Since medieval times Japan has always had some form of pleasure quarter offering various forms of entertainment, including, of course, the erotic. However, it was during the Edo period’s sakoku (1639-1854) when Japan cut off all ties with the outside world, that Japanese culture, as it is known today, flourished.
It was in these walled pleasure quarters such as Kyoto’s Shimabara, Tokyo’s Yoshiwara, and Osaka’s Shinmachi that the chonin (merchants) spent much of their time and money cultivating the arts. With carnal satisfaction guaranteed, the merchants looked for other forms of entertainment.
“The women in these guarded quarters were “playmates” (yuujo) or prostitutes (shougi). The highest ranked were called oiran or “great court ladies” (tayuu). These women were dubbed “castle-destroyers” (keisei) because their sex appeal, like the mythical beauties of history, could destroy a man as easily as any army. These courtesans wore layers of ornately decorated kimono and a multitude of lacquer and tortoiseshell combs in their hair. Their wide, brocaded obi were tied in front — not, as some suppose, because it was easier to undress that way, but because that was the practice of married women and a yuujo was, in a sense, a wife for an evening. ” (Liza Dalby)
The courtesans of the pleasure quarters were trained in various arts: music, dance and poetry as well as other forms of court entertainment that, until that time, had been reserved for nobility. As times changed so did the tastes of the customers; the formality and expense involved meant only the elite were able to patronize the Tayu (the top level courtesans).
With the change in attitudes came a new type of entertainer. It was in the early 1700s when the first male-geisha appeared on the scene. However, it was not long before some entrepreneurial female entertainers followed suit and the first women geisha, as we know them today, made their debut
Today there are only 4 remaining Tayu practicing in Kyoto (minus the sexual aspects).