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Shimabara - Kyoto's Forgotten Courtesan's District

The area to the west of Kyoto main station has gone through major changes in recent years. Ume Koji Park has seen the construction of the popular Kyoto Aquarium, the upgrading and renovation of Kyoto Railway Museum, a new café in the park and new children’s playground. These changes have brought in many more visitors to the area and because of this a new station has just opened between Kyoto and Tambaguchi, Ume Koji Nishi Kyoto.

Just a short walk north from Ume Koji park and close to the new station though is an area of great historical importance to Kyoto and Japan that often gets overlooked, Shimabara.


The Shimabara area of Kyoto, which is also just west of the famous Nishi Honganji, was a licensed courtesans’ district from 1640 up until 1958 when the practice was made illegal. In the mid-18th century the area also became a geisha quarter, hanamachi (flower street). This though declined after the Meiji Restoration of 1868 when after the Emperor relocated to Edo (Tokyo) many traditional businesses in Kyoto that catered to the aristocracy suffered economic difficulties. Shimabara finally ceased to operate as a recognized geisha district in the 1970’s.


Two teahouses remain, conserved as Cultural Assets: the Sumiya (pictured above right), established in 1641, and the Wachigaya, established in 1688, and some of the streets in the main geisha section have also been renovated to a make the area more attractive. And from a politicohistorical angle Shimabara was the scene of secret meetings involving the 19th century revolutionary Sakamoto Ryoma, as well as a meeting area for the Shogun’s hardline Kyoto special police force the Shinsengumi, who were stationed in the same era.


Sumiya – Dating back to 1641 it is one of the last remaining examples of ageya in Japan. An ageya is a traditional entertainment house where geisha and taiyu (singers) entertained elite guests in refined surroundings with song and dance. It is also the largest machiya (Edo era town house) left in Kyoto. The first floor of the building is open, though there is an entrance fee. The second floor can be toured with an appointment for a higher entrance fee. The establishment has been owned by the Nakagawa family for 13 generations since 1641.

Sumiya was also a meeting place for many famous historical figures in political fields and the arts. Around the time of the Meiji restoration in the 1860s’ the reknowned revolutionary Sakamoto Ryoma (pictured left) and the reformist samurai Saigo Takamori met here with rich merchants to raise funds for their campaign. The Shoguns’ special police force the Shinsengumi also used to frequent Sumiya, on one occasion Shinsengumi captain Serizawa Kamo, in a rage smashed casks of sake and destroyed furniture. With this continued behavior the other Shinsengumi head figures Kondo Isami and Hijikata Toshizo decided enough was enough. A party was held at Sumiya where-at Serizawa was plied with alcohol and then later in the night, at his close-by residence, he was assassinated.


Wachigaiya – Wachigaiya (pictured below right) is still operating as an establishment where patrons are entertained by geisha. Geisha and tayu come from other geisha districts, such as Gion, to perform. As such, Wachigaiya is not open to the public apart from appointment tours or special performances. Established in 1688 as an okiya, a lodging house in which a maiko or geisha lived during the length of her contract or career as a geisha, trainee geisha would also come here.

A geisha house owner, okā-san (the Japanese word for "mother"), paid for the girls training and usually expenses, including her kimono. The okiya plays a large part in the life of a geiko or maiko, as the women in the okiya become her geisha family, and the okā-san manages her career in the karyūkai (flower and willow world). Renovations were done in 1857 and 1871 to bring the building to its current state. Wachigaiya was a geisha residence for around 300 years and has been a licensed teahouse for over 130 years.


Shimabara Oomon Gates – The Eastern gate (pictured below) that stands here was built in 1867 after the original was destroyed in a fire in 1854. As Shimabara was originally surrounded by a wall and a moat, the gates were the only exits so many of the working women of Shimabara tragically died in the great fire.

Shimabara West Gate Monument - The west gate of Shimabara was destroyed in 1977 and rebuilt, it was then destroyed again in 1998 when it was hit by a truck. The gate after this time was not rebuilt but a monument was erected in its place to mark the location where it originally stood.


Access

Shimabara is a 15-20 minute walk from Kyoto main station. Buses also run from Kyoto Station to the area. Tambaguchi Station is two stops from Kyoto and new JR station at the south end of Shimabara, Ume Koji Nishi Kyoto has recently opened (one stop from Kyoto). HIDDEN PATHS visited Shimbara before the current pandemic situation, please refrain from visiting until such restrictions or advisories are lifted.

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