仙台藩 Sendai Han Sendai Domain named 佐原鞠塢 Sahara Kikū. He ran a store in 日本橋 Nihonbashi and hobnobbed with various 大名 daimyō feudal lords[v]. He represented the new breed of wealthy merchants and commoners that arose in the late Edo Period. He was highly educated, cultured, and had tastes that ran the gamut of both the nouveaux riches and the elite samurai class.

He purchased the 多賀屋敷 Taga yashiki Taga residence in 寺島村 Terajima Mura Terajima Village (a name we saw earlier) and in 1804 he converted it into a flower garden, originally called 花屋敷 Hana Yashiki the Flower Mansion. The concept of the garden was very different from the daimyō gardens of the Edo Period. It reflected the new sensibilities of the emerging rich commoners who found themselves with more leisure time and were developing a cultural esthetic distinct from the conservative styles preferred by the stagnating samurai class.


His concept was simple: 春夏秋冬不断 shunkashūtō fudan consistency throughout the seasons. Flowers were chosen from Classical Japanese and Classical Chinese poetry in order to amass a collection of flowers that would constantly bloom in turn throughout the seasons. Unlike the subdued and stoic daimyō gardens, it was vibrant, flashy, and always changing. The garden also wasn’t hidden behind high walls like a daimyō mansion, but could be visited by anyone with the right connections[vi]. The garden’s fame was so great that in March of 1829, the Party Shōgun, 将軍家斉 Tokugawa Ienari, visited – no doubt in the company of a gaggle of beauties from the 大奥 Ōoku the shōgun’s harem. The garden was sold to東京市 Tōkyō-shi Tōkyō City in 1938 and was officially opened to the public in 1939. By some accounts, it is the only Edo Period flower garden of its kind that still exists.


Japanese Sweets

There are 2 types of 和菓子 wagashi Japanese sweets that originated in the area. The first is called 言問団子 Kototoi Dango and the second is called 桜餅 sakura mochi.

Kototoi Dango

Kototoi Dango is both the name of a shop in Mukōjima and the product they specialize in. Their main product is 団子 dango dango that comes in three flavors: white anko, red anko, and miso. The shop was established by a gardening teacher, 外山佐吉 Toyama Sakichi – a commoner – in the late Edo Period. The name Kototoi is a reference to a bridge located downstream from the original shop called 言問橋 Kototoibashi Kototoi Bridge. The shop’s dango became popular with the people who came to the area to watch fireworks along the Sumida River. Since people from all over the shōgun’s capital came to see the annual event, the dango from this shop’s reputation spread quickly. You can see the shop’s website here

Kototoi dango

Kototoi dango

Chōmeiji Sakura Mochi

Sakura mochi is a kind of Japanese sweet that is flavored with cherry blossom leaves. There are many variations throughout Japan, but it generally boils down to 2 main styles: 関東風 Kantō-fū Kantō Style and 関西風 Kansai-fū Kansai Style. Of course, both regions claim to have invented the snack in an attempt to have bragging rights over a food made with cherry blossoms, a symbol of Japan[vii]. But eff that noise. Let’s just talk about some Mukōjima yumminess,

These little bad boys are called 長命寺桜餅 Chōmeiji sakura mochi cherry blossom mochi named after Chōme-ji, a temple located on the Sumida River[viii]. The temple is near Kototoi Dango. This temple may also be connected to the “temple island” that I mentioned earlier, Terajima.

It seems the shopkeepers living in the 門前町 monzen-chō town built up around a temple[ix] began collecting cherry blossoms that fell from trees along the river in the 1690’s and started using them to flavor various foods to sell to people who to the area for 花見 hanami cherry blossom viewing. In 1717, local shops began selling this special sakura mochi in front of the temple. This year also coincided with a decree to plant more cherry blossoms along this section of the Sumida River by 8th shōgun, 徳川吉宗 Tokugawa Yoshimune[x]. The new style of mochi was an instant hit with the hanami goers and just as Kototoi Dango’s reputation spread far and wide quickly, so did that of Chōmeiji sakura mochi. Various shops in the area sell this specialty today.

Chōmeiji Sakura Mochi

Chōmeiji Sakura Mochi


Mukōjima is Tōkyō’s Biggest Geisha District

Unless you already knew this, I’ll bet you didn’t see this one coming.

Ryōtei are exclusive dining establishments that provide geisha entertainment.

Ryōtei are exclusive dining establishments that provide geisha entertainment.

Mukōjima is home to a 花街 kagai[xi] a geisha district (literally “flower town”). The area was famous for its nature and greenery in the Edo Period but the rise of the nouveaux riches began to have an effect on the area. This effect would soon transform the area.

