Shortly after reading Memoirs of a Geisha in highschool, I was trying to explain to a friend the difference between Oiran, Geisha, and Tayuu. This particular friend, who happens to have an aptitude for bawdy lyrics summarized my explanation with the following.
Tokyo ghetto whore
Get a little less, pay a little more
When she's out goin' on the hunt
Gotta remember: tie kimono at the front.
She's a ten-yen Tokyo ghetto whore...
Aside from the price (which might not be so off given inflation), she got a lot of things right. A lot of the time, when we see pictures Japanese Jolly Ladies, we tend to peg them all as "geisha". Given that geisha have been romanticized since Commodore Perry stormed into Tokyo Bay, and that quite a few ten-yen Tokyo Ghetto Whores claimed to be geisha whilst having a good time with American GIs during WWII, it's not surprising that we make this mistake.
Geisha, however, are not prostitutes. Their job was similar to that of today's hostess club hostesses: entertain male clients with talk, games, music and dancing. Sex might happen on the side for a little extra, but it wasn't in the official job description..at least for the city geisha. The Japanese themselves tended to blurr the lines between geisha and prostitutes in more rural areas. Sex was part of the contract for geisha at the hotsprings, for example. Anyone wanting to know about this should read Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata.
Many of the dolls and pictures we see, and some of the more diabolical looking women in ukiyoe are Oiran. Oiran are very, very classy hookers, and the highest ranked among them were the Tayuu. They had to be talented artists and dancers, but sex was definitely a big part of the job description. And it didn't come cheap. You can spot an oiran because she has her kimono tied in the front, and her elaborate hairdo is a virtual pincushion for things that dangle and jingle and stick out at odd angles. Her hair is often done up in a structure resembling butterfly wings (which was supposed to remind men of certain things), and her geta (shoes) are so tall that one famous Oiran of the Edo period became famous for her peculiar walk--swinging her legs out to the side in order to accommodate her shoes in her tight kimono. Oiran almost always have bare feet in the pictures and prints that you see of them. The purpose was to remind men that beneath the elaborate clothing, big hair, and thick makeup was a real woman....and SEX. TO. BE. HAD.
For some modernized oiran with unconventional hair colours, go here.
For more information on geisha (and the forums from which I stole that picture) click here.
For some vintage pictures of oiran, go here.
To see the full sized versions of the above pictures, click on them. They're worth it.