The neighbourhood of Shimabara has changed considerably since the glory days of the Edo period (1603~1868) when it was one of the geisha districts ("hanamachi") and "pleasure quarter" of Kyoto. All business stopped in 1958 when prostitution was "officially" outlawed in Japan, and the declining area was partially razed to make space for the Kyoto fresh food wholesale market and it ballet of trucks. The overhead JR train line doesn't help make the area any more inviting either. However, among this mess lies a hidden gem: the Sumiya.
Shimabara was built around 1640, when it was decided that the "pleasure quarters" of Kyoto (also called "courtesan's districts") had to move outside the city centre. The Sumiya was built in the wake of this new area, in 1641. The quality of its patrons is reflected in the Sumiya's size (1119 square meters), its tempestuous design and the incredible attention to detail that can be found in every corner of the house. It is one of the finest, if not the finest example of the ageya architecture in Japan, and is a National Treasure of Japan. Indicative of its higher linage, the Sumiya has been owned and managed by the same family for 13 generations.
Ageya were not brothels, but rather upper-class establishments where guests could eat and drink while being entertained by geishas who sing, danced and also performed tea ceremony. Those guests who sometimes visit other shadier places later in the night, but that's another story... The higher class of the Sumiya meant that it received exclusive visitors and, being a masterpiece in itself, quite a few artists were in fact regulars. Thus, famous artists would design the Sumiya, and other artists would enjoy it. Such artists include Yosa Buson (whose grave is in Konpuku-ji). A haiku group called the "Shimabara Haidan" also used the Sumiya as their meeting place, and some of their original works are preserved here. Important politicians of the Meiji restoration also met here.
Visiting the Sumiya is a must even if you stay only a few days in Kyoto, and it will provide a nice break from the numerous temple visits that you may have lined up. After leaving your bags at the entrance (in order not to damage the precious walls and paintings), the first room you reach is the massive kitchen, which clearly shows that food was important here. It is the largest room in the house. The kitchen is very traditional with its high ceilings (for smoke), its massive cooking pots and its elaborate rice cooker (immediately left after the entrance). The "umbrellas" hanging from the ceiling were used to gather the greasy smoke from oil vats. Note also the small staircase with its integrated drawers, another classic example of traditional architecture.
Leaving the kitchen one reaches the entrance hall were guests would arrive. Reminiscent of the times, here's a sword hanger here. The hanger was only for the guests to put their sword when they arrived; the weapons would then be labelled and safely stored in a nearby special cabinet in the kitchen. From this hall one can reach a waiting room (now with some exhibits) and, on the left, the rest of the house. The upper floor is also accessed from a hidden staircase in this hall (see below).
Continuing on the ground floor, a corridor leads to a small inner courtyard with a Japanese garden. Note the absence of pillar in the opening's corner: it was moved to the left in order to provided an unobstructed view on the garden! The garden has a couple of lanterns and a small water basin. A small bamboo platform extends to reach the latter; the piece of wood that surrounds the bamboo was not bent: they looked for a piece that was naturally bent the way they wanted. This piece alone must have taken ages to find! On the right is a large room with an interesting ceiling: its beams are all made of a single piece of wood. According to the guide it is impossible to replace them, for there are no more trees large enough in Japan. Some large columns in the kitchen are also monuments to a distant past when Japan still had large old trees. Amazing...
The hallway on the left of the small garden leads to a large room, comparable to the hondo of a temple. The room overlooks a garden with a very old pine tree (in fact, there's three of them from a seemingly single stump). The branches of the trees are supported by pillars (not my style, but hey...). In the back of the garden is a tea house. The large room itself has impressive fusuma (painted sliding doors), covered with gold leaves and decorated with peacock paintings.
This is a quick guide to the ground floor, but the really good stuff is on the upper floor. 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. Photography is totally prohibited on the second floor, but it is definitely worth it. Starting in fact with the steep staircase itself: the handrail is also a naturally bent the way it is! Next to the staircase on the second floor is a large room, where I could not understand very well the explanations. Sorry ;( The next smaller room has an interesting tokonoma, the ceiling of which is nicely curved, even though no one will actually see that. Details, details...! The next room is very famous, and has a ceiling with numerous painted fans. On the pillars of the room are some markers which each bear a different pattern (a bit like a bar code). Unfortunately here too I couldn't get their meaning.
The visit continues with several other room, the first of which has interesting paper doors (shoji) whose wooden frame pattern gives the optical illusion of being bent. Just outside this shoji, the under-roof wooden structure is apparent, and reflects the pattern of the shoji themselves. And this is only one thing I remember for this room :) After a couple of other rooms, one reaches the final room of the visit. It is surprisingly totally black (walls and ceiling) with elaborate nacre decorations generously spread all around. The smaller windows above are all different, and yet harmonious. And the main row of "paper windows" again have a special wooden frame: each jagged line was made of a single piece of wood. Look ma, no glue!
Describing Sumiya is very hard, you'd better go see it with your own eyes. In a word? It's awesome.
Recommended for: Access:
Nearby: Watchigai-ya 輪違屋 (140m), Nishi Hongan-ji 西本願寺 (840m), Hiun-kaku 飛雲閣 (860m), Rokunomiya-jinja 六孫王神社 (880m), Mibu-dera 壬生寺 (1km), Yagi-tei 八木邸 (1.1km), Kanchi-in 観智院 (1.2km)
External links: Website, ウィキペディア, Kyoto Navi, Trip Advisor, Kyoto Design, 京都風光, Satellite view, Map
Keywords: Japan, 日本, Japon, Kyoto, 京都, 中京, 下京, 上京, 角屋, Sumiya, 京町家, ageya, 揚屋