Because of the influx of new money and the rise of industry during the Meiji Period, a unique geisha culture emerged in Mukōjima. The demand for geisha was high among men of means in the newly renamed city (Edo→Tōkyō).  The area was particularly popular with artists, poets, and novelists in the early 1900’s.

mukojima geisha

Unfortunately, most of Tōkyō’s geisha culture fizzled out after the 関東大震災 Kantō Daishinsai Great Kantō Earfquake and the firebombing of WWII. But for some reason Mukōjima managed to hold on to the tradition[xii]. To this day, there are many 料亭 ryōtei located in the area. Ryōtei are high end dining venues that have the space, the setting, the pedigree, and the connections to provide entertainment by geisha. Many establishments won’t accept new customers without an introduction by a current customer or a trusted acquaintance of the owner. In general, such indulgences are extremely cost prohibitive, but there are occasional cheesy bus tours that will give you a glimpse into the world.

Yes, those are real geisha. And no, geisha babies are not called

Yes, those are real geisha. And no, geisha babies are not called “gaybies” so please don’t e-mail me asking about that.

At its peak, they say more than 1000 geisha operated in the area and there were anywhere from 100-200 shops providing entertainment to high end clientele. Today those numbers are much smaller. It’s said there are a little over 100 geisha who regularly perform in Mukōjima and the number of ryōtei is well under 20[xiii]. All of this notwithstanding, Mukōjima is Tōkyō’s largest extant geisha town today. In the early evening, you will probably see geisha scurrying around and if you have the money – I most definitely don’t[xiv] – you can enjoy their service, entertainment, and a little taste of Edo.

Related Links:

Please Support My Blog
It Don’t Write Itself™
⇨ Click Here to Donate via Patreon ⇦
(I’ve begun making exclusive videos for patrons)

[i] Asakusa had had a decent population since the Kamakura Period.
[ii] Rivers tended to be called different things in different areas. So the Sumida River, being a very long river, had many names in different locations. Each tributary also had a different name, despite being part of the same river basin. You can read more about this in my article on the Sumida River.
[iii] A former branch of the Sumida River that originated in present day Saitama Prefecture, but is now is separated from the river that is currently called the Sumida River.
[iv] The shōgunate modified the courses of rivers, built moats, diverted channels, and all manner of waterworks… and guess who wrote a series on it.
[v] He was most likely lending daimyō money, too. This meant they would have given him access to all sorts of opportunities that might not have been available to other commoners in order to keep his favor. If you want to know more about merchants lending daimyō money, check out this article.
[vi] The “right connections” seems to have meant influential writers, poets, artists, geisha – any kind of cultured commoners with money and influence, really – and even daimyō who had a taste for the vibrancy of the late Edo Period.
[vii] The deep association of cherry blossoms as a symbol of the samurai is particularly strong in Edo-Tōkyō because of the samurai government. That said, I’m pretty sure everyone likes cherry blossoms, so that particular pro-Edo argument is a little weak to me. However, I’m not interested in that debate at all.
[viii] The temple’s foundation date is unclear. It may date back to the Heian Period but it only date back to the 1590’s, when 徳川家康 Tokugawa Ieyasu entered Edo. What is known for sure is that the temple received the patronage of the Tokugawa Shōgunate during the reign of the 3rd shōgun, 徳川家光 Tokugawa Iemitsu.
[ix] Monzen-chō, literally “towns at the front of the temple gate,” popped up to cash in on the needs of pilgrims, funeral mourners, and the casual visitors who would stop by out of curiosity – in this case, cherry blossom viewers. People needed food, lodging, and other services and thus special economies developed around temples. See my article on Monzen-Nakachō.
[x] Yoshimune was made shōgun the same year. The sudden arrival of this new local product may have its roots in many causes. The new shōgun’s decree offered a kind of novelty – why buy some ordinary, stupid snack, when you can buy the new taste of the year? It also showed respect to the new shōgun – thanks for sending all this business our way – more cherry blossoms means more tourists in the spring. And the list goes on…
[xi] 花街 is read as hanamachi in Kyōto. Kagai is the 音読み on’yomi Chinese reading of the kanji. Hanamachi is the 訓読み kun’yomi Japanese reading of the kanji. Apparently, the plosives  /ka/ and /ga/ of the on’yomi have generally been perceived as harsh and uncouth by speakers of 京都弁 Kyōto-ben the Kyōto Dialect. To this day, the guardians of the highest register of that dialect are the geisha of the former imperial capital. For their sensibilities, apparently the on’yomi, hanamachi rolls off the tongue much more smoothly. Interestingly, hanamachi uses an affricative // and nasal sounds /ma/ and /ɴ/. Removing the plosive sounds means the risk of spitting on a person is lower and the use of nasals makes the vowels clearer. Some westerners complain about girls making announcements outside of shops as being annoying and nasal (for the record, I like this). They’re unwittingly favoring the clearer nasal sounds that highlight vowels and make their voices travel farther. It’s just my speculation, but this may have roots in the female speech of Kyōto.
[xii] Akasaka, due to its proximity to the National Diet Building, had a geisha district in the Edo Period. There is still a geisha culture there. The modern geisha are said to be extremely skilled and talented, but in the Edo Period and early Meiji Period the term “Akasaka Geisha” referred to the geisha of the lowest quality in the city. It was essentially a euphemism for a prostitute or a geisha so unskilled she might as well just be a whore. Today, Akasaka is home to many hostess bars of various qualities. Many of the proprietresses of certain long running establishments arrange “night time liaisons” between the working girls and the male clients. It’s said that this is a legacy of the image of the “Akasaka Geisha.” First, if this is a real legacy, it might be hard to prove. I suspect it’s just romanticizing history to justify the modern business model. And second, a hostess isn’t a geisha – or a prostitute, for that matter. Any blurred lines are things that individuals agree to do outside of the actual job descriptions.
[xiii] Some venues that are not ryōtei provide plebian-focused geisha performances for tourist groups. It’s my understanding that they are not included in the “official count.”
[xiv] It’s sad really. Being entertained by geisha is on my bucket list, but it’s about as realistic a dream as a threesome with Perfume. Yes, I said threesome. A-chan isn’t invited.

