Updated February, 2023
Welcome to Tokyo
There’s an intersection in Shimbashi that is a microcosm of Tokyo. On the four corners are a FamilyMart, a pachinko parlor, an old mall, and a Kentucky Fried Chicken…and often a handful of Chinese prostitutes. In September 2011, when I first moved to Japan, I was walking through Shimbashi on my way home from work. Rounding the corner from Sotobori Dori 外堀通り I saw a woman standing on the sidewalk, facing the street. As I passed she said ‘ma-sāji’ (massage), the universal Asian word for trouble. I had been living in Japan for just 3 days and knew virtually nothing of Tokyo, but based on this experience I figured I was in for quite an adventure.
Shimbashi 新橋 (or Shinbashi) has a reputation as a salaryman サラリーマン neighborhood, which means lots of izakaya 居酒屋 and ramen shops. This is no Ginza. There are no fancy shops, just cozy places to eat and drink and some hostess clubs to keep workers happy before their long commute home. And of course, there’s the prostitutes. On occasion I’ve walked through here soon after last train. The streets were nearly empty save for a few dozen women lining the sidewalks near the station (all of whom presumably involved in the sex trade). Note 1
Despite my early encounter in Shimbashi, I do not consider Tokyo a “gritty” city; sure, many of the backstreets and remote areas have tired, older buildings, but there is surprisingly little crime, the people are too well dressed, and the streets are generally clean. So I was surprised when I first read about a “gritty” neighborhood called Sanya 山谷 in the north of Tokyo. According to the post,
“Sanya is not on maps, nor on tourist guides. Asking for directions doesn’t help much. Try asking if you are already in Sanya; you will get no for an answer. Most locals claim that it’s a little further away from where they live or do business. In the hotel industry, the “north of Asakusa” response is strongly preferred. Minami-Senju on the Hibiya subway line is the closest station.“ (Note 2)
So where is Sanya? Wikipedia describes it as south of the Namida-Bashi 泪橋 intersection (map). This description is consistent with a map of Tokyo after 1923 from Edward Seidensticker’s biography of Nagai Kafū 永井 荷風 (below, left). In this map, Sanya is bound by the Sumida river to the east, a wide road to the north, the district of Imado 今戸 to the south, and by Yoshiwara and the Sanya canal to the west. The Namida-Bashi 泪橋 intersection is located above the “S” in Sanya.
Applying these boundaries to a 2013 map (below, right), Sanya is roughly represented by the label “Kiyokawa” 清川 and also fills the area to the west until Ryusen 竜泉 and Minowa 三ノ輪. Same as in the 1923 map, the Sumidagawa is to the east, the wide road (Meiji Dori 明治道り) is to the north, Imado is to the south, and Yoshiwara is to the west (more about this later). The Sanya canal was filled-in long ago, but its path is described by the road that runs from Minowa station southeast to the Sumida river, near Kuritsu Sumida Park.
With the intention of visiting, I asked my co-worker if she knew about Sanya, which I described as “a gritty neighborhood north of Asakusa and south of Minamisenju”. She didn’t know Sanya, but she told me about Yoshiwara 吉原 (Note 3), the Edo-era “pleasure district” that is immediately to the west of Sanya (see map above, left). She and her husband visited it on a whim and were surprised to see evidence of the sex trade everywhere. She also assured me that her visit was a G-rated excursion.
Yoshiwara, circa 1890
Yoshiwara was established in 1617 with the goal of restricting prostitution to certain parts of Tokyo. When it relocated to its current location in 1675, it was bound on four sides by a moat, accessible by two entry points, the Great Gate in the east (O-mon 大門, approximately here; shown on Google Maps as “Remains of Yoshiwara Ohmon 吉原大門跡”), and the Suido-jiri 水道尻, in the west (approximately here). The western gate was was subsequently closed (Note 4), which can be seen in the above map, depicting Yoshiwara in the 1890s (source).
Yoshiwara isn’t an official address, but it is easier to find than Sanya. It almost perfectly corresponds to today’s Senzoku 4-Chōme in Tōkyō Taitō-ku 東京都台東区千束４丁目 (map). The following map from 1892 (below, left) depicts a tightly-packed grid, tilted at an 45-degree angle from north-south. Today, the same square grid exists. (Note 5)
And remarkably, the zig-zagging street that approaches the eastern gate (below, left) can be clearly seen in today’s street layout (below, right).
Of course, although the street layout is virtually unchanged, the removal of the moats has obviated the role of the eastern gate (below, left). Today there is no clear threshold commemorating your entry into the Yoshiwara (below, right).
