Ichiriki Ochaya

This is probably the most famous of the Ochaya of Kyoto. Located on the corner of Shijo-dori and Hanamikoji-dori streets, it is only a few hundred meters from Yasaka Jinja and is in the heart of Gion. About 300 years old, the red walled Ichiriki Ochaya is noted for its traditional architecture and atmosphere, and also for the history that has occured here. The famous story of the Forty-Seven Ronin (47 masterless samurai – see text below) as well as some of the plotting against the Tokugawa Shogunate that led to the revolution known as the Meiji Restoration have close links to the Ichiriki Ochaya.

The term “Ochaya”, is often translated into English as “tea house”. However an establishment such as the Ichiriki Ochaya is not a place for drinking tea. This is an ultra exclusive, invitation only, place of entertainment where if you need to know the price, you definitely won’t be able to afford it. A single night of geisha entertainment with Geiko and Maiko in attendance will cost anything from 500-800,000 yen upwards. You cannot enter Ichiriki Ochaya. To visit requires a relationship (something that may take generations), and a lot of money. A lot of money alone will not suffice. Most of the customers are male, in many cases their connection between them and the Ichiriki is through their company, however female customers are not unusual and have been for more than 100 years.

Geisha entertainment is not provided by geisha. The term “geisha” is more or less a plural. When talking about the actual people involved, they are either geiko (usually a white collared kimono) or maiko. A maiko is basically the equivalent of an apprentice. Less experienced, but due to their youth in great demand. Geiko and maiko do not work for Ichiriki Ochaya (or for any other ochaya), but instead belong to a geiko stable called an Okiya. The more in demand a particular geiko or maiko, the higher the fee. The mistress of an Okiya teaches flower arrangement, dance, and traditional music – the arts that a geiko needs. Naturally the income earnt by a Geiko entertaining at the Ichiriki goes to the Okiya. The expenses of an Okiya are considerable, apart from accommodating and training, the value of the kimono, obi and accessories worn by a geiko may easily exceed 3,000,000 yen.

As with the other 100 or so traditional ochaya remaining in Kyoto, Ichiriki Ochaya is mostly wooden. The design is to protect the privacy of the guests. From the outside it is impossible to see even a glimpse of the beautiful garden. The noren (a small curtain over the entrance) ensures that you basically can’t see into the courtyard. All windows are covered in bengara goshi (lattices) and are screened. It is fairly distinctive architecture, and as different to the concrete and plastic of much of the rest of Gion as possible.

Apart from protecting guests from prying eyes, the architecture also protects from prying ears. If you look closely at the external design, you can see angled screens against the outside wall. On the Hanamikoji-dori side near the entrance, the screens are made of wood while on the busier Shijo-dori side which has very heavy foot traffic, the screen is made from slats of bamboo. These are called inu yarai (dog screens), supposedly because they keep dogs away from ground floor windows and walls. What they are really designed for though is to keep people away from the walls, to stop conversations inside Ichiriki Ochaya from being overheard. Kyoto folk are practical people, so naturally they also find the screens are useful for concealing air-conditioning units.

“Memoirs of a Geisha” and Ichiriki Ochaya

If you have read the novel “Memoirs of a Geisha” by Arthur Golden you will know the name of the Ichiriki Ochaya, as parts of the novel were set here. Until 2005, the novel (it is a work of fiction) was more or less unknown in Japan, though this changed (slightly) with the participation of respected actor Watanabe Ken in the movie of the same name. The O-Kami (landlady/mistress) of the Ichiriki Ochaya is adamant that the author has never been inside the Ochaya. The current O-Kami (Sugiura Kyoko) married into the family a few decades ago, and records of visitors are kept. As the proprietess, she greets all of the guests during the course of an evening. The number of foreigners who have visited the Ichiriki is extremely limited.

The Forty-Seven Ronin and Ichiriki Ochaya

The Ichiriki Ochaya is famous throughout Japan, not just as being the most famous house for geisha entertainment, but because of its central role in Japan’s most resonating story “The 47 Ronin.” The subject of many poems, books, plays, films and so forth – it resonates because of the heavy burden that duty and loyalty plays in Japanese culture. The most famous play is called the Chusingura, still perhaps the ultimate Japanese tear jerker.

The story of the 47 Ronin is a true one. In 1701, Japan was ruled from Edo by the 5th Tokugawa Shogun, Tsunayoshi. He was the 4th son of Tokugawa Iemitsu and a great grandson of Tokugawa Ieyasu. Tokugawa Tsunayoshi had become Shogun some 21 years earlier after his older brother Ietsuna passed away. Very much a “hands on” ruler, he presided over one of the more prosperous periods of Tokugawa rule, including the Genroku era in which urban societies in particular flourished throughout Japan. Although largely remembered for his eccentricities (the “dog shogun”), he also encouraged neo-confucianism, some social welfare measures and regulated samurai violence.

The tradition that had developed at the time was for the Shogun (the actual ruler) to send gifts and envoys to the Emperor (a figurehead) in Kyoto each New Year, with the Emperor sending his envoys in return in the spring. In 1701 Tokugawa Tsunayoshi appointed two young daimyo, Asano Naganori of Ako castle in Harima province and Date Munehare from Sendai province to host the visiting imperial envoys. Anxious to ensure that protocols were observed and that the inexperience of the two daimyo would not create difficulties (a perceived insult might have political repercussions), he appointed a senior official named Kira Yoshinaka to assist.