Ōedo Line: Ushigome-Yanagichō & Ushigome-Kagurazaka

In Japanese History on June 4, 2015 at 2:15 am

Ushigome-Yanagichō (crowded with cows – willow tree town)

The alleged site of the Shieikan, Kondō Isami's fencing school and incubator for the most elite members.

The alleged site of the Shieikan, Kondō Isami’s fencing school and incubator for the most elite members.

I covered this place in 2013. In short, it’s the merging of 2 former place names in order to make a unique station name. That is to say, the area isn’t called Ushigome-Yanagichō, just the station is. The actual address is 新宿区原町 Shinjuku-ku Haramachi Haramachi, Shinjuku Ward. It’s a residential area with a few 下町 shitamachi low city features. The station gives you access to the alleged location of the 道場 dōjō martial arts school of 近藤勇 Kondō Isami, where much of the core leadership of the 新撰組 Shinsengumi trained[i].

I’ve never been to this station, so I can’t say much about what the area is like, but I’m assuming it’s primarily residential.

★ Wanna read my original article about Ushigome-Yanagichō?
★ Wanna read my original article about Ichigaya?

In the 60's and 70's, this valley was one of the most polluted areas in Tokyo.  See the original article for more details.

In the 60’s and 70’s, this valley was one of the most polluted areas in Tokyo.
See the original article for more details.

Ushigome-Kagurazaka (crowded with cows – Shintō music hill)

Ushigome Bridge as seen from the base of Kaguarazaka.

Ushigome Bridge as seen from the base of Kaguarazaka.

I wrote about both Ushigome and Kagurazaka a few years ago. To a modern person visiting Tōkyō, this area seems really far from Edo Castle[ii]. But the fact is that the outer moat system extended to Ushigome and Kagurazaka. A modern bridge stands where 牛込橋 Ushigomebashi Ushigome Bridge crossed the outer moat[iii] and you still see the stone walls that were the base of a great gate to Edo Castle. The moat is still there too, but now a train runs along the castle side. Once you cross the bridge, you can begin your ascent up the Kagura Hill. In the Edo Period, this area mainly consisted of samurai residences.

The station is located at a major thoroughfare with a lot of car and pedestrian traffic. But off the main road, it’s actually a quiet residential area that is peppered with specialized Japanese restaurants and 料亭 ryōtei high end, formal Japanese restaurants. It preserves a feeling of Edo’s yamanote mystique and some ryōtei even feature 芸者 geisha – a bit of a rarity in Tōkyō. I highly recommend just taking the train to this area for the sole purpose of getting lost in hopes of finding a cool, tiny restaurant. Trust me. You’ll love it.

★ Wanna read my original article about Ushigome?
★ Wanna read my original article about Kagurazaka?

Tomochiyo, a young geisha who debuted in Kagurazaka in 2010. She's dressed casually in this informal shot, but I like the photo because it looks like she isn't wearing a wig, but is using her natural hair. I think she's pretty cute. How about you?

Tomochiyo, a young geisha who debuted in Kagurazaka in 2010. She’s dressed casually in this informal shot, but I like the photo because it looks like she isn’t wearing a wig, but is using her natural hair. I think she’s pretty cute. How about you?

Please Support My Blog
It Don’t Write Itself™
 Click Here to Donate 
(I’ve begun making exclusive videos for patrons)
⇨ Bitcoin: 18xSJyYwRRP8bJccHiG7KxWgPKZdd5HKk2 


This article is part of an ongoing series that starts here.