Circa 1896, the journalist and diplomat Wlliam Eleroy Curtis (1, 2) wrote The Yankees of the East: Sketches of Modern Japan, and described Yoshiwara in the following way:
“On one side of the entrance to the principal yoshiwara in Tokyo is a large weeping willow tree. On the other side is a sentry box for the shelter of the police – both having peculiar significance. The streets are wide and well paved. The houses are larger, costlier and of better construction than prevail throughout the city outside. Most of them are of stone or brick, with much adornment, wide porches, pillars, verandas, cupolas and towers. In the center of the main street is a line of booths that are occupied at night by hucksters who sell charms and cheap jewelry, confectionery, fruit, flowers and plants, ribbons, laces, and other knick-knacks which a visitor would think appropriate to purchase as presents for the woman he has come to see.”
The third name in this web of grittiness is Senzoku (Note 6). According to Nightless City – Or, the “History of the Yoshiwara Yakwaku” by an English student of sociology (1899) (page 16), the new Yoshiwara of 1657 is described as being situated “at a place formerly known as Senzoku-mura and is only a few cho distant from the Asakusa-ji (temple)”. To add some perspective, Yoshiwara only refers to the canal-enclosed grid of prostitution described above, while Senzoku refers to the district that includes Yoshiwara as well as the surrounding land to the west. Immediately to the east of Senzoku (and Yoshiwara) is Sanya.
Today, Sanya is probably better known for its grittiness, but Senzoku holds its own. It is referenced by the great Japanese novelist, Jun’ichirō Tanizaki 谷崎 潤一郎, in his 1924 comic masterpiece Naomi 痴人の愛 (“A Fool’s Love”). One thing I find interesting about Naomi is its depiction of social class. From my perspective as an outsider, Japan has seemed less divided by class than, say, the United States or England. However, Tanizaki’s Senzoku is a place where nurture trumps nature; the title character is defined by her upbringing. Tanizaki writes:
“anyone will be able to guess what kind of family hers was, if he considers that her home was in Senzoku, that she was sent out to be a cafe hostess at the age of fifteen, and that she didn’t want anyone to see where she lived. Not only that: when I finally prevailed and met her mother and brother, they weren’t at all concerned about the girl’s chastity.” (Naomi, page 14).
If you’ve never read a Japanese novel, you can’t go wrong starting with Naomi. Described by some as the “Japanese Lolita” (it pre-dates Nabokov’s book by 35 years), it is funny, insightful, and full of observations about Japan’s uneasy westernization in the early 20th-century (in addition to its central story of sexual/romantic obsession).
Yoshiwara and the Tokyo bordello 吉原炎上
Having read about Senzoku in Naomi and having heard about Yoshiwara from my coworker, I was more than ready to visit this part of town. Coincidentally I first watched Tokyo Bordello 吉原炎上 a 1987 film about a girl sold into prostitution by her father. The film, set in 1908 Yoshiwara, seduced me with its lush costumes and elaborate re-creation of the Yoshiwara prior to the 1913 fire and the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923. Stills from Tokyo Bordello:
The film gives the impression of a moving series of historical photographs, particularly when depicting women on display behind wooden bars, as seen in these photographs from the 1890’s (sources: Wikipedia, below left, Nightless City, page 112, below right)
A walk in the sex park
When I asked my coworker how to get to Yoshiwara she said “go to Minowa station, then walk south”, which is exactly what my friends and I did on a sunny day in May. After leaving Minowa station we walked half a block east then due south for several blocks. This was not very interesting, and my friends were questioning what we were doing in this part of town. Fortunately we came across a museum (map) commemorating the short life of Higuchi Ichiyo 樋口 一葉, the first prominent woman writer in modern Japan (and face of the 5000-yen bill). The museum, located where Ichiyo once lived, is just a few blocks north of Yoshiwara, which inspired some of her best work. The museum includes maps and a scale model of the old Yoshiwara district (Note 7). From the museum we walked south and entered modern Yoshiwara here: map.
The atmosphere changed immediately upon entering Yoshiwara. On both sides of the street were garish soaplands ソープランド, their hourly prices clearly displayed. Virtually every storefront was a soapland or other business in the sex trade. The bouncers either ignored us or gave us mildly unwelcoming looks, and I felt sufficiently uncomfortable that I didn’t take any photographs. I’m relying on my friend, Google streetview, for the following:
It was fascinating to see that Yoshiwara performs the same function it did 350 years-ago. Today, the women don’t face the street behind wooden cages, but the soaplands make themselves known with gaudy decor and terrifically funny names like Tinker Bell, Companion Club Part II, Cordon Blue, Candy Girl, and Picasso.
In contrast to these playful names, we saw a sobering reminder of the human impact of the sex-trade. At the southern border of Yoshiwara is Sasaki Clinic 佐々木医院, which specializes in venereal disease 性病科, obstetrics and gynecology 産婦人科, and gynecology 婦人科. In Japan, the first hospital for the treatment of venereal diseases of prostitutes was established in Yokohama in September 1867, and in 1873 in Yoshiwara (Nightless City, page 227). When first introduced, the prostitutes were so averse that brothel-keepers suspended the physical inspections. One hopes there is less debate on the matter today.