In the legend of the 47 Ronin, it is Kira who becomes the villain of the piece. Portrayed as corrupt and arrogant, Kira became angry with Asano, accusing him of not showing sufficient respect (ie, in the form of expensive gifts) for the assistance he was giving. How Kira treated Date Munehare is not recorded, but after abusing, insulting and publicly humiliating Asano for two months, Kira had enraged Asano. Eventually the young man could take no more, and on the 14th of March he responded to one insult too many. While in the Matsu-no-o-roka corridor inside the Honmaru of Edo Castle, Asano drew his sword and struck Kira, wounding the older man slightly.

For the Shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi, the incident was intolerable. Having tightened and enforced laws regarding acts of violence by samurai, he was now faced with one of his own appointees, drawing and using the weapon. To even draw a sword within the confines of Edo Castle was a capital offense. The decision was immediate, Asano was to commit suicide by seppuku immediately or face execution. Kira received no punishment, and after recovering from his wounds continue to serve in his position.

A young samurai retainer of Asano was sent to the castle in Harima with the bad news. According to the law, if a daimyo committed seppuku then his castle and fief was confiscated. Asano had 321 samurai retainers – all of them were about to lose more than their daimyo and homes, but their income as well. They were to disperse as unemployed samurai – ronin. The life of a Ronin was nothing to look forward to. Asano’s chief councilor was Oishi Kuranosuke. Angered by the lack of punishment for Kira, and by what he saw as the dishonorable approach Kira had taken, and faced with an uncertain and uncomfortable future, he developed a plan to petition the Shogun.

Oishi’s idea was to request that instead of the Asano family being disinherited (resulting also in the loss of 321 samurai stipends), that Asano Daigaku (Naganori’s younger brother) instead be allowed to head the family with the rank of daimyo. This plan fell apart, when all but 60 samurai opposed the petition and left the castle according to the law, and when Asano Daigaku himself sent a letter requesting Oishi to surrender the castle to the Shogun’s representatives and obey the law, preventing any further disgrace from tarnishing the Asano name.

Before leaving the castle, Oishi and 59 others made a pact to avenge their daimyo, and restore his honor. This is where the Ichiriki Ochaya enters the legend. Knowing that they would be under suspicion of plotting revenge (Kira rarely left the safety of Edo Castle, and the Shogun even had Asano Daigaku placed under house arrest), the ronin dispersed. Oishi came to Kyoto, and soon obtained a reputation as a inveterate gambler and drunkard. He spent many nights in the Ichiriki Ochaya enjoying wine, women and song. His colleagues likewise, did everything they could to ensure that the reports being sent to Kira though the security apparatus about their conduct would say that they appeared to have no intentions of avenging their daimyo, but instead were involved in business as merchants and street vendors (jobs unworthy of ronin, let alone samurai) and other harmless activities.

Over time, Kira relaxed his suspicions and began leaving the castle more frequently. Over time, the men slowly obtained information regarding Kira – his yashiki (official residence), movements and habits. Gathering the men together, Oishi decided that 46 men would participate in an attack. One by one they arrived in Edo, anonymously and inconspicuously. On December 14th 1702, under the cover of snow, the 47 ronin attacked Kira’s yashiki in Edo after receiving information that Kira was hosting a tea party.

A fierce battle broke out between the ronin and Kira’s samurai retainers. It is said to haven taken about one and a half hours, apparently with no intervention from outside. All of Kira’s men were killed or captured. None of the ronin were killed. Kira could not be found. Every inch of the yashiki was searched, until he was discovered hiding in an outside toilet. Dragged to the courtyard he was given the opportunity to atone by committing seppuku. When he did not, he was beheaded. The 47 then made their way to Sengaku-ji, the location of Asano’s grave, and set the head of Kira before the grave.

To kill an official, even in revenge, was a deed punishable by execution. They knew that this was the fate awaiting them. Even so, instead of fleeing, Oishi sent 2 ronin to contact the Shogun’s magistrate. The men then waited at Sengaku-ji for their arrest. The act left Tokugawa Tsunayoshi in a quandry. He sympathised with them because the deep loyalty they had shown reflecting his own neo-confucian beliefs. He was aware by this stage of the background to the original incident between Asano and Kira, and he was aware of the public support (especially in Harima and Kyoto) throughout Japan and many of the Tokugawa officials for the men. To execute the men as criminals for murder was the law. To not implement the law would weaken it.

The shogun’s eventual decision reflected the bushido code. Instead of angering the populace by executing the men, he ordered Oishi and 45 of the ronin to commit seppuku. To die not as criminals but as honored samurai. Their breach of the law had to be punished, but their devotion had to be rewarded. In 4 separate groups, the 46 took their lives simultaneously on February 4th 1703, under the supervision of 4 daimyo. Only one of the original 47 was allowed to live, he was the youngest of the group, the same man who had been sent to the castle in Harima with news of Asano’s death. His 46 colleagues are buried side by side in Sengaku-ji next to the grave of Asano Naganori. Inside the largest room of the Ichiriki Ochaya there is a small shrine with the 47 ronin in miniature form.

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