[i] Who were the Shinsengumi?
[ii] Present day 皇居 Kokyō Imperial Palace, but we don’t use that word here at JapanThis.
No, we never ever use that word. It’s Edo Castle. Don’t you forget that.
[iii] Today the moat is a pathway for a train.

Ask Me Anything

In Japanese History on March 12, 2015 at 2:05 pm

Nandemo kiite
(Ask Me Anything)


I totally rivered[i] myself on an article. Not only was the scope of the article getting out of control, I must have accidentally deleted a portion of it. I was just frustrated and wanted to get an article out as soon as possible. So I decided to open up the floor to questions for a Reddit-style #AMA. Well, OK, it’s not reddit-style as it didn’t happen in real time. But you get the point.

If you have a question you’d like to ask for a future AMA, feel free to add in the comments section. When there’s enough demand, I’ll do this again.


Why Don’t Other Countries Use Washlettes?

Dude, this is a good question and it’s a question I’ve actually thought about myself!

For the readers who aren’t familiar, a great deal of Japanese toilets – especially in the home – are outfitted with heated toilet seats, adjustable warm water bidets, and adjustable warm water asshole cleaners. Some models have a self-cleaning function (for the water jets, not the whole toilet), a deodorizer mechanism, and even sensors that engage an auto-flush mechanism as soon as you move away from the toilet. Once you’ve become accustomed to this type of toilet, any other 1st world countries’ toilets seem barbaric.

So if these “robo-toilets” are so great, why doesn’t everyone use them? I wondered this myself for years until I was back in the US, taking a dump. I looked around the bathroom and realized that the difference most likely lays in the fact that Japanese bathrooms are laid out very different from western bathrooms. The Japanese consider the bath/shower one space, for cleaning and relaxing. The toilet is a completely separate room; it’s dirty and shouldn’t be in the same room that you relax in after a hard day’s work.

What I noticed in the western bathroom is that not only are the bath/shower and toilet combined, the toilet in American bathrooms is often right next to the bath/shower. This means that there is no safe place for an electrical outlet because… hello, risk of electrocution. You have to plug in a Washlette. Even in American bath/showers that have the toilet isolated, there isn’t much of a tradition of needing electrical outlets where the toilet is – and indeed it could get pretty unsightly stringing out cords or extension cords.

In short, bathing culture, shitting culture, and where cultures think we should have electrical outlets installed is different. That’s my thoughts on why the Washlette hasn’t caught on outside of Japan.


Any Idea Where Your Interest in Etymology Came From?

I think I’ve mentioned this here and there, but maybe not directly on the blog. In short, I’ve always been curious about “why things are the way they are now if they weren’t that way before.” This is probably a bad answer. So, let’s go back to my junior high and high school days.

In junior high, my parents encouraged me to learn a foreign language. If I remember correctly, it wasn’t a pre-requisite until high school, but for some reason my parents thought it would be good for me to start in junior high. I was pretty opposed to the idea. Learning a foreign language seemed like the most boring thing I could ever do.

I eventually relented and took Latin[ii]. Prior to studying Latin, I sucked at English – grammar, in particular. Studying Latin changed my entire perspective on the world. My grammar also got really good. As you may know, something like 80% of Modern English vocabulary is derived from Latin – much of it via French. Once I started to see the connection between Latin and English, I got really curious about why there was such a connection. 2 books in particular really sparked a flame: The Story of Latin and the Romance Languages by Mario Pei and The Story of English by Robert McCrum and Robert MacNeil[iii]. I still recommend these books to anyone who is looking for a way to get into the subject. They’re both written in pretty accessible language, though admittedly, the Mario Pei book assumes you have some familiarity with a Romance Language or two.

Later, in university, I did a short stint studying abroad in Italy. It was here that I realized that having a solid base in Latin and understanding many of the rules governing sound changes in Vulgar Latin[iv] gave me VIP access to most of the local dialects that I came into contact with. And while I can’t say I understood every non-standard Italian word or phrase that I came across (I definitely couldn’t), I could definitely understand the linguistic processes at work.


So, years later when I moved to Japan, I found myself staring at train station names and quickly looking up the kanji. I saw names like 渋谷 Shibuya “astringent valley,” 新宿 Shinjuku “new lodging,[v]谷中 Yanaka “middle of the valley” and I was curious about the stories behind these. At first, I took them at face value but as I began to investigate more – for the purpose of this blog, that is – I realized that more often than not we can’t take the kanji at face value. As I’ve written more and more, I’ve also realized that I can use my geeky curiosity about etymology as an excuse to explore the history of the city as well.

So, I think my interest is really based on a fascination with change and the dynamics of recorded history. Edo-Tōkyō has evolved and changed over the years and so has the Japanese language and culture.

japanese history

What Got You Interested in Japanese History?