Because nothing spoils the mood like venereal disease, I’ll end the post here. Which reminds me, I never did make it to Sanya.
DIRECTIONS and NOTES (closest stations to Yoshiwara)
See the following post for walking directions from Minowa Station 三ノ輪駅, Asakusa Station, and JR Uguisudani Station 鶯谷駅: Yoshiwara, North Asakusa and Sanya maps 吉原と北部浅草と山谷マップ
Note 1: Kabukichō 歌舞伎町 (map) is the most well-known red-light district in Tokyo, though it seems to be undergoing some gentrification, most conspicuously with the Toho Cinemas Shinjuku entertainment complex. I’ve also seen prostitution in Gotanda 五反田. My most memorable encounter was at 5 a.m. after leaving Womb, the famous Shibuya dance club. On the walk down the hill to Shibuya station I passed dozens of prostitutes, even as the sky was beginning to brighten. The women seemed more motivated to make a sale than usual, in some cases advertising “se-xu” instead of ma-sāji.
Note 2: According to a comment form ‘Beelzebub’, “The place got the name Sanya from the Sanya-bori canal that flows into the Sumida River, which was filled in long ago. The name Sanya was certainly not “taken away 40 years ago.” It can be found on page 142 of the Tokyo Road Map by Jinbunsha (2001 edition), which clearly shows a “Sanya Koban-mae” at an intersection on Yoshino-dori one block south from Meiji-dori.”
Note 3: Nightless City, page 9: “Owing to the number of rushes which had grown thereabout the place was re-named Yoshiwara (Rush-moor) but this was afterwards changed to Yoshi-wara (Moor of Good luck) in order to give the locality an auspicious name.
Note 4: Nightless City, page 31: “Formerly the streets of theYoshiwara were laid out in the shape of a cross, but afterwards one of theentranceswas closed, changing the cross into a shape like that of the Chinese character “Cho”…nowadays people speak of going to theYoshiwara as “nakayeyuku” (to go “inside”).
Note 5: Yoshiwara is technically “Shin-Yoshiwara”, or New Yoshiwara. According Nightless City, page 16 ” Shin-Yoshiwara ” (New Yoshiwara) was so named in contra-distinction to ” Moto-Yoshiwara ” (former Yoshiwara). It is situated at a place formerly known as Senzoku-mura and is only a few chu distant from the Asakusa-ji (temple). (page 16)
Note 6: The Senzoku 千束 district north of Asakusa should not be confused with the leafy, upscale Senzoku 洗足 in the Meguro section of Tokyo.
Note 7: An interesting item in the museum describes how houses of prostitution in Yoshiwara were often named ‘Turkish baths’ until the mid-1980s. One soapland was even named “Embassy”. Rumor has it that the phone book had a listing for “Turkish (bath) embassy” 「トルコ（風呂）・大使館」 near the listing for the real Turkish Embassy 「トルコ大使館」. This was an embarrassment to the Turkish embassy, which successfully lobbied the Japanese government to abolish the name. Source: Bathing and embassy お風呂と大使館. According to tokyonightstyle [dot] com, a trustworthy Japanese escort directory (?):
“due to pressure from a Turkish scholar in 1984. The new name ” Soapland ” was selected after a nationwide competition was held, with the winner taking home a three-day holiday to Hokkaido.“
Other picture of Tokyo, before and after: Tokyo then-and-now: an anthology
- This is my neighborhood in Tokyo. (Dylan Levi King)
“Gritty” neighborhoods in the Asakusa and North Asakusa area:
- The banks of the Sumidagawa, near Asakusa, used to be home to a community of “ragpickers”; see post, Satoko Kitahara, Maria of Ants Town 蟻の町のマリア
- Sanya: A travel guide to Tokyo’s coolest ghetto
- Sanya, home to Tokyo’s day labourers and dispossessed
- North Asakusa and Sanya maps 北部浅草マップ
Yoshiwara & Prostitution
- Nightless Cities. Timing the Pleasure Quarters in Early Modern Japan
- Tokyo’s dark underbelly: The poor. The drunk. The destitute. (May 2012 – pictures of Sanya)
- Photo of Yoshiwara girls
- The Nightless City: Or, The History of the Yoshiwara Yūkwaku
- Japanese Attitudes Toward Prostitution (photos 1948-1951)
- 2020 Olympics may KO Tokyo’s Yoshiwara brothel quarter
- Perhaps a sign of the gentrification of Yoshiwara: 岡野弥生商店 / Shin-Yoshiwara is a gift shop that sells Yoshiwara-inspired souvenirs (map) (website)
- A Shin-Yoshiwara brand tenugui:
Higuchi Ichiyo 樋口 一葉
Irohakai Shotengai Shopping Street
- Irohakai Shotengai in Sanya (the roof of this shopping street was removed around 2017).
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Fascinating read. My knowledge of Yoshiwara has to date been limited to the romantic (though also sometimes erotic) images of Ukiyo-e.