Shimabara (Kyoto)

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  • Established: 1640
  • Japanese: 島原 (shimabara)

The Shimabara was the chief licensed pleasure district in Kyoto during the Edo period. It was located in an area between Gojô and Shichijô avenues, in what was then the southwestern corner of the city.

It was established in 1640 to house, in a central location, all licensed prostitution in the city. This, of course, made the industry easier to supervise and administer. Like similar districts in other cities, the Shimabara was walled in, and surrounded by a moat which was aimed primarily at keeping the prostitutes from leaving the district. A large gate on the east side of the compound provided the only ingress and egress.

The district contained both high-class ageya (teahouses) and cheaper establishments; most were housed in relatively simple Kyôto machiya structures, but many of the establishments which catered to high-class clients featured lavish interiors.

The gate to the district survives today, though the walls have been torn down, and the moat filled in. Only one 17th century ageya is extant. Known as the Sumiya, it was run by the Nakagawa family for 19 generations, beginning in 1641. The facade features wooden lattices which obscure the view of the interior from people on the street, but which allow those inside to see out. This facade was also removable, so that during a festival, or when street musicians were performing, the front rooms could be completely opened to the street and connected into the goings-on. The interior rooms for receiving and entertaining guests were varied in size and in the style of their decorations; they were designed to emulate a variety of settings, including the mansions of samurai or court nobles, in order to better cater to a variety of classes of clients. Larger rooms on the ground floor were arranged in such a way that they each provided a different view of the garden, without providing too much of a view into other clients' rooms. Upstairs, smaller rooms allowed for more intimate interactions with geisha or courtesans.


  • Ching, Francis D.K. et al. A Global History of Architecture. Second Edition. John Wiley & Sons, 2011. pp590-591.

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