Short answer. After I came to Japan, I wanted to understand Japanese culture more deeply and I wanted to have a shared background with the people around me.

Long answer. When I first visited Japan in 2002-2003, I was staying in 鶯谷 Uguisudani and almost every day, I’d take a walk around the area that I now know is the 上野台地 Ueno Daichi Ueno Plateau. I stumbled across what is left of 寛永寺 Kan’ei-ji, one the 2 Tokugawa funerary temples in Edo-Tōkyō[vi]. I found the 勅額門 chokugaku mon imperial scroll gates of Tokugawa Ietsuna and Tsunayoshi (4th and 5th shōguns, respectively). I later found the grave of Tokugawa Yoshinobu, a stone’s throw away in Yanaka. When I asked my Japanese friends about who these shōguns were, I couldn’t get any good answers. One friend said, “I think Tokugawa Iemitsu was gay.” Well, whatever. Lots of people are gay, but only 15 people were Tokugawa shōguns. I needed answers and I wasn’t getting jack shit.

So before I’d go to bed each night, I’d log on to the public computer at the hotel I was staying at and google as much as I could on the shōguns. As a random sort of game, I made it my goal to visit all 15 shōguns’ graves before I returned to America. In the end, on that trip I only visited 5[vii]. I knew nothing about Japanese history so I felt like I was a detective uncovering a great mystery. Every layer I peeled away made the next layer so much more tantalizing.

Before I knew it, I was obsessed with this old culture and its ways. Soon I found myself strung out on the most hardcore strains of J-History. I was blowing history professors in Shinjuku 2-chōme for a fix of Bakumatsu here, a Nobunaga story there. Then I hit rock bottom – I tried to write a series of articles about the rivers of Edo-Tōkyō.

Miniature diorama of Nihonbashi at the Edo-Tokyo Museum.

Miniature diorama of Nihonbashi at the Edo-Tokyo Museum.

You Often Use The Phrase Edo-Tōkyō…

That’s not a question.

But anyhoo, yes. I often use the term “Edo-Tōkyō.” Other than the 江戸東京博物館 Edo-Tōkyō Hakubutsukan Edo-Tōkyō Museum, I don’t see the word in English much. However, the term 江戸東京 Edo-Tōkyō is something I come across from time to time in Japanese. Since Edo eventually became Tōkyō, this is a convenient Japanese word to describe the city as a continuum. Clearly Edo is not the same as modern Tōkyō, but they don’t exist independent of each other. Since a lot of my blog deals with the history of Edo and Tōkyō, I decided long ago to use the concept of Edo-Tōkyō as a term and an approach to dealing with the life of the city.


How Long Have You Been in Edo?

Hahahaha. Nice reference to this.

My 10 year anniversary was in January of this year.

Where has the time gone? I still remember my first night in my first apartment on my 2nd day as a resident like it was yesterday[viii].

Women of the Ōoku in Edo Castle

Women of the Ōoku in Edo Castle

What Exactly Are The “Shōgunal Duties” Performed Within The Friendly Confines of The Ōoku?

Well, I know this is my boy, Rekishi no Tabi, just messing with me, but OK. Sure. Let’s talk about what went down in the Ōoku.

First of all, Ōoku means “the great interior” and refers to a physical location in 江戸城 Edo-jō Edo Castle. In theory, it was the most isolated interior section of the castle compound. This is where the women lived. Many people translate the term as “the shōgun’s harem.” Rekishi no Tabi and I love to joke around about this too. In popular culture, the Ōoku was and is often imagined as the shōgun’s garden of earthly delights. In reality, this was just the women’s quarters of the shōgun’s court. The women held official posts within a hierarchy, with the shōgun’s 御台所 midaidokoro legal wife at the top[ix]. In a culture steeped in ritual, one did not simply strut into the Ōoku and fuck until one’s dick fell off.

The Ōoku existed because Japanese culture at this time was strictly patrilineal. This meant any family with a name needed sons to carry on the family line. Women had value in the culture in so far as they could provide heirs to the male head of the family. Love happened. Marriages happened. But males were expected to keep the family going and you need women for that. Once you’re talking about imperial succession, daimyō succession, or most importantly shōgunal succession, combined with high infant mortality rates, taking concubines isn’t such a crazy idea. It’s basically a non-egalitarian form of polyamory[x]. You have a primary partner that you’re expected to respect and take care of, but the man is expected to get a little on the side for the benefit of the family line. Women of elites weren’t extended this privilege in the Edo Period – though many of them most certainly did. Even in modern times Japanese culture is fairly monogamish[xi].

