The strange barbers of Yoshiwara

You’ve heard of Yoshiwara, right? The old Tokyo pleasure quarter? Well, it turns out that it wasn’t just any old red light district—it was its own separate, weird society, with different laws, different social rules, and even its own language.

The reigning queens of this alternate universe were the oiran—courtesans who were so exclusive that they were only available to the wealthiest men in Edo, and so desirable, they could pick and choose who those patrons would be.

Nagato of the Owariya by Keisai Eisen
Keeping an oiran in kimonos wasn’t cheap

When a lucky patron made the cut, the deal would be sealed with a shared cup of sake—not unlike the ceremonial sips shared by a bride and groom at their wedding—and while it was understood that she required more than one patron to support herself and her attendants, he was expected to be as faithful to her as the lovesick swain he was pretending to be.

But of course, toads gonna toad. And if he got caught sneaking out of a rival pleasure house…

E-sugoroku Board of a Teahouse in the Yoshiwara by Toyohara Kunichika

Check out the scene in the upper right of this woodblock print. It’s a patron being dragged back to his oiran’s pleasure house by her attendants for a MOCK TRIAL (aided and abetted by the townsfolk, who enjoyed the spectacle as if it were the latest Netflix binge-watch).

If the guilty patron didn’t want to get dumped by his oiran, he’d have to submit to hearing his sins theatrically expounded by the pleasure house’s manager, be marched through town to the Yoshiwara shrine to repent, then swear never to do it again (sealed by generous tips all around and new outfits for all, of course).

As you can imagine, things often got a little out of hand during these proceedings (especially if the scofflaw wasn’t immediately contrite) and it was so common for a man to lose a hank of hair in the process, that there were special barber shops right outside the Yoshiwara gate: behold THE HAIR RESTORATION SPECIALIST.

Hair restoration specialist woodblock print
A hapless samurai visits the on-demand toupee maker before slinking back home

The Thing I Learned Today is a new feature I’m adding because I thought you might enjoy the truly odd nuggets I’ve been discovering amid the stack of academic tomes I’ve been reading for book research!

I learned about the mock trials and hair restoration specialists in Cecelia Segawa Seigle’s YOSHIWARA: The Glittering World of the Japanese Courtesan, published by University of Hawaii Press. The black and white woodblock print is also from that book. The top print is Nagato of the Owariya by Keisai Eisen and the pleasure house scene is E-sugoroku Board of a Teahouse in the Yoshiwara by Toyohara Kunichika.

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Jonelle Patrick writes mystery novels set in Tokyo, and blogs at Only In Japan and The Tokyo Guide I Wish I’d Had

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