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Shimabara Omon Gate

This is still standing today. It used to guard the entrance to Shimabara, as the Pleasure Quarters. In the past, it was a licensed district for geishas and courtesans, who entertained at the ageya.

Old Sign Post at Shimabara

You will see this sign post showing the way to Sumiya Motenashi Art Museum, Wachigaiya, Tambaguchi Station.

Sumiya Motenashi Art Museum

The Sumiya Motenashi Art Museum is the only existing ageya in Kyoto today. An ageya was an elegant restaurant hosting banquets and dinner parties, which were entertained by Geishas and courtesans. It is now a protected national treasure and used as a museum. To see this ageya as it was in the Edo period is a real rarity in Japan. It is a precious piece of history.

Old kitchen of the ageya

Old earthernware rice pots of the Edo period.

Onsen at Shoei

Enjoy a relaxing soak at this onsen within Shimabara, made from the lava from Mount Fuji.

Hanagurama Restaurant

After your hot soak at the Onsen next door, have a kaiseki meal here at the Hanagurama restaurant attached to the onsen.

Hanagurama Restaurant Menu

The picture menu of Hanagurama Restaurant, standing outside.

HanaGurama Resturant Sign Board

Enjoy traditional Kyoto Cuisine here.

 

Shimabara was a red-light district until 1958 when prostitution was made illegal in Japan. It was one of only three licensed prostitution quarters established by the Tokugawa regime to control the practice.

Most of the Shimabara area was cleared to accommodate the Kyoto fresh food wholesale Fish Market. The Kyoto Fish Market is like a smaller version of the Tsukiji Fish Market in Kyoto and the best thing? You get to visit it for free! It is nearby and just a short walking distance from Shimabara.

There is another secret to be uncovered here. Tucked away within, lies a hidden gem; the Sumiya, now renamed as the Sumiya Motenashi Art Museum.

 

Visiting the Sumiya is a must even if you stay only a few days in Kyoto. It is a nice break from the many temple visits you may have on your list. Sumiya is the last remaining ageya architecture in Japan and marked as an Important Cultural Property. Ageyas were refined restaurants where geishas and courtesans performed for their guests.

The Sumiya Ageya is now a protected national treasure and one can enter for around 1000円. Leave your bags at the entrance so you do not damage the lovely walls and paintings. The first room you see is the huge kitchen, which is the largest room in the house. Notice the high ceilings to allow for smoke, and its massive cooking pots near the entrance.

The entrance hall is next with its sword hanger. This is where guests would leave their swords when they arrive. The weapons are then labelled and stored away in a special cabinet in the kitchen. The hallway opens into a waiting room, and on the left, the rest of the house. Look out for gold leaf murals inside the party rooms which hint at the elegance of the past. The upper floor is also accessed from a hidden staircase in this hall.

The upper floor though is where the real treasures are kept. But, access to this second floor is limited. You have to book in advance by telephone and pay 800円 extra. There’s only a limited number of tours per day. No English guide is available, either take a Japanese speaking friend or take a book with you. Photography is totally prohibited on the second floor. Upstairs, there’s a room, famed for its painted fans on the ceiling. A room features interesting paper doors, shoji whose wooden frame pattern gives the optical illusion of being bent. The architecture is intricate and dramatic.

Seeing the Sumiya with your own eyes is worth a thousand words. To describe it fully is very hard. In a word? Awesome.

Other Places of Interest in Shimabara

Wachigaiya

Wachigaiya is a geisha teahouse, dating from the 1680s, where it was a training venue for trainee geishas and courtesans. It is characterized by its latticed wood structure and a gaslight with the linked circle crest of the the tea house. The Wachigaiya is not open to the public.

Shimabara Sumiyoshi Jinja

This is a small shrine on the way to JR Tambaguchi Station. It is a shinto shrine attached to the Pleasure Quarters, or Shimabara. Offerings can still be seen in the yard of the small temple.

Onsen

If you wish to experience an onsen, the Shoei (Tel: 075 351 4084) in Shimabara boasts an outdoor bath, rotemburo made from the lava of Mt. Fuji. After your soak, you can enjoy a traditional Japanese cuisine served in the adjoining Hanaguruma restaurant.


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