But of course, everyone wants to hear about the sex – myself included – so let me take this chance to teach you some sexxxy Ōoku vocabulary. Regardless of rank within the hierarchy, women could be divided into 2 clear categories: 御手付 o-tetsuki “those touched by the shōgun” and 御清 o-kiyo “the pure ones.” The number of o-tetsuki skyrocketed during the reign of the 11th shōgun and my personal hero, Tokugawa Ienari[xii], the Party Shōgun.


When a Japanese Person is Named Sakura (for example), How Can One Tell If It’s a Male or a Female?

About the given name “Sakura…” As far as I know, this is only a female name. There are a variety of ways to write it in kanji: 桜 Sakura (cherry blossom), 愛咲 Sakura (love blooms), さくら Sakura (cute way to write “cherry blossom”). There is also a family name 佐久良 Sakura (has nothing to do with cherry blossoms).

The easiest way to identify a female name is if it’s written in hiragana only. In this case, it would be さくら Sakura. If you were to meet a man with the name “Sakura,” the name would be written with kanji that look “masculine.” However, I’m not sure what that would look like, though. In general, cherry blossoms and most flowers are considered delicate and feminine so I doubt you will find many men named “Sakura.”

On a side note, katakana is considered more masculine than hiragana, so theoretically you could name a son サクラ Sakura, but to my eyes, this looks like a manga character or a young girl who works in the sex industry. I’m not sure how to wrap up this answer tidily, but I’d say men’s names generally don’t include kanji for flowers and fruit.

UPDATE: That said I found the name 秋桜 Sakura as a boy’s name on the website DQNネーム Fucked Up Names. All of the comments on that name expressed shock at both the name and the way of writing it. The kanji mean “autumn cherry blossom” with the first kanji being completely silent. I showed it to a few native speakers and they were just confused by it. 2 people were surprised it was even a name. They thought it was a species of tree. Everyone thought it was weird to give a boy this name at all.

It’s like naming an American boy Jennifer. You could do it, but everyone of our generation will think of it as a girl’s name.

Hope that answered your question…

caste system t-shirt

Where Do Doctors Fit Into the 4-Tier Class System?

Great question!

I haven’t researched this, but I think I can take a good stab at it. If someone else knows more, I’d love to hear it.

Much to do is made of the 士農工商 shinōkōshō system – it means “samurai, farmers, artisans, merchants” and from top to bottom it lays out a social hierarchy with samurai at the top and merchants at the bottom. To understand Edo Period society, you have to know this rigid system. But there are 2 more things you need to know. First, these castes were essentially inherited ranks and secondly, they weren’t always linked to your profession. There were also professions and/or families that existed outside of the system. Also, contrary to popular belief, social mobility was a possibility in certain situations. Adoption of males into families that lacked male heirs was one way, but samurai status could also be bought or sold in some domains.

As for doctors… just think about today. It costs a lot of money to become a doctor because you need access to the latest research and you need to get certain qualifications. An Edo Period doctor didn’t need certificates (as far as I know[xiii]), but he needed access to the best Chinese, Japanese, and Dutch medical knowledge available. This means an Edo Period doctor needed to be rich enough or hold enough rank to get access to certain texts. While it’s possible that some merchant families could buy this kind of education for their sons, I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that only samurai families and imperial court families could do this. Of those samurai families, 旗本 hatamoto direct retainers of the shōgun would be likely candidates. The 朝廷 chōtei imperial court and the 幕府 bakufu shōgunate had their own special doctors. I’m assuming the government of each 藩 han domain also had their own network of doctors.

A similar question came up on Twitter a while back about Buddhist monks. Where did they fit into the system? The monks/priests of Shintō and Buddhism could theoretically come from any rank. So someone might have been elite, but for some reason or another they decided to became a Buddhist priest. An elite would then become an elite in the religious order. Their elite status didn’t just disappear. The wives of the Tokugawa shōguns were required to become monks upon the death of the shōgun.

In short, the so-called “4 classes of the Edo Period” weren’t as strict as they could have been[xiv]. But, doctors and monks would have been afforded respect worthy of the class they were born into[xv] and do to the amount education required to become a doctor or a monk, these positions would have been filled by men (and sometimes women) who had a lot of money. By default this means the samurai and court nobles, but certainly could have included merchants and rich farmers.


Can I Get A Geisha In This Day And Age? How Much Does It Cost?

Yes, you can. But enjoying geisha entertainment today is going to cost you so much more than it would have in the Edo Period. The age of a geisha today will be somewhat older than the age of an Edo Period geisha. You’ll also probably have to be introduced by an acquaintance before you’re allowed to attend a geisha’s performance.

Also your phrasing “Can I get a geisha” is a little bit disturbing to me. But I’ll talk about that later.

