Ichiriki-tei (一力亭, Ichiriki Mansion) is both an infamous and historic ochaya (English: Geisha "tea house") in Kyoto, Japan. It is located at the southeast corner of Shijō Street and Hanami-Koji, its entrance right at the heart of the Gion Kobu district).
It is considered an exclusive and high-end establishment; access is invitation only and entertainment can cost upwards of ¥800,000 Yen ($8,000 USD) per night while its fame is often associated with the Chushingura event. The ninth teahouse proprietor is Mr. Jirou-emon Sugiura.
The Ichiriki is over 300 years old, and has been a major centerpiece of Gion since the beginning of the entertainment district. Like other ochaya in Gion, Ichiriki was a place where men of status and power went to be entertained by Geisha, who distracted guests through dancing, banter, and flirtation. Ichiriki has traditionally entertained those of political and business power.
The noren curtain at the entrance features the characters ichi (一, one) and riki (力, strength) printed in black on a dark red ground, stacked vertically and touching, so they resemble the character man (万, myriad, ten thousand). It is said that the establishment was originally called yorozuya (万屋, general store), but in the play Kanadehon Chūshingura (仮名手本忠臣蔵) (a telling of the story of the forty-seven rōnin, based on events at the house – see below) the name was changed by splitting the character into 一 and 力, disguising the name (names were disguised in the play to avoid censorship). Due to the play being a major success, this was then adopted by the house itself, yielding the present name.
The Forty-seven Rōnin
The Ichiriki plays a part in the events of the Akō vendetta, a historical event described by some scholars as a Japanese "national legend". In brief, its story began near the start of the eighteenth century when a group of samurai found themselves left masterless, rōnins, after their daimyō was forced to commit the ritual suicide of seppuku for the crime of drawing a sword and injuring a man in the Imperial Palace.
Kira Yoshinaka had made a series of verbal insults towards the samurai’s master, inciting his attack, but Kira was left unpunished. Because of that injustice, the rōnin samurai plotted to assassinate Yoshinaka for over two years.
The rōnin, led by Oishi Kuranosuke, realized they would be monitored for signs they were planning to enact an attempt at revenge. Thus, in an effort to dissuade the suspecting parties and Imperial spies, they sent Kuranosuke to Kyoto. Kuranosuke spent many nights in Ichiriki Chaya, earning a reputation as a gambler and a drunkard. As Kuranosuke gave the appearance of becoming more and more relaxed and unprepared, Kira became less active in his suspicions and eventually relaxed his security. Because the Ichiriki provided the cover to mount an attack, the rōnin were eventually successful in killing Yoshinaka, but were then forced to commit seppuku themselves.
This story has been retold numerous times, a genre known as Chūshingura, which has served to increase the fame of Ichiriki Chaya.
The Fall of the Shōgun
As modernization spread through Japan during the final years of the Edo period, unrest spread with it; the age of the shōgun was coming to an end.
A series of killings of foreigners had led to tension with the western powers, and this international pressure led many to question the legitimacy of the shogun’s rule Much of the plotting to overthrow the Shōgun took place in secretive talks within Ichiriki Chaya, disguised as innocent evenings with friends.
Access to the Ichiriki is the height of exclusivity; fierce ties to the ochaya must first be established before one can become a patron. Relationships to the ochaya can often be traced back generations, and only these wealthy honored patrons and their guests, with reservations, are allowed in.
For a brief period of only a few nights in 2006, The Ichiriki, along with other ochaya (one from each of the five Kyoto geisha districts), offered general access to a small number of tourists who were unaccompanied by patrons, as part of a tourism promotion program, at the request of the Kyoto City Tourist Association.
Services are as usual at ochaya – maiko and geiko are hired from a geisha house (okiya) to provide entertainment, consisting of conversation, flirtation, pouring drinks, traditional games, singing, musical instruments, and dancing. The Ichiriki does not prepare food, but customers can order catering à la carte, which is delivered to the house. Guests can also be shown around the house, and see various decorations, such as a miniature display of the forty-seven ronin, from circa 1850.
