Shimabara was the site of the Edo period Pleasure Quarters in Kyoto. While it is all but defunct as an entertainment destination it does however have well preserved historical architecture and is well worth a visit for the geisha or tayu enthusiast.
The suburb itself is quite small, you can easily cover all the sites below in a single afternoon on foot from the train station.
The Shimabara-omon were the large gates that barred the way to the pleasure quarter itself and the focus of many famous photographs of the ‘floating world’ in the early 20th Century where Tayu would pose with their attendants.
Though tucked in a quiet suburban street of Kyoto one can visit the famous gates for free and read the signs surrounding this famous site. You can almost imagine excitedly tripping through the gates as a customer or looking longingly out the gates as an employee.
Not far from the gates at Shimabara stands the Sumiya Ageya. Though the venue of courtesans and not the geisha themselves this is nonetheless an engaging trip for those interested in the Edo world of pleasure.
The Sumiya Ageya is now a protected national treasure and one can enter for around 1000 Yen. An Ageya was the banquet hall that the carousing parties of the pleasure quarter were held in and the equivalent of the ochaya used by geisha.
The ageya shows the style of the sumptuary laws of the time – simple street decoration gives way to luscious surroundings hidden on the inside of the building. The banquet rooms, beautiful gardens and treasures are maintained and can be toured – remember to wear shoes you can easily take off as most of the building is covered in tatami matting. If you want to tour the upstairs galleries you will require an advance booking. No English guide is available, either take a Japanese speaking friend or take a book with you.
There is a functioning ochaya in Shimabara – the Wachigaiya. Prior to being converted to a teahouse it was a licenced geisha household
It is not open to the public and invitation is required, this is a venue where entertainers still meet customers. Tourists are not welcome and opening hours are not posted.
Shimabara Sumiyoshi Jinja
This small temple located next to the train station was once the shrine attached to the Pleasure Quarters.
This shinto shrine is still standing but mostly in disrepair. Offerings can still be seen in the yard of the small temple
Shimabara and Sumiya Cultural Museum
32 Banchi, Ageya-cho, Shimogyo-ku, Kyoto, Japan
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Museum hours: 10:00am – 4:00pm (Closed Mondays and Jul. 19th – Sep. 14th, Dec. 16th – Mar. 14th)
Entry cost: 1000 / 800 Yen (Around 10USD) for Sumiya only, other parts of the neighbourhood are free to visit
Access: JR Line to “Tambaguchi”