I, for one, have never enjoyed a proper geisha performance. It is way out of my price range and even if I wanted to get into that scene, I don’t have the right connections. And believe me it takes connections, time, and money to get access to that world today. As such I can’t quote you clear prices, but I once spoke to ex-Kyōtoite who is a manager of a 料亭 ryōtei traditional restaurant in Tōkyō that features geisha. She told me that a night of entertainment starts at about 50,000円-60,000円 ($500-$600 USD) and can go anywhere upwards of that.

In short, it’s not cheap.

Onsen geisha

Onsen geisha

I will say that there is something called 温泉芸者 onsen geisha (“hot spring geisha”). This is a term that has evolved over time, just as the terms 芸子 geiko and 芸者 geisha have also evolved over time. Geisha isn’t a consistent term historically and it also varied from location to location. Onsen geisha may be a cheap alternative to high ranking geisha. But you have know what you’re getting into.

Today the general understanding to the average Japanese person is that a geisha is a performer – a kind of artist or entertainer. Some even say that she’s the precursor of the modern アイドル aidoru idol.

The persistent western image of the geisha as a sex worker is most definitely a misunderstanding of geisha’s job. It’s also born out of the changing culture from the Bakumatsu up to the WWII era. Geisha weren’t prostitutes by default. They were performers, entertainers. But they were human so sometimes sexual relationships happened. Sex with customers wasn’t a requirement of the job in most cases. But even geisha fall in love.

In Yoshiwara and in the Meiji, Taishō, and Shōwa onsen towns, the “onsen geisha” became a profitable job for a woman of traditional musical talents and conversation. She would have been looked down upon by her colleagues in Kyōto and Tōkyō, but the services wouldn’t have been much different[xvi]. The difference in Meiji Era Tōkyō is that the geisha of Yoshiwara were in direct competition with prostitutes. I think there was a strong social pressure for geisha at any time in history to exchange sex for money, though they didn’t have to.

The Bubble Economy saw a new generation of liberated Japanese women in Tōkyō, but women in small towns, especially rural onsen towns, were left behind economically. By the time the Bubble burst, domestic tourism to onsen towns (as opposed to overseas tourism) increased. Demand for traditional entertainment waned and the onsen geisha rose in popularity as curious sexual fetish. As a result the onsen geisha is now just a nostalgic version of what in Tōkyō is usually thought of as デリヘル deri heru delivery health (outcall prostitution). In the case of onsen geisha, they show up at your hotel room at the hot spring dressed as geisha. But these girls are not geisha. It’s just cosplay.

All of this said, there are still some onsen geisha who aren’t prostitutes and will come and perform and party with you at a hot spring.

onsen geisha now

Can I Get a Woot Woot?

Yes, you can.

Woot woot!


Me & My Girlfriend Are Coming to Tokyo This Summer For Our Honeymoon. I Fancy Myself a Bit of a History Buff, So Where Do You Recommend For the Ultimate Edo Experience?

First of all, congratulations!

Second of all, I hate this question because I don’t want to fuck up your honeymoon. lol
I don’t know what you guys like and what you’d like to see.

Ummmm… OK, so if you read my blog, then I assume you like history and traditional stuff.

I’d recommend these things:

  • Edo-Tokyo Museum
  • Ueno Park
  • Yanaka Ginza
  • Yanaka Cemetery
  • Edo Castle
  • Tōkyō Water Works Museum
  • Kōrakuen
  • Rikugien
  • Hama Rikyū Teien
  • Shiba Rikyū Teien
  • Zōjō-ji
  • Tōkyō Tower
  • Kappabashi
  • A bicycle ride along the Sumida River
  • Ride a yakatbune (party boat in Tōkyō Bay)
  • A walk from Ueno Station through Ameyoko-chō and Okachimachi to Akihabara
  • Or look through the blog for individual places you’d like to see!

Also keep in mind, there’s no “Ultimate Edo Experience.” Very little of Edo remains so you have to really go out of your way to look for it. Sometimes you have to be satisfied with a mere memorial plaque or an old stone wall. Anyways, I think I made a pretty decent list for you.

Fingers crossed!

Kuramaebashi (Kuramae Bridge)

Kuramaebashi (Kuramae Bridge)

Of All the Place Names You’ve Researched, Which Investigation Produced the Results That Excited or Surprised You the Most? What Do You Consider Your Favorite “Find?”

This is a really hard question to answer.

Recently, all the “horse” places in Setagaya blew my mind… simply because it was all a coincidence that came from a reader request. Even when I tried to quit the area, another horse related place name came up. But that’s what makes writing this blog so fun for me. I like to think I’m teaching my readers about Edo-Tōkyō but the truth is that I’m learning with you… so I hope we’re fellow travelers on this journey through history.

The crazy river series I did, despite the burn out I inflicted upon myself, is something I look back at with a certain amount of pride. The rivers come in contact with so many interesting areas and related local histories. Akihabara was interesting for me because I had no idea it was such a recent invention.