The establishment boasts a highly luxurious interior, such as red lacquered tables, high end tatami mats and dinnerwares as well as a Japanese garden designed to evoke an imperial aesthetic. Guests are scheduled to eat the meals as catered by a nearby luxury restaurant which it’s own employees prepares the food in the designated kitchen. In addition, Geikos and Maikos perform dances using only the most high end tools and paraphernalias, oftentimes already stored by the house. The house operates using the traditional incense burner timer, and burns high end incense to its customers per visit. The proprietor also secretly listens to the time spent by the customer, in order to designate the next course of meal or next round of sake. Exclusive patrons of the establishment also serving as a patron to a Geiko hired here is afforded first level reservation, permitting two invitations per six months, at the discretion of the proprietor.
The house oftentimes serves Japanese politicians, princes of the European courts and resident diplomatic ambassadors staying in Japan. Regardless of background, only current patrons may extend an invitation and summon Geisha at the house without any requirement to decline or delay an event. Accordingly, any Geisha or Maiko caught revealing conversational details within the house to outside fellow Geikos may be banned or restricted from being invited to events at the tea house.
The Ichiriki is structured in the style of its original traditional Japanese architecture. The structure of the building is mostly wood, and is designed to protect the privacy of its patrons. In fact, the interior gardens are not even visible from outside the complex. Besides sight, the building protects the conversation within with angled screens to prevent eavesdropping at walls.
Cultural References to the Ichiriki
- The establishment is a major setting in Arthur Golden's fictional portrayal of a Gion geisha's life Memoirs of a Geisha, though he has never visited the establishment, with the proprietors having no records or memory of him.
- The Ichiriki is a major setting in the kabuki play Kanadehon Chūshingura, depicting the story of the 47 rōnin.
- The play Ichiriki Teahouse centers around the plots against the shogun in the Ichiriki.
- Reading of 治郎右衛門 is ambiguous.
- 祇園一力亭 (Gion Ichiriki-tei) (in Japanese)
- "Kanadehon". Columbia University.
- "Ichiriki Ochaya." Japan Travel Guide. Ed. Declan Murphy. Hattori Foundation - The Yamasa Inst. 8 July 2008 <http://www.yamasa.org/japan/english/destinations/kyoto/ichiriki_ochaya.html>.
- "The Overthrow of the Shogun 1867." Bigpond. Historical Foundation of Japan's Military Aggression. 8 July 2008 <http://www.users.bigpond.com/battleforAustralia/foundationJapmilaggro/ShogunOverthrown.html>.
- Martin, John H., and Phyllis G. Martin. Kyoto: A Cultural Guide. North Clarendon: Tuttle, 2002.
- Burgess, Steve (13 June 2001). "The powder puff girls: My $5,000 night at the most exclusive geisha house in Japan. / Memoirs of a gai-jin at the Ichiriki: For 400 Years, Japan's Legendary Geisha House Has Been Satisfying Clients. Tonight, Captain Coquette, Sultaness of Spark, Has Eyes Only for Me". Salon. Retrieved 8 July 2008.
- "Exclusive Kyoto Teahouses Open Doors to Tourists." Yomiuri Shimbun [Tokyo] 30 Jan. 2006: .
- "Ichiriki Teahouse." Kabuki for Everyone. 8 July 2008 <http://park.org/Japan/Kabuki/theater/cyushin.html>.
- Bell, David. Chushingura and the Floating World: The Representation of Kanadehon Chushingura in Ukiyo-e Prints. New York: Rutledge, 2001.
- Strock, Owen. Japanese Visual Culture. Middlebury U. 8 July 2008 <http://w00.middlebury.edu/ID085A/STUDENTS/Edo/johnson.html>.
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