Here is the latest installment from Edward J. Taylor‘s ongoing exploration of Kyoto’s streets.
Prior to setting off on these walks, I sit awhile with a Kyoto map before me, reading the street names and choosing those that are most familiar, or ones that resonate somehow. For today I chose a street that will take me from the heart of the city nearly to my doorstep. It seems the perfect way to spend an afternoon growing warm, with the cherry buds a day or so away from winking open.
If roads are assigned a level of importance, then Kuramon-dōri must rank toward the bottom, as broken up as it is. A number of grand landmarks are found not along the way, but literally squatting upon the path itself. These monuments are like the jewels in a necklace, while Kuromon is more the utilitarian string. Preparing myself for a day of detours, I stand before the rail line that curls west to define Umekōji Park’s southern boundary, authoritatively terminating Kuromon from any onward passage.
The road remains residential and modestly inconspicuous, but for a sole political poster for a candidate from the ‘Kyoto Party,’ which I have never heard of. This is paired with another taboo topic of polite dinner conversation, the Catholic Guest House, founded in 2010 as a kind of pluralistic safe haven in a time of religious and nationalistic division.
Ryukoku University, whose grounds form the next blockage in the road, is similarly a former religious organization, founded in 1639 as a training center for monks of Nishi Hongan-ji before turning secular in 1876. I used to visit its pleasant campus for the monthly meetings of an early incarnation of the Writers in Kyoto group, in a building whose exterior was like something from antebellum New Orleans.
I rejoin Kuromon on the far side of Nishi Hongan-ji’s sprawling grounds. Up at the corner of Gojō-dōri, I’m intrigued by a large Chinese group that is waiting to enter Nagomiya. They have been herded into two clusters by an employee who has apparently been appointed to deal with crowd control. This is one of the mysteries of modern Kyoto, these large foreign groups massing in front of little eateries that neither I nor anyone I know have ever heard of. Social media has a power far surpassing the old word-of-mouth.
I detour again around a cemetery and the Omiya bus station, the latter flanked by shops whose frontages have seen little change since the 1980s. (The exception being the intriguing Shioriya Taiyozoku, newly opened, but whose name and décor herald the immediate post-war period.) And onward steadily, over Shijō, Sanjō, Ōike. I spy a poster for the Kyoto Petanque club, whose acronym KCPSBF is far better known for the Kimbrough Cotton Patch Soul Blues Festival. I am puzzled by an old-timey clothier whose specialized black dyes have a seaweed base.
The only businesses along the way are beauty salons, and a surprisingly large percentage of Shorinji Kempo dōjōs. Aside from these, there is little besides houses, standing shoulder to shoulder on their march north. Besides that, nothing in particular. Kuromon is rapidly shaping up to be the Seinfeld of Kyoto streets.
A large detour takes me around Nijō-jō. The crowds are busy here, occupying themselves until the explosion of blossoms that will probably hit over the weekend. One lone tree does hold its own on the traffic median adjacent, no doubt feeling pretty pleased at all the attention it was getting from photographers. Throughout the walk, I’ve seen numerous posters for the Horikawa Sakura Festival, set for April 14. Sadly by that date I will no longer be around, and nor will the sakura.
My detour takes me past the site of Japan’s first middle school (in 1870), and the former headquarters of the Shoshidai, who oversaw Kyoto at the behest of the Tokugawa government based up in Edo. I return again to Kuromon proper, which narrows to a width I prefer not to drive. A couple of old fabric companies remind me that I am nearing Nishijin. Some of their traditional attire can be worn at the nearby Samurai Juku, which allows visitors the opportunity to try tameshi-giri, or test cutting with a live sword. A good number of guest houses I’ve passed through the day bear kanji more familiar from the names of temples, and these seem to culminate in the Ryokan Mugen, a Buddhist term meaning “unlimited; unbounded.” Well, if that doesn’t sum up the city of Kyoto’s tourist policy, nothing does.
Then I find what I’ve been looking for, without actually knowing that I was. A stone marker tells me that I am standing before the former grounds of Jurakudai Palace, built by Toyotomi Hideyoshi as his Kyoto headquarters before he relocated to Fushimi Castle south of the city. More specifically, I am standing at the location of that palace’s Black Gate, the source of the street’s name, Kuromon. I knew that there had once been a black gate of some sort, I just wasn’t sure of the context. What I also hadn’t realized was that some of the former structures of the Jurakudai are now repurposed as structures within the grounds of Nishi Hongan-ji, which I’d walked past an hour or so before.
This information takes further shape where the road comes to a definitive end, at the Kyoto City Archaeological Museum up at Imadegawa. Opened in 1979, it is housed in a gorgeous building of a century before. I take advantage of the free admission, and after a brief look at a millennium of broken tiles and pottery, I spend more time with its photographs and maps. These prove an invaluable resource, which help to tie up some unfinished threads from previous walks, and to help better plan walks to come.
And in looking at these maps I come to a shocking epiphany: I’ve done the wrong damn walk.
My original intention had been to walk directly to a park that is mere meters from my house. Yet I was still far south. The name of another road jumps out at me: “Koromonodana-dōri,” and I realize I’ve committed the classic Japanese language rookie mistake. In relying on terms in the roman alphabet, rather than on the actual kanji characters, I’ve mistaken my Koro for a Kara.
My walk thus far hadn’t offered very much, and the day is still early. So I return downtown to Rokkakudō-dōri, which I wrote about last month. Here I find the start of my Koromonodana, abutting the headquarters of Minori clothing design, which dates to 1867. There is a philosophy to the building’s unique look, namely that the “straight and curved lines expresses ‘flexibility and delicacy’ as well as ‘power and sharpness’, which are very important senses for the fashion industry.” The roots of the fashion industry in the area are hinted at in the very name of Koromonodana, an area that Hideyoshi designated to sell the stoles for Buddhist priests, as well as kimono that had certain imperfections. It was like the retail outlet for Edo-period Kyoto.
