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Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Sumiya Motenashi Art Museum Kyoto


Sumiya is a two-story building that served as a very high-end restaurant/brothel during the Edo Period; its history dates from more than 350 years ago. Located in a former red-light district known as Shimabara, in central Kyoto, Sumiya is now a museum open to the public.

Sumiya kyotoOfficially known as The Sumiya Motenashi Art Museum, Sumiya is the only remaining "ageya" in Kyoto. Ageya were elegant restaurants where Geisha and Taiyu performed and lived. In 1952 the building was designated as an Important Cultural Property.

Sumiya was a place for well-heeled to come to be entertained—but to label it to a "brothel" is to limit its significance and function. It was a meeting place and salon where elite and powerful men gathered. It was for example the meeting place of Shimabara Haidan, a well-known haiku group. It was also a showcase for some of the most talented artists and artisans of the era.

There are no other comparable buildings surviving in Tokyo or Osaka - or anywhere in Japan.

On a weekday in May, I was one of only a handful of people in Sumiya. I had whole rooms to myself to enjoy, for example, the garden from the veranda and the many fusuma (sliding doors) and byobu (painted screens).

After paying, you enter a large room that could be any dull prefetural museum. Behind glass cases were byobu and other artifacts. This is not what I was after. Going through a small area where there are storage lockers, you come into the original kitchen and food and drinks preparation area.

It is very spacious and has five old “stoves” for cooking rice immediately on the left. Above, slats in the ceiling were used to ventilate the smoke that floated up from the fires. In the foreground, a large tatami area remains. The area once had as many as 30-40 staff bustling about, running back and forth from the rooms where clients were entertained.

Customers would enter through the main gate nearby and pass through a large noren curtain. They were then guided into the adjoining rooms to be entertained.

Sumiya KyotoFurther in are the rooms for customers and a large garden. The garden is not accessible - like a true geisha, you can look at her but not touch. An eighty-year-old trellised pine spreads out before you like a dragon. Behind it are two teahouses, one with a copper roof, the other thatched.

Amazingly, the same family has owned and managed the facility for 13 generations since 1641.


From JR Tambaguchi Station, which is one stop from Kyoto Station on the Saiin Line, walk south along Senbon Dori (street). This is the street you come to as you exit from the right side of the station. It runs next to the JR train line. Walk with the train line above you and on your right and the Kyoto wholesale fruit and vegetable market on your left. When you reach a small temple on the left, turn left. Make your first right and the walls of Sumiya will appear.

From the north side of Nishi Honganji Temple, walk west on Haniya machi Dori for three blocks. Read more about Sumiya Motenashi Art Museum.


32 Banchi, Ageya-cho, Shimogyo-ku, Kyoto, Japan
TEL.075-351-0024 FAX.075-351-0026

Open 10 am – 4 pm.
1,000 yen for adults.

Japanese Art - byobu screens

Japanese Art Books

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