Utagawa Kunisada 歌川国貞 / Toyokuni III 三代歌川豊国 (1786–1865)
From the series Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō with Beauties
Japan, Edo period (1615–1868), 1848
Woodblock print; ink and color on paper
Gift of Dr. & Mrs. C. M. Cooke, 1935

When traveling westward from the capital of Edo to Kyoto, Ōtsu in modern-day Shiga Prefecture was the last of the Tōkaidō highway’s fifty-three stations. Ihara Saikaku (1642–1693), who thoroughly examined Japan’s sexual culture through novels such as The Life of an Amorous Man (Kōshoku ichidai otoko, 1682), described Shibaya-machi, the red-light district in Ōtsu, in the following way:

From the second floor could be heard the gentle plucks of a plectrum against a shamisen (three-stringed banjo), and a bathhouse girl (share-onna) from Shibaya-machi came calling. Throughout the day and night, there were no limits to the debauchery.
-Ihara Saikaku, Japan’s Treasury for the Ages (Nippon Eitaigura, 1688)

The lavish kimono, with the obi sash tied in front, of the woman in the foreground identifies her as a prostitute. Behind her can be seen travellers purchasing folk paintings (Ōtsu-e), for which the city was particularly famous.

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