As my first steps take me up the road I realize that it is the better choice. I’m not sure if Minori offers pret-a-porte, but there is a definitive French vibe to the area, with a number of restaurants waving the flag of the trois coleurs. One of the exceptions is the former location of Hirono Ryoton’s tea school, allegedly visited by both Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu. I notice too, a sign for J-spirit.com. This is Chionsha, which promotes traditional culture through workshops and performance. And besides J-spirit, there are also J- spirits, namely in the form of a sake shop next door.
On the corner of Oike I find a familiar face, that of La Jolla, whose owner does up Kyoto’s best Mexican food, somehow finding the energy after mornings spent surfing up on the Sea of Japan. Over the boulevard the French theme picks up again, first as Le Petit Mec, a bakery whose Imadegawa location is one of my favorite patisseries in the city, namely for the Nouvelle Vague posters that look down upon you as you tuck into your croissants and café crème. Slightly on one comes to Fromage de Mythese (and their blessed cheese-makers), and further still is the restaurant Modern Times, which was probably never actually patronized by Charlo, but Chaplin’s silhouette decorates the front nonetheless, beneath a French flag that wipes from the blackboard the handwritten specials as it sways in the breeze.
Shi Shin Samurai Café across the road further bolsters the international theme, where the well-travelled chef aspires to promote cross-cultural communication through food. Through food I’d concur, but I’m not sure if the same sentiment can be achieved through architecture, if judging by the blocky apartment building nearby, which looks like a Mayan pyramid as designed by Gaudi. The Face House on the other hand is quite clear about what it communicates within its grinning visage.
An interesting compliment to the Archeological Museum earlier is the Yaguchi Kosetsuen, which oversees preservation work across Kyoto. From these articles, the reader will get the sense that I see their work to be insufficient, in their fight against the dual tides of hyper-development and socialized fatalism. Yet I am pleased to see that there is such an organization in the first place. Investigating further, I find that they restored Kyoto’s famed Golden Pavilion in 1987 (not to mention elements of other structures across the city), as well as cultural artifacts such as paintings and scrolls.
Koromonodana leads to yet another French restaurant, the cozy and inviting A la Chalamont, before vanishing for a few blocks. I’m uncertain as to why, for rather than the grounds of something grand as with Kuromon-dori, all I see is a criss-crossing of small streets lined with newer homes, a warren of lanes that Kyoto does so well. Upon its return, the road zigzags during its passage to Imadegawa, where a beautiful Meiji-era structure sits empty and for sale.
The last few blocks are narrow, and maintain an older charm. I pass a small café intriguingly called Moch Pit Kyoto, and I delight at the sight of young salarymen sitting around a tall hookah. Its fruited scent follows me awhile, then I arrive at the monolithic and mysterious Arkray, apparently a medical supply company. It is built upon the former Yosuien, which has a very storied history. A villa built here was originally constructed with leftover materials from Kinkakuji. It was later given by Tokugawa Ieyasu to his favorite swordsmith. The garden was redesigned to resemble Lake Biwa, which some finishing touches provided by famous garden designer Kobori Enshu. In the modern period, it passed through the hands of the Mitsui family (of the zaibatsu department store fame), then was taken over by the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications, up until the privatization of the Post Office in 2004. Arkray took it not long afterward, and why they have built such a hulking structure upon it I’d have to ask the good folks at Yaguchi. As it is, the garden is unopen to the public, enforced by the guardman ever-present before the main gate on Kuramaguchi-dōri.
Rare for the city center, I once saw a long rat snake slither across the road from the garden to Genbu Koen, a favorite playground with my daughter and her schoolmates. The park serves almost as an extended garden of my own house, which stands just around the corner. As I walk those last few minutes home, I wonder how to approach this piece, as most of what I saw today was admittedly pretty minor. But then the perfection of this dawned on me, for there is far more to Kyoto than just the big attractions and the historical monuments. Generally speaking, most recorded history deals with highlights, but what they neglect to mention is that that very same history is peopled. I’ve always felt that Kyoto’s true charm lies in its residential streets, where scenes of real life are played out. And it was in the presence of these quiet lives that both history, and myself, pass by.
Edward J. Taylor is a prolific walker, writer and editor based in Kyoto, Japan. In addition to co-editing the Deep Kyoto: Walks collection, he also keeps a regular blog of rambles at http://notesfromthenog.blogspot.ie/. Follow his adventures on his official Facebook page.
Also by Edward J. Taylor:
* Walking through the history of Kyoto’s “Oil Alley”: Aburanokōji
* From Industry to History on Kyoto’s Muromachi-dōri
* A Stroll Along Teramachi: Kyoto’s “Temple Street”
* Tracking the Changes on Kyoto’s Bukkoji-dōri
* Shinmachi and the Giants of Gion Matsuri
* Ambling Down Kyoto’s Yanaginobanba Street
* Strolling in Kyoto: Takeyacho & Ebisucho
* Following the flow of the Takasegawa on Kiyamachi Street
* An In-between Day on Kyoto’s Ainomachi
* Miracle on Third Street: Walking Kyoto’s Sanjo Dori Part 1
* Miracle on Third Street: Walking Kyoto’s Sanjo Dori Part 2
* Looking for the Lost on Kyoto’s Higashi-no-toin
* From Bike Pound to Buddha on Rokkaku-dō Dōri
Article and original photos by Edward J. Taylor. All rights reserved.