Geisha vs. Oiran: The Characteristics of the Japanese Courtesans - Vikingess Voyages

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Geisha vs. Oiran: The Characteristics of the Japanese Courtesans

The Tsubame Sakura festival in Bunsui. 
From the Tsubame Tourism Assoication
Japan is a country of some very distinct traditions, and one thing that might come to mind when thinking about this far-east country is the graceful Japanese courtesan ladies. That is especially the case for the Japanese Geisha, as these courtesans were made famous through the movie “Memoirs of a Geisha” from 2005. There are however another type of Japanese courtesan ladies that hold at least as much history as the Geisha, namely the Oiran (花魁). Some of you might be wondering what the difference is between an Oiran and a Geisha, and although they might appear similar at a first glance there are a few important things that sets them apart.


Although the Geisha are more well-known in Western countries the role and position of the two courtesans used to be very different. The Oiran tradition flourished back in the early Edo period (1600-1868), a time where they were seen as entertainers and superstars. The Geisha on the other hand were held in the background and dressed restraint in order for them to not be in competition with the Oiran, and the Oiran profession is thus in a sense the forerunner of the Geisha. The Oiran were educated women who were masters of a wide range of traditional arts, and highly respected for their profession. Back in the days a night with an Oiran would cost as much as one year’s salary for a commoner, but even if you could afford it the Oiran was still free to reject a customer if he was deemed unworthy. 

The Oiran profession has however died out, and unlike Geishas there are no professional working Oiran left in Japan today. The Oiran tradition does however live on even today through Oiran Dochu (おいらん道中) parades. During their primetime the Oiran ladies used to do daily parades around their district, which in a sense functioned as a sort of advertisement for their services. Oiran Dochu parades are still held throughout the country mostly as parts of local festivals, and the most famous among these are Asakusa’s Edo Yoshiwara Oiran Dochu (江戸吉原おいらん道中) and the Tsubame Sakura Festival (つばめ桜祭り)’s Oiran Dochu in Niigata.

So what is it that physically distinguishes an Oiran from a Geisha?

The Kimono

From my Oiran costplay experience
The Geisha is dressed modestly, and her kimono is not supposed to be too flashy. The Oiran is on the other hand supposed to attract customers, and her kimono is made to get her the attention. She is extravagantly dressed, typically in a kimono with patterns in gold and with strong vivid colours. The quality of the kimonos is also different. While the Geisha traditionally wore kimonos of cheaper materials the Oiran wear a kimono made of the purest silk. And then comes all the layers! The Tayuu (太夫) is the highest-ranked Oiran, and in addition to the kimono she also wears a special obi called uchikake which is tied at the front. Her full attire can weigh about 20 kilos, so as you can imagine she has to be physically strong as well.

The Hair

The part about Geisha ladies dressing modestly is also the case for her hairstyle; She traditionally would wear a simple wig without any accessories. The Oiran on the other hand has her hair filled with ornamental hairpins (kanzashi) and other golden coloured accessories. Her katsura wig also has a special bow shape that helps distinguish her from the Geisha. Her katsura weigh around 10 kilos, which brings the total weight of the Oiran outfit to around 30 kilos.

The Geta (Shoes)

While both Geisha and Oiran ladies walk around in the distinct Japanese wooden geta shoes there is a big difference in how tall the shoes are. The geta worn by a Geisha do not differ that much from regular shoes in terms of hight, but the geta shoes of the Oiran are about 15 cm tall. This is to ensure that the Oiran ladies are the tallest in the Oiran Dochu parades and to make them more visible to the audience. The Oiran also walk in a particular style knows as Soto-Hachi-Monji (外八文字 - "Outside 8 sign"), and her walking style is considered a type of art in itself.
(I've written about this topic in the post Tsubame Sakura Matsuri Oiran Dochu: The Soto-Hachimonji (外八文字) - How to Walk like an Oiran ).

The Feet

Back in the Edo period it was not common for ladies to show off their bare skin in pubic. While the Geisha ladies wore white socks known as tabi to cover up, the Oiran women didn’t wear anything except their geta. This both showed their endurance during the cold winter, and at the same time made men go crazy just by sight of the bare skin. But even here the Oiran ladies didn’t go completely without cover; instead their bare skin was painted white, which also was the case for any part of their bodies that was not covered in cloth.

Video about Oiran from ONLY in JAPAN

This post is a part of my series about the Tsubame Sakura Festival where I will participate in the Oiran Dochu as the Sakura Tayuu (桜太夫) Oiran on April 17th 2016. All blogpost about this topic can be found in the links below.

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About Anette
Anette came to Japan as an exchange student in 2010, met the love of her life and got stuck. From her base in Tokyo she writes about her experiences as a full-time worker in Tokyo and about her travels in Japan and abroad. She's a free-spirited adventurer who enjoys both the great outdoors and her urban lifestyle.

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About Me

Adventures ofAnette

A modern day shield-maiden who loves to explore the unbeaten paths of the world. From her base in Tokyo, Anette takes on both rural and urban challenges, and goes by the motto "No challenge too big, no adventure too small"!
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