Shimabara is a hanamachi ('flower town,' or geisha district) located in Shimogyo Ward, Kyoto City. The official name of the hanamachi is Nishishinyashiki, and is comprised of the six towns of Kamino-cho, Nakano-cho, Chudoji-cho, Tayu-cho, Shimono-cho and Ageya-cho.
Shimabara has a long history, and is the first officially acknowledged hanamachi in Japan.
Shimabara is believed to have started with the opening of the 'keisei no tsubone' (courtesan house) called 'Kujo no Sato.'
The hanamachi was said to have been transferred to Nijo Madenokoji (called 'Nijo Yanagimachi') by Hideyoshi TOYOTOMI in the Azuchi-Momoyama period. In the Edo period, it was transferred to the area near Rokujo and was referred to as 'Rokujo Misujimachi,' having produced renowned geisha such as Yoshino-dayu (Geisha Yoshino with the honorary suffix 'dayu' for geisha or courtesans added). As a result of a problem, the hanamachi was forced to move to the area near Shujakuno. The hanamachi came to be called 'Shimabara' because, some people believe, this incident resembled Shimabara no Ran (Shimabara Rebellion) or because, others say, the hanamachi surrounded by fields was likened to an island. Enclosed by a moat, it was called the 'kuruwa' (literally enclosure, or red-light district). Shimabara was at its peak during the Genroku era, and with rises and falls, afterwards, ceased to flourish. The reasons for this are believed to have been due to its inconvenient location and high prestige. It appears most people used the hanamachi in Gion Kobu and Kamishichiken.
Shimabara had two omon (entrance gate to the hanamachi), and, with the tegata (permit, 手形), women in the hanamachi are allowed to go out of the district freely; moreover, it was open to commoners irrelevant of age or gender.
As can be seen from the examples of Hachiro KIYOKAWA and Sanyo RAI, who as filial duty let their birth mothers have fun at the ageya (a high-class restaurant where courtesans or geisha were called to entertain customers), Shimabara was different from what the public negatively considers the 'yukaku' (red-light district) to be.
After the Meiji period, Shimabara lost regulars of the court nobles and the samurai class and thus its economic condition deteriorated; the district tried to survive by holding events such as the 'Tayu Dochu' (public procession of the tayu, a courtesan or geisha of the highest rank), but the numbers of ochaya (teahouse), tayu and geisha decreased; finally, the teahouse association was dissolved and Shimabara became an ordinary residential district. Many of the remaining buildings and gates in the hanamachi era have disappeared due to demolitions and traffic accidents, and currently, only 'Omon,' `Wachigaiya' (geisha house and teahouse), and 'Sumiya' (ageya) remain to remind people of the hanamachi.
The tayu in Shimabara after World War II included: Yugiri tayu (second generation), Takasago tayu, Kokonoe tayu (九重太夫), Usugumo daifu, Wakagumo tayu (若雲太夫), Kasuga tayu (春日太夫), Hanagumo tayu (花雲太夫), and Hanakoto dayu.
Note that names for tayu are passed down from generation to generation, and accordingly more than one tayu with the same tayu name may exist through generations.
Shimabara is often considered to have been a yukaku (red-light district) in the eyes of the public, but in fact, it was not a yukaku. It was open, and had a Kaburen theater: full of cultural and literary activities such as Japanese poems of tanka and haikai (haiku, renku, and haibun), one will notice that Shimabara was a hanamachi (geisha district) with a sophisticated culture. Sumiya, the only surviving building of the ageya architectural style in Japan, also proves that Shimabara was a refined hanamachi. It was the tayu who played a central role in enlivening Shimabara. They belonged to the okiya (a house where geisha or courtesans live) and were sent to the ageya (this form of business influenced Gion and other hanamachi). The tayu in fact held the high rank of the jugoi (Junior Fifth Rank) in the past, and has been the highest title awarded to the sophisticated geisha. The tayu would be equal to the accredited master or the grand master in classical Japanese dance. Shimabara has produced renowned geisha such as Yachiyo tayu, Yoshino dayu, Yugiri dayu, Ohashi tayu and Sakuragi tayu. The memorial services for Yoshino dayu, Ohashi tayu and Sakuragi tayu are said to have been held every October in Shimabara.
The tayu in Shimabara apply the white make-up thickly as the geisha and apprentice geisha in Gion do, and apply lipstick only to their bottom lips and the ohaguro (ink to color one's teeth black) to their teeth without fail. Since they do not practice the hikimayu (plucking of eyebrows to paint them), one can say that the tayu's make-up keeps the tradition of the han-genpuku (semi-genpuku ceremony, in which women, when getting married, dyed their teeth black, did up their hair, but did not shave eyebrows). Some believe their make-up was influenced by the culture of court nobles. The tayu do not wear wigs, and instead do their own hair in Japanese styles, which have a wide variety of hairstyles, such as '男元禄 (Tatehyogo),' 'Osafune,' and 'Katsuyama mage' (almost the same as 'Fukiwa' in Tokyo). The obi (kimono sash) is tied in front to form a pentagonal shape, and the shape is said to represent the kanji character '心' (heart).
Historically, the title of 'Tayu' (Bu dayu and Noh dayu) has been awarded to those females who excelled in Noh plays and women's kabuki, and accordingly, the tayu in Shimabara are required to master classical Japanese dance. Classical Japanese dance in Shimabara followed the Shinozuka School first, then the Inoue School of Dance temporarily, and later the Hanayagi School of Dance. Currently, Shimabara has no affiliation with any school of dance. As for the tea ceremony, Shimabara has no affiliation with any school even though the art of the tea ceremony is required for hospitality. Additionally, the tayu have to be familiar with Japanese musical instrument, songs, calligraphy, incense burning, flower arrangement, Japanese poems and Imperial court-style games. Focus is rather placed on speaking skills.
Note that the tayu in Shimabara are considered to be geisha, not yujo (courtesans) since they sold their high-quality traditional performing arts, but did not sell their bodies.
Also note that the tayu are commonly called 'Kottai,' but not 'Oiran.'