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, or hanamachi (flower street). Though this 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, established in 1641, and the Wachigaya, established in 1688, and some of the streets in the main geisha section have also been renovated to make the area more attractive.
And from a politico-historical 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 (becoming known as ‘The Wolves of Mibu’), who were stationed in the same era.
The easy way to walk through Shimabara is from the new JR Ume Koji Nishi Kyoto Station. From the station walk north crossing the 113 main road for just a few minutes along Senbon Dori (which runs on the east side of the train line), take the second turn on the right and then the first turn on the left and that will take you straight up to the wooden building called Sumiya.
Sumiya – Dating back to 1641 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 1860's, Sakamoto Ryoma and the reformist samurai Saigo Takamori met here with rich merchants to raise funds for their campaign. The Shogun's 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, as Serizawa was plied with alcohol, then later in the night, at his close-by residence, was assassinated.
From Sumiya, walk to the end of the street and then turn right, from here take your second turn to the left and you will find Wachigaya.
Wachigaiya – Wachigaiya 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.
From here, go back and continue down the street to the Shimabara Eastern Gate.
Shimabara Oomon Gates – The Eastern gate 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.
Now double back towards Sumiya but carry on to the west end of the street. Here stands a small stone monument relating to the Higashi Kourokan.
Higashi Kourokan - During part of the Heian Era (the Heian Era began in 794), a building to entertain and act as lodgings for Balhae envoys was located about 100m south of this point. The building was closed in 920. Balhae was situated in present day North Korea and China before the kingdom was conquered in 926 by the Khitan people of North-east Asia.
Follow the street now as it turns north and you come to the site of the Shimabara Western Gate.
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.
Coming out of Shimabara the nearest station now is JR Tambaguchi. To extend your visit to this area you could either continue walking north to the area of Mibu, where the Shinsengumi were stationed during part of their time in Kyoto, or walk west towards the Kyoto Research Park, once known as the site of the original Kyoto Racecourse and also where some archeological digs have taken place.
Kyoto Research Park Excavations
The first part of Kyoto Research Park opened in 1989. When work began on the East area, archaeological excavations revealed a number of interesting discoveries including a moat built by Hideyoshi Toyotomi (1537-1598), one of the great historical leaders of Japan. Also found were house remains from aristocrat residents of Heian Kyoto (794-1185), and a building from the Kamakura Period (1185-1333).
No trace is left of it but this location, Kyoto Research Park, is where just over a hundred years ago the Shimabara Horse Racing Track stood. Racing was first held here on May 16th, 1908. In 1912 though, the lease on the track expired and, as the track had been damaged by fire, the lease was not renewed and racing moved to Shuchi-cho, Funai (presently, Kyotanba-cho,) in 1913, where it continued until the spring of 1923.
A notable event occurred here in 1911. At that time air-flight was a new phenomenon. One of the first aviators to demonstrate flight in Japan was the American pilot James C. ‘Bud’ Mars. Credited as being the first pilot to bring aviation to the Far East, he took the emperor, Hirohito, then 11-years-old, on a plane ride over Tokyo. Whilst in Japan, Mars attended an air-flight meeting here at Shimabara Racecourse.
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).