Do you believe in love at first sight? Well, I do. I fell in love with the Sumiya in Kyoto’s old Shimabara red light district the moment I saw it. This is Edo period elegance at its finest. Apart from castles and palaces, this is perhaps the most beautiful pre-modern Japanese structure I have ever been in—and I have been in a lot! The Sumiya is an old style restaurant and entertainment house, called an ageya were guests were entertained by geisha and taiyu (high-ranking prostitutes). This was no brothel or chicken ranch, but a place where rich merchants, artists, poets, politicians, ambitious samurai would come together for good conversation, fun and yes, carnal pleasure if they wanted it.
Dating back to its founding in 1641, the Sumiya was owned and operated by the Nakagawa family for 13 generations. The Sumiya was expanded in 1787, and this is the building that exists today.
If you don’t believe me that the Sumiya was an important place, then this is one instance where you can trust the Japanese government. In 1952, the Sumiya was designated a National Cultural Treasure.
It should also be noted that the Shogunate's elite corps of police-like thugs, the Shinsengumi, used to party very hard here-- until most rank and file members were banned from coming after running up incredibly high bills and not paying them. It was in this very establishment that Kondō Isami and Hijikata Toshizō held a banquet for Serizawa Kamo as part of a plan to get him as drunk as possible before assassinating him, which they did later in the night.at the Yagi residence. Numerous sword scars can be seen on the walls of the Sumiya as lasting reminders of Serizawa's violent drunken temper as well as those of other members who vented their frustration at being refused entry or service.