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Monday, September 11, 2017

The Floating Worlds of Shimabara

島原

Set in a sea of rice fields, the pleasure quarters of Shimabara (Isle of Fields) were once surrounded by a moat and wall. Women entered the west or east gates often never to reemerge, remaining within as virtual captives to provide their guests with a variety of pleasures.

The Floating Worlds of Shimabara.


In Japan, there were four such districts licensed under the watchful eye of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Unlike its counterparts in Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagasaki, however, Shimabara boasted a special class of women trained in all the traditional arts: known as tayu, their beauty and refinement were legendary, and were even said to surpass those of the geisha.

The origin of the word tayu is obscure. One theory is that the title derived from an appellation and ranking that, centuries ago, was conferred on members of the court who were accomplished in the arts.

Later, the name was bestowed on artistically-gifted commoners who entertained the aristocrats. Another theory holds that the women who eventually became tayu were daughters or wives of noble households that had fallen on hard times and had turned to artistic pursuits to support themselves. Whichever story is the real one, the fact is that tayu were accorded fifth rank status in the court's five-tiered hierarchy.

Like geisha, tayu also drink with their guests; unlike geisha, they may refuse an offer of alcohol. They can even refuse to serve a guest. This latter privilege is exercised through an ingenious ceremony called kashi no shiki.

By the light of two candles, the tayu greets her guests. Picking up an empty lacquered sake cup, she raises it so that the bottom of the shallow vessel is clearly reflected in the candlelight. She then returns it to its tray and slowly leaves the room. If the assembled guests have met her standards, she returns, but if one among them has somehow displeased her, she does not show her face again.

What happens if one guest, favored by a tayu's company, asks for more personal favors? She excuses herself from the room and dresses herself in all her finery. Her hair adorned with ornaments, her brocade obi tied in the most elaborate bow, and a heavy silk outer garment draped over her shoulders, she reenters accompanied by two hand-maidens.

In her most imposing manner, she announces that if he is willing to assume responsibility for her upkeep and all that it entails, negotiations may proceed. "Needless to say, this offer is almost always declined," Hana Ogi added with a slight smile.

Hana Ogi's costumes belong to Wachigai-ya and are on average 200 years old. Such silk weaves cannot be purchased today, nor are the hair ornaments readily available. A tayu's attire, composed of layer upon layer of gorgeous silk, and her hairdo take hours to prepare. Hana Ogi claims that although the outfit is heavy - the hair ornaments weigh about five or six kilograms and the robes about twenty-five - she is quite fast: it only takes her about an hour to get dressed. One must learn not only how to move gracefully when so clothed, but how to dance as well!

Given the arcane knowledge required of tayu, it is hardly surprising that their numbers are so scarce. "We had a newcomer, a woman from Kobe, but she only lasted about a year," Hana Ogi admitted. "Many young women want to try on the robes and hair ornaments and just look the part without undergoing the disciplines of dance and tea ceremony and so on. The sacrifices that this work requires aren't easily borne by today's young women."

Perhaps the dedication needed to pursue this life is already a thing of the past. Certainly, without an extremely wealthy patron, one could not possibly follow its prohibitively expensive dictates. Or was there another side to this world that we weren't grasping?

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