Kuramae is another favorite of mine because it changed my fundamental approach to the blog. I’m actually pretty sure that’s when all the articles started getting longer. When I wrote that article, I realized that I didn’t have to focus on etymology[xvii], but I could use etymology as a launch pad to look at the bigger picture. I think that was when I started to go into the cultural history of the area.

I feel like I’m not actually answering your question and for that I apologize. The truth is, as far as linguistics and etymology go… nothing’s shocking to me anymore. My favorite “find,” as you put it, is that people actually read the blog. Of that small group of people who follow me, a few people ask questions and suggest articles. Some even donate a dollar here and there. That’s the biggest surprise for me – far bigger than any place name.

Please Support My Blog
It Doesn’t Write Itself
 Click Here to Donate 
 Click Here to Buy Awesome Nerdy J-History Goods 


[i] Here at JapanThis! we like to use the verb “to river oneself” to describe scope creep.
[ii] My friends took German, Spanish, and French. And everyone said the teachers were strict or mean. No one took Latin, so it seemed like the safest bet.
[iii] The book was originally a companion edition to a PBS mini-series on the history of the English language.
[iv] Not what you think it means…
[v] “Where’s the old one?” I wondered…
[vi] Here is my article on the graves of the Tokugawa Shōguns.
[vii] Ieyasu (1st), Iemitsu (3rd), Ietsuna (4th), Tsunayoshi (5th), Yoshinobu (15th). There was so little information on the web at that time, that I couldn’t even figure out where the other shōguns were interred. Though I’ve been to all the sites, there are 6 graves that I haven’t actually seen with my own eyes. And by graves, I don’t mean the gate ruins. The actual graves at Kan’ei-ji are off limits to the public and photography is banned. I haven’t given up hope, though.
[viii] Mainly because I was woken up by my first earthquake.
[ix] This is an oversimplification on my part, to say the least. Also, the shōgun’s wife had an abbreviated title, 御台様 midai-sama.
[x] Another ‘modern’ concept might be “open marriage.” Though, by ‘modern’ standards, this would be a very unfair example of an open marriage.
[xi] A certain “don’t ask, don’t tell” ethos is fairly prevalent.
[xii] Ienari didn’t limit his sexual explorations to the “friendly confines” of the Ōoku. There is some corroborating evidence that he regularly summoned geisha and girls from highest end shops in 吉原 Yoshiwara to Edo Castle. I trust you know Yoshiwara. It was Edo’s licensed pleasure quarter and it spanned several city blocks. You can think of it as a sexual amusement park with kimonos.
[xiii] So I could be very wrong about the no need for certification thing…
[xiv] It was a pretty stupid system anyways and that’s why it wasn’t so literal.
[xv] This horizontal mobility still exists in some traditional Japanese companies. While American companies seek specialists, traditional Japanese companies seek to develop generalists. This is an echo of the old Japanese patriarchal system.
[xvi] I’m assuming Kyōto would have been different. Kyōto has remained somewhat crystallized since the Edo Period.
[xvii] The etymology of Kuramae is actually quite simple and well documented.

What does Kagurazaka mean?

In Japanese History on February 18, 2013 at 12:13 pm

Kagurazaka (Entertainment of the Gods Hill)

Don’t you just love these names?

Why is Kagurazaka called Kagurazaka?

Kagurazaka at night.

This one doesn’t have much of a story, but it’s definitely a cool spot in Tokyo. Kagura is a kind of Shinto ritual dance. It’s ancient and stylized and… I’ll be honest, I don’t know very much about it besides the name. If you want to learn more about it, read here: Kagura.

Anyways, the name was most likely given around the 1820’s (Edo Period) because music coming from the shrines echoed through the streets.

Why is Kagurazaka called Kagurazaka?

Kagurazaka by day.

In the Edo Period this area fell outside the very outermost boundary of Edo Castle (the present day, much diminished Imperial Palace).  As you can imagine, rich samurai and the feudal lords are the only types who could live or enjoy recreation in the areas surrounding the castle. “Kagura Hills” was just such an area. It wasn’t a “pleasure quarters” in the sense that Yoshiwara was, but it was the site of several high end shops for enjoying entertainment by Edo’s top geishas. If I’m not mistaken, the only 2 places in Tokyo where you can still see geisha are Kagurazaka and Ginza – the shops are extremely expensive. There might be some other places, but Kagurazaka is the most famous.

Why is Kagurazaka called Kagurazaka?

Feels like Edo!

The area retains some of the Edo flavor, so it’s a nice area to visit if you want to get a feel for the traditional look of Edo/Tokyo. There is a huge French ex-pat community in Kagurazaka, so if you want to get a feel for Paris, you can do that here, too…. lol

%d bloggers like this: