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If you are in for an adventure paired with lengthy, quirky, brutal honest thoughts then you are in the right place.

My name is Arisa and was a cosplayer for 12 years in Malaysia before settling down in Kyoto, Japan. Exploring Japan full time has been a long time dream of mine, so let's explore it together!
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A Walk down Shimabara's Past | SUMIYA

I'm not sure if it's only me or what, whenever i get to visit an actual historcial site; my heart seems to skip a beat from all the excitement. This curiousity that burns within me, wanting to know more about the past, to walk in the foot steps of these people who have paved the way for us today and to tell their story to the world. I'm no storyteller that's for sure, nor a reporter but a small humble blogger who is a nerd for history (would have made this my major and career but i chose fashion instead, oh well). Before i get into the details about Shimbara's history, i would like to share with you a short story on how i completely missed this hidden gem for almost 2 FREAKING YEARS despite staying less than 10 mins away from it. No kidding man.
It's like one of those cases, the explorer traveled the world far & wide to only find out what he has been searching for is literally in front of him lol. A really want to slap your own face (facepalm not enough) moment.  😑

I know i have been obsessed with traveling all over Japan with a #47prefecturemission but realistictly (and fiancially) that's not going to happen anytime soon, so in the meantime i should find something to fill my time with like exploring small hidden gems within Kyoto city that isn't on the tourist radar yet. I have no intention in making it tourist spot because i like it quiet the way it is and tons of tourist hoarding the place might kill its mysterious atmosphere and beauty, not to mention it's already fragile state but they still do need visitors who are truly passionate about learning Kyoto's history to support its business or else they'll fade away along with the memories within it. That would be a huge waste of cultural history and i can't stop thinking about its future 😭

Side note: If you are looking for an instaworthy bragging place, then you might want to close the tab because this entry isn't one. But if you are into Geisha, Taiyu, Shinsengumi and a sprinkle of political history then please do read on. 

Welcome to Shimabara

Shimabara District, once a glorified red light district of Kyoto during Edo period, flocked by powerful political figures, wealthy merchants looking to be entertained by high class entertainers like Geisha and Taiyuu (higher level Geisha). What's left of it now lies hidden within the walls and shadows of modern buildings.  
But deep within its surrounding concrete walls, one particular building stood against the test of time (wars, natural disaster & modern day developemnt), its name is SUMIYA. 

Owned by the Nakagawa family for over 13 generations (since 1641), it was once an Ageya, a place that held lavish banquets and dinner parties for the rich and powerful, it also sometimes serve as a meeting place for politicians but what's left of its former glory are artifacts which remains intact in its original position and untouched till today. Every corner of this magnificant Ageya has a tale to tell. One i would gladly spend hours listening to if only the ghost of the past was present to communicate with the living :-P

It's not just a building, it's more than that; It's one of the few last of its surviving kind here in modern day Japan and it's being protected as a National Cultural Treasure by the goverment of Japan.
Not sure for how long (cuz' you know modern developement stuff & property in Japan is pretty precious) but i do hope it still stands for another couple hundred years to come.

Images of a Tayu can be seen all around Shimabara, like this restaurant's noren

What is a Tayū (太夫)?

Okay time for a little history lesson before we head further into today's topic.
We all get the rough idea when someone mentions "Geisha" (or Geiko in Kyoto language). But how many of you are familiar with the title "Tayū (太夫)" or maybe "Oiran" a.k.a courtesans?
And do they still exist here today in this modern world, or are they nothing more than whispered memories.

Picture credits to https://twitter.com/abeaten_

First thing first is to NEVER get the titles of these esteemed courtesans mixed up and lable them as common prostitutes, an Oiran gets to choose her customers while the other doesn't.

A simplified explanation for easier understanding (you can google & read up more about it), Oiran basically translates to courtesan in English and though they do have a history of providing sexual favours, first and foremost they are well educated women and master of fine arts such as Japanese tea ceremony, Ikebana (flower arrangement), Poetry,  Calligraphy, traditional musical instruments like Koto, Shamisen, among many others. The highest rank of Oiran is called the tayū (太夫), followed by the kōshi (格子).

A Tayū is considered the highest rank of entertainers in Japan that are skillful & worthy enough to perform for the emperor and his court. And not everyone can afford the presence of a Tayū, and to even gaze upon them is a luxury and a prestigious honour.
But did you know in this modern world today, a handful of practicing Tayū still exists (only the art part, 'pleasure' services are considered illegal by the anti-prostitution laws of 1958), and they exist here within Shimabara district itself. But please don't go around this area hunting for them.

