Tayū in Shimabara Today

Kikugawa Tayuu in Shimabara Kyoto
Kikugawa Tayuu in Shimabara Kyoto

This portrait of Kikugawa Tayū was taken earlier this year just outside the the main gate of Shimabara, once one of the most famous entertainment districts in Japan.

According to a sign posted by the Kyoto City Office a few feet to Kikugawa's right, Shimabara was founded in 1641 and was originally known as Nishishinyashiki. However, it came to be called Shimabara after the Shimabara Rebellion of 1637-8.

I wanted to photograph Kikugawa-san on the streets of Shimabara at least once for my project on her, but when I went to scout locations a few days before our photo session, locations were hard to come by.

Shimabara today is actually a very quiet and almost deserted residential district. There are a few small coffee shops, a cafe, a public bath, and many houses and apartment buildings.

During the day, there are very few people out and about on the streets. Most of the pedestrians I saw were little old ladies or middle-aged women walking their dogs.

The only remaining signs of Shimabara as an entertainment district are the gate that leads into the district; the former ageya Sumiya, now a museum that is only occasionally open; and Wachigaiya, the last active ochaya (teahouse) in Shimabara.

Unfortunately, the main gate looks rather small and out of place compared to the houses and shops around it now. It has seen better days, as many of us have!

I was told several months ago that I could not photograph Kikugawa-san outside of Sumiya, even if we were just on the street, which is a public thoroughfare. I was not given a reason, and I've come to learn that in Kyoto, sometimes it's best not to even ask why. I just have to accept or I'll drive myself crazy.

I probably could have photographed Kikugawa-san in front of Wachigaiya, but since she is not affiliated with the teahouse in any way, I believe I would be misleading people if I photographed her there.

I did manage to find some interesting spots on the side streets, and I did make some photos in and around the Shimabara gate. The portrait I've posted here is my favorite of the day even though you can't see any of Shimabara in the background. I had to be very close to Kikugawa-san to make this portrait, and she was comfortable enough with my presence to let me get so near.

A few minutes after I made this image, I was photographing Kikugawa-san right under the main gate when a mother and her young daughter came riding by on a bicycle. The mother brought the bike to a screeching halt when she saw Kikugawa-san, and the young girl pointed at the tayū.

Neither mother nor daughter knew who or what Kikugawa-san was. Since they were on a bicycle, they must have lived somewhere relatively close to Shimabara, but they had no idea what a tayū looks like. I wonder if they even knew what Shimabara once was.

Photographing a tayū is not without difficulties, but I'm glad I started this project. You have to look carefully, but there is still beauty to be found in Shimabara. And it should be shared with others, and hopefully preserved.