Sumiya Pleasure House is the last remaining ageya (pleasure house) in the old Shimabara pleasure quarter. Built in 1641, this stately two-storey, 20-room structure allows a rare glimpse into Edo-era nirvana. With its delicate latticework exterior, Sumiya has a huge open kitchen and an extensive series of rooms (including one extravagantly decorated with mother-of-pearl inlay). To visit the 2nd storey, you need to join one of the 30-minute tours in Japanese (¥800).
Shimabara, a district northwest of Kyoto Station, was Kyoto’s original pleasure quarters. At its peak during the Edo period (1603–1868) the area flourished, with more than 20 enormous ageya – magnificent banquet halls where artists, writers and statesmen gathered in a ‘floating world’ ambience of conversation, art and fornication. Geisha were often sent from their okiya (living quarters) to entertain patrons at these restaurant-cum-brothels. By the start of the Meiji period, however, such activities had drifted north to the Gion district and Shimabara had lost its prominence.
There is an English leaflet available and captions throughout.