On special occasions in Kyoto, maybe once or twice a year; if you are lucky, you would be able to see a real life Tayū in a full costume, gracing an important cultural ceremony. Not the ones you usually see in tourist spots which usually just hire models to pose as a Tayū. Honestly i have no idea when these events are, usually those who are well aquainted with the flower and the willow (it's like an exclusive club thing going on lol) would know about it like my friends @Kyoto_Insider & @Geishakai. I usually just stalk their account for updates.

However i do hope i am able to see one with my very own eyes one day, for now admiring photographs on instagram would do haha. Who knows kami-sama might grant my wish soon XD
Okay, so now that we are done with a mini history lesson, i hope you guys have a better understanding and idea of what a Tayū is.


There is an entry fee to enter Sumiya, and to visit the upper quarters (where banquets & entertainments was held) an additional fee is charged on top of the entry fee and guided tours are only available a few times a day, you'll need to check with the counter for available tour slots of the day. They usually accomodate up to 10 people per tour and the curator is only available in Japanese. There are some English signs & summary put up around the Ageya so don't worry about not fully understanding the curator. Also photos are not allowed on the upper floor, as much as it's tempting to get a shot for a keepsake, do respect the rules & keep away your phones & cameras.
However on the first floor (ground) photographs are welcomed, so go ahead and snap away.

Artifacts are displayed in this room on the 1st floor next to the entrance

Admission: 1000yen to first floor, 1800yen for second floor tour

I seriously have to slowly collect and compose my thoughts because it's going wild all over the place with excitement and it's still fresh in my memory, every single design details found in this Ageya is mesmerizing. You can learn alot from the architeture style, materials used during that period and what i found most intriguing is how they are able to painstankingly handcraft every single tiny detail without the help of technology. Like how was that even possible?? You'll have to see it with your every own eyes to believe it.

Starting from the first floor, upon entering you'll get to see the open "kitchen" area, where food for the banquet is prepared before serving guests on the 2nd floor. Most of the artifacts displayed are likely found at it's original last position before the Ageya offically converted into a Museum. And it's also pretty cool to see an underground "fridge", it looks almost like a deep well but there are steps leading down to the storage area. This was before all our fancy eletrical fridges yo!

The underground "fridge" space

Ovens that was used to cook banquet meals

The building itself is quite big, and it took us roughly about 2-3 hours to slowly go through everything, including the upper floor.

One out of the many notable features of this Ageya is their back garden which has an incredible spreading pine tree that stretches out, creating a canopy over the Karesansui (枯山水)* beneath it. And next to it stands a majestic weeping sakura tree that blossoms every spring which compliments the solid strong pine and when viewed from the 2nd floor it's a sight to behold. Makes me want to come back to visit again next spring to catch the sakura in action!

The room to enjoy the garden view

*Japanese garden landscape styling using sand or pebbles to create the effect of "river/ pond". 

Sumiya was a favorite with the Shinsengumi (late Edo period police force). They frequently partied there, eventually running up such high bills that they were forbidden (by leadership) from going there any further. Violent incidents occurred – a leader was about to be murdered on one occasion (later on the way back to their home, he was assassinated), while on another a member of the force slashed at the pillars out of anger pressed for delinquent payment, leaving three gouges, which remain to this day. Conversely, it was used by reformers such as Saigō Takamori for fund-raising parties. - Wikipedia

 And yes, i've seen those slashes on the pillars with my very own eyes, how cool is that?!
The damage done by one of the shinsengumi officers during the assassination

Before going up to the 2nd floor this shelf is for patrons to hand over their katana (sword) for safekeeping

Touring the upper floor, each room is intricately designed with various materials and handcrafts available during that period which includes mother of pearls as well.
What's most heartbreaking to see is parts of the walls and shoji screens that was once gleaming gold, now buried beneath centuries of candlelight soot as it was their only source of light back then and there are no ways to restore it to it's original form without the risk of damaging further as there isn't any written records of how it was first made or the kind of materials used unlike how European paintings in art museums are usually able to be restored.
In Japan, most of this important art and craftmaking skills are often brought to the grave by the original artists if they are unable to pass it on to a successor.

The wear and tear over the centuries can be clearly seen in every corner of Sumiya, that is why they take precautions to only allow certain amount of visitors on the 2nd floor per tour session.

My particular favourite room is the one decorated with the mother of pearl and has chinese influence design as it has a veranda overlooking Kyoto west of Kyoto and back then before modern development took place, it's said to be able to see as far as Arashiyama! And during spring the sakura trees that was planted within the Ageya's garden can be admired from above, one can only imagine what a stunning view it was.  This room is considered a "high ranking" room which is reserved for important guests.

