Oiran, Shibari, Nyotaimori: Taking a peek into Japanese kink
I was in Tokyo when a friend of mine asked me if I wanted to see Tokyo nightlife and visit its pleasure district. I was a newlywed at the time and I was sure my husband would go bananas if I ever strayed into such places, so I had to decline her offer. My friend is a Japanese-American who was in Tokyo to connect with her roots and to study Kinbaku, the Japanese bondage art. It wasn't until years later I became curious about Tokyo's akasen - red-light district - called Yoshiwara, when I was researching for my shunga books. The history behind it fascinated me. So I hunted my kinky friend who had become a celebrated bondage model, and she agreed to help me with my research. I regretted not taking her up on the offer to visit Yoshiwara years ago. It would have been an interesting experience to see one of the oldest Japanese pleasure districts.
Yoshiwara has been around since the shogunate era. The second Tokugawa Shogun, Hidetada, issued an order to restrict prostitution into designated districts: Yoshiwara for Edo (Tokyo), Shinmaci for Osaka, and Shimabara for Kyoto. The original Yoshiwara was burned down by the great fire around 1600, rebuilt, and relocated to a new location in the outskirts of the city. During the Tokugawa era, samurai were discouraged to go in there but it didn't deter them from visiting Yoshiwara for a night of pleasure. The district wasn't exclusively running on sex trade; they also offered many entertainments such as Kabuki (Japanese theater), teashops, and bathhouses.
One thing that intrigued me the most from the old time Yoshiwara was the hierarchy of the courtesan. They were called yūjo or woman of pleasure. These yujo were usually sold into prostitution by their parents or family at a very tender age. These girls were then trained and, when they were old enough, they became prostitutes to climb their rank: kamuro, shinzō, hashi-jōro, kōshi-jōro, and if they were lucky enough, they could become tayū or castle-toppers like oiran, courtesan worthy for daimyo. Not all women or young men who went into prostitution were sold by their family. Women who had been convicted by the government for crimes they'd committed often had to spend their punishment in brothels. They lived in seirō houses and were supervised by Madame chaperones called yarite. The security in Yoshiwara back then was strict to prevent the courtesans from escaping the district.
My book Flight of the Heron took place in the Genroku period, around 1689 of our calendar. My heroine, Lady Yukiko Kinshiro, was on a quest to avenge her sister's death, but helplessly fell in love with a daimyo (Japanese feudal overlord) who was rumored to be responsible for her sister's death. Yukiko went undercover as a tayū, or Lady of the First Class Rank, to ensnare patronage of Lord Matsushita in order to kill him. A daimyo at that time was always surrounded by his samurai retainers. Assassinating a man in his rank wasn't an easy task. Problems arose when Yukiko found out that Matsushita wasn't the man he was rumored to be, and she started having doubts whether he was really responsible for her sister's death.
When I did my research for Flight of Heron, I stumbled upon how rich and intriguing the sexual training of these courtesans was. I honestly think the sex workers nowadays wouldn't know half of the knowledge of these yūjos. Among the banquet of kinkiness, I chose to feature a lot of bondage play in this story. In this era, rope play wasn't as widely popular as it is in the present day. Kinbaku or Japanese bondage art was derived from Hojōjutsu, or the traditional Japanese martial art to restrain people using cord or rope. The term Shibari wasn't popular until the late 90s to describe the art of Kinbaku. Shibari in Japanese means “to tie or to bind.” A person who ties the bottom is called nawashi or ropemaster. My friend confided to me that she prefers Shibari better than the western bondage because Shibari isn't just aesthetically beautiful with all those knots and decorative bindings (nawakeshou), but the pressure and strain of the ropes on the breasts or genitals heighten the pleasure as well.
Besides bondage play, I also featured food-play in one of the sex scenes. My friend is also a nyotaimori model, catering for private parties. Nyotaimori, or female body presentation, is practice of serving sushi or sashimi from a naked female body. She would lie for hours on the table while her clients, who are usually CEO or big shots with money to blow, feast food from her body. Her clients aren't allowed to talk to her; they can only eat and admire her as an object of art. She did allow, however, some clients, usually the ones she liked, for a wakame-sake, or drinking sake from her pubis. I feature this practice in the Flight of the Heron because I thought this kink is very sexy. She told me some men have this fetish because they found sake that has comingled with a woman's sexual moisture and body temperature tasted even better than sake straight from the flask. Crazy, don't you think?
I certainly learned a lot from her by the time I finished my research. She invited me for a nyotaimori party the next time I visit Tokyo. I will definitely go for it. Who knows, my husband might get a kick from it and inspire him with a few ideas for our next, ahem, rendezvous. *huge grin*