the procession of courtesans & other tokyo things

This morning, I activated my JR Pass and headed for Tokyo station to catch a train to Sendai. We’re currently going through Tochigi, and I have some time to write about the weekend in Tokyo.

On Friday, I decided to catch up on work and managed to finish 3 assignments, so it was a fairly productive day. I spent the morning in the upstairs workspace of Onibus Coffee in Nakameguro. It was lovely to work while watching trains go by outside the window. 

In the afternoon, I moved to work at the Daikanyama T-Site. T-Site is a massive Tsutaya bookshop/café where you can read books and magazines without buying them (and it’s open till 2am). I spent hours there continuing to work while taking breaks to look at photography books and domestic travel magazines. I was able to read a long photo article about Shiga Lieko’s Human Spring series, which is currently exhibited in the Tokyo Photography Museum - very interesting work.

On the way to the T-Site, I walked through Saigouyama park, which still had some lovely cherry blossoms blooming. Along Meguro river, one of the prime hanami spots of Tokyo, the blossoms were mostly gone, but the spring festival signs were still stubbornly hanging onto the season. I also saw the new four-storey Starbucks Roastery, along with its ridiculous queue managed by traffic guards.

On Saturday, I was excited to go see a traditional matsuri dedicated to oiran, high-class courtesans of the Edo period. Occurring near Yoshiwara shrine (Yoshiwara was the most famous red-light district of Edo Tokyo), it’s an annual parade of people dressing as oiran and their escorts, including creatures like kappa and kitsune.

The festival is called Ichiyou Sakura (一葉桜), but the parade itself is called Oiran Douchuu (花魁道中) or ‘the procession of courtesans’ in reference to an old Yoshiwara tradition. Apparently, the oiran used to make a big deal of ‘parading’ to meet their regular clients to bring them back to their brothel, which is where the term Oiran Douchuu comes from. I think it’s an interesting bit of history!

In the morning, I walked up along Sumida river to get to the matsuri neighbourhood, enjoying the beautiful weather.

Just one block away from the festival, there was a new vegan curry restaurant called PQ’s I wanted to check out. It turned out to be a great decision, because the food was delicious, and I met some interesting people there (definitely recommend going!).

The lunch set was only 1200 yen, and it included absolutely beautiful and delicious appetisers of agedashi tofu, edamame tofu with soy meat, and beetroot hummus. The curry of the day was also beetroot and perfectly balanced with mellow and spicy flavours.

The owners were very friendly, and I started talking with the 2 other people sitting on the counter - Hiroshi, a middle-aged local guy, and Mary, a girl from New York who was also travelling alone. After our meal, we decided to go see the matsuri together. The local guy had a friend participating in the parade (it has nothing to do with her day job - he didn’t know how one ends up with this hobby either), and he was pretty knowledgeable about it. He explained that oiran were considered fashion icons/trend-setters of their time, and the costumes were certainly eye-catching.

After the parade was over, me and Mary said goodbye to Hiroshi and headed to the Tokyo Coffee Festival, which was happening down in Aoyama. I’d visited the autumn edition of the festival back in 2017 and really enjoyed drinking lots of samples and buying drip bags to take home, but this time, it was too crowded to be any fun. Maybe because of the nice spring weather, it was so busy we couldn’t even move, and long queues snaked around all the stalls. It was nice to see that so many people are into coffee, but we gave up pretty quickly and just headed to the Shibuya branch of Streamer to get our caffeine fix instead.

I suggested to Mary that I could show her around Shimokitazawa, since it’s full of interesting thrift shops. She was up for it, so I got the perfect excuse to wander around my old neighbourhood. It hadn’t changed that much, although three of my favourite places had closed down (Una Casita fruit/vegetable shop, Ume:Labo ume shop, and Les Enfants du Paradis cinema bar). Well, that’s just life.

We spent hours looking around thrift/vintage shops without going through nearly all of them. We finally ended up drinking Hanami Hai (shochu-based cocktails with salty pickled sakura flowers) and umeshu at Mother. It was a really nice evening, and I enjoyed having someone to talk to about all kinds of things.

Yesterday was my last day in Tokyo (for a while), and I switched to a cheaper hostel in Kanda, within walking distance to Tokyo station. I’d been planning to go to Kamakura spring matsuri, but I slept in, and the whole hostel transfer process took some time, so it ended up being a bit too late to go. Thankfully, the location of this new hostel was perfect for walking around.

I spent the afternoon reading at Glitch, one of my favourite cafés which was just a couple of blocks away from the hostel; visiting the East Gardens of the Imperial Palace (somehow I never realised before that they’re there and free to enter - it was a really tranquil place); walking around the pre-Raphaelite exhibition at Mitsubishi Ichigoukan museum (in the brick square that used to be called, somewhat hyperbolically, ‘little London’); and wandering around the streets of Ginza as it was getting dark.

I popped into the Good Design store in Marunouchi, which usually exhibits objects that have been awarded the ‘good design’ award; but this time, they were exhibiting the design of an organisation instead - that is, of the Otera Oyatsu Club, which distributes foodstuffs and other donations from temples to children in need. 

The organisation has been awarded the Good Design Grand Award 2018 for doing ‘socially relevant, timely, inspiring and outstanding ‘ work in uniting people to provide communal welfare. This exhibition space is usually pretty busy, but now there was just one person visiting besides me. I talked to the organiser, who said people are deterred from coming in because it seems off-puttingly religious.

From Marunouchi, I walked to Ginza through Yuurakuchou, which has changed a lot! When I was doing my internship last year, the office where I worked was quite close to here, so I often walked around the area on my lunch break. There were lots of shiny new buildings. I went to the 8th floor of the OIOI to see a ‘Tokyo Tarareba’ exhibition, which was kind of fun - I haven’t even read the manga, but I enjoyed the TV drama.

After returning to the street level, I walked around Ginza for a couple of hours, nipping in a coffee shop to read and write a poem. I then took the train a few stations up and returned to the hostel via a supermarket (it was late enough to find a half-price dinner). All in all, it was a very good weekend that reminded me why I love Tokyo so much - you just never run out of things to do, see and learn.

Kaisa Saarinen