I know this might sound like a boring visit to some, but if you would love to learn more about Japan's history this is definitely a good place to start especially in Kyoto, and if you can converse well in Japanese the curators are more than glad to share more about Sumiya's story.

The pathway that was once grace by Tayu-s over the centuries

Once you are done with Sumiya, there's still a couple of things you can do around the area and i kid you not that it's easily a full day spent here just exploring this quaint historical district that's hiding behind of Kyoto station lol.

Walking Around Shimabara

Shimabara Daimon (島原大門)

This is the main entrance of Shimabara district, located at Hanayamachi-dori (花屋町通). It looks equally stunning both day and night so don't forget to snap a picture together with it!

This is the view at night

Try Shimabara's traditional local sweets at Itokenroho

Wagashi shops are popular around this area, and one of it which was frequently visited by Tayū called Itokenroho; has been operating for over 70 years. Every single piece of wagashi is carefully handmade using the family's special recipe and crafting technique. We chance upon this confectionery store by accident and i'm so hooked over their sweets especially their dango! And their goods inexpensive, was expecting tourist price at first but this humble store keeps their goods reasonbally priced for all to enjoy. There are many old newspaper clippings on Shimabara's Tayu procession which used to pass by the front of their store, paper fans with Tayu's signature too can be found as part of the store's decoration. If you have time, do dine in as they have seats at the side for you to enjoy your sweets with tea.

Visit a 200 year old Cafe- Kinse Cafe & Bar

There are tons of cool quaint cafes available in the area but this particular one stands out because what awaits us inside was really unexpected, the interior is just AMAZING!
Upon entering, you'll first wonder if you are in the right place because the cafe/ bar's entrance is actually hiding behind a wall lol. When you open the door, you'll feel as if you have all of a sudden transported back to the 1900s or something. It's never too early for a drink so this is also the right place to get your fix haha, they serve pretty good coffee here along with pound cakes.

Right above this cafe is a Ryokan (yes, you can book a stay here) that conducts Ikebana (flower arrangement) classes in English too!
I so happened to be following their IG account (@kinsebana)way before i made a visit here, lol what are the odds right?? You can make a booking for their Ikebana classes here: http://kinseinn.com/ikebana

I'm in love with Shimabara after my first visit, you can just aimlessly stroll along the quiet streets and admire the unique combination of old buildings sandwiched between modern ones without being bothered by other loud obnoxious tourists.

Other Nearby Attractions (walking distance from Shimabara)

Kyoto Aquarium

We are usually here for the penguins lol, this aquarium might be small compared to other larger and more popular aquariums in Japan but you should definitely include this in your list especially when you are traveling to Kyoto with young children as temples and shrines may bore them to death so having a little break from the cultural stuff would do them some good.
Also you'll get to see the amazing giant Ooshansho (salamander) which grows in Kyoto's Kamo river (kamogawa). Yep, that lizard is one of Kyoto's prized possesions lol.

I've blogged about it before, you can check out the entry here: www.arisachow.com/2018/10/kyoto-aquarium.html

Umekoji Park

One of our family's favourite place to hang out as it's peaceful, full of greenery, large public field and a playground for kids, there's also cafes nearby in case you get peckish.

Umekoji park during spring

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Kyoto Railway Museum

Honestly a place i've yet to visit despite passing by numerous times but we'll probably do it when lil penguin is older and able to walk around. Heard it's popular attraction among locals, you'll usually see school buses parked outside of the museum because of field trips. 

Kyoto Ichiba (Kyoto Central Market)

This place is like the Tsukiji market of Kyoto lol, this wholesale market supplies fresh produce and ingredients to local restaurants in Kyoto city and the entry is usually reserved for restaurant owners and buyers but on certain special occasions, they open the doors to public. Been there once and the nostalgic smell of our Malaysian morning market wafted through the air lol, smells like home alright XD
You can check their public open day calender here: http://www.kyoto-ichiba.jp/

Hope you guys found this entry useful for your upcoming Kyoto trips, i'll try my best to share more off the beaten path routes as i go along so don't forget to subscribe to my blog for more of these kind of entries! I am also currently taking blogging abit slow for now to rest because i'm frequently have writer's block lol, hopefully i recover from it soon as i have tons of new stuff to share from my recent travels. 
Thanks for supporting by reading my blog, and if you would like to contribute to keep this independant blog running with new monthly Japan travel contents, i've recently set up a KO-FI account for it. You can buy me Coffee at KO-FI: ko-fi.com/arisachow

Thank you!

Yours Truly,

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