Strike up a song, ladies!

“Never did I dream of finding / courtesans flowering with such beauty / amid heaps of horse manure …”

Where are we? In the heart of Edo (present-day Tokyo), in the Meiwa Era (1764-72). Humor was bawdy, song was lusty, brothels breathed elegance, courtesans were artists, sex was culture and a man — if of the right sort — could have himself quite a time of an evening and a night.

Yūkaku (licensed pleasure quarters) were an urban institution, dating back to a late 16th-century government effort to isolate prostitution. It was not wholly successful; the “flowering courtesans” song was chanted by geisha at an unlicensed brothel near the posting station at Shinjuku — hence the horse manure.

The first yūkaku was Kyoto’s. Edo’s, the famous Yoshiwara, opened in 1617. Before long, every town of any size had one. They were walled enclosures with one gate. Beyond the gate lay a world of enticement best and most frequently described as “floating.”

The “floating world” (ukiyo) of Buddhism meant sadness and insubstantiality — this earthly existence, which was as nothing. Times change, words evolve. The 17th century brought peace, commerce, prosperity, new thinking. Was life only for self-sacrifice in battle, as traditional samurai held? Was this world really a mere soap bubble, as Buddhism taught? It felt more substantial than that. Maybe it was. Was earthly pleasure really a delusion? If so, it was a very nice one. Why not stake all on it?

“There are many blossoms of great beauty — many indeed. But they cannot compare with the beauty of the blossoms of blossom town, for these blossoms also have human feelings.”

The author is anonymous; his book, a bestseller when it appeared in 1770, is titled “Yushi Hogen” (“The Playboy Dialect”). Pop culture flourished; pop novels proliferated; this one, typical of the breed, celebrates, satirizes and teaches the arcane ways of “blossom town,” aka the pleasure quarters, aka the floating world, now secularized. The “blossoms” are courtesans. Cherry blossoms haunt us with their transient beauty; courtesans are flowers of a different hue: “To use them is not to exhaust them. Spring or fall, day or night, we need never be without their fragrant loveliness.”

How the ladies felt about all this is not the tale’s concern — though a clue, perhaps, lies in a comment an apprentice courtesan makes about “the client in the next room. He tries so hard to sound witty, sophisticated — I just can’t stand him!”

He is the hero of the tale — anti-hero, rather; a down-at-heels samurai in his mid-30s, trying pathetically hard to impress not only the courtesans but also a young companion, a disciple of sorts, a rich merchant’s son. The older man little suspects how hollow his ersatz chic rings. His speech bristles with Yoshiwara slang; he greets every passerby as a personal acquaintance; he knows everyone and everything; he delivers connoisseur harangues on all the brothels, teahouses, tobacco shops, fashions, kabuki actors — in short he’s a crashing bore.

To shine in the quarter a man needs a special quality. Its Japanese name is tsū (sophistication), and he who possesses it is a tsūjin, a man of tsū. He is the sort to whom the courtesan gives not only her body but her heart. A man lacking in tsū cuts a pitiable figure. He’d do better perhaps in Shinjuku, where the etiquette is less demanding — and the pleasures, presumably, less worthy of the religious imagery that writers of the day lavished on the quarters.

Let us follow, then, our two seekers of love as they make their way through the intricacies of an evening of amorous adventure and misadventure, so different from those of our day and yet, how different, after all?

They meet by chance in the street one early winter evening. The author helps us picture them. The “Honda hairstyle” is the rage: short ponytail swept up over a shaven pate. Into the sash binding each man’s kimono is a short sword — a fashion accessory, not a weapon.

“I was hoping,” says the older man, “to get you to come view the autumn leaves with me at Shotoji temple.” Translation: Let’s spend the night at Yoshiwara, the Shotoji being in the quarter’s vicinity.

They engage a boatman. Boats plied the Sumida River. Numerous docks served the quarter. You directed the boatman depending on where in the quarter you wanted to go. At the boathouse inn you had a smoke and freshened up a bit. Then you set out on foot — past a nearby crematorium. Don’t let it dampen your spirits. “Even a corpse smells good,” says the tsūjin to the youth, “when you smell it at the embankment” on the way to the pleasures of the quarter. A dab of saliva on the tip of the nose was said to muffle the odor.

Once past the gate, your first stop was a teahouse. The teahouses mediated between clients and courtesans. Our pseudo-tsūjin regales the proprietress with what he supposes is witty badinage. She rolls her eyes — and deals him a dreadful humiliation. “Kato’s been staying at my place lately,” he says, dropping the name of a famous ballad chanter. “Mr. Kato has been here since yesterday evening,” retorts the proprietress crisply. The tsūjin, momentarily flummoxed, rallies: “It must have been a ghost!”

The courtesans were elaborately ranked in a strict hierarchy. Their ranks fixed the number of rooms they occupied in their respective establishments, the number of futon they slept on, the degree of choice they had regarding who they entertained and, of course, the price they commanded. Below them were the apprentice courtesans, mere children, serving their “older sisters” while taking lessons in the arts and studying the craft they would grow into.

The girl who “can’t stand” the pseudo-tsūjin is an apprentice. The night turns out badly for our hero. “This girlie here hardly poked out her little mug the entire night!” he exclaims in disgust to his younger friend — who, it seems, did much better.

Michael Hoffman’s latest book is “Cipangu, Golden Cipangu: Essays in Japanese History.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.