This month, once again, our good friend Edward J. Taylor continues his ongoing journey through Kyoto’s past and present with the third installment of his “Kyoto Streets” project and a stroll along Teramachi.
I choose to start just below Gōjō-dōri, at one of my favorite cafes. Efish unfailingly feels welcoming, well-lit with broad windows open to the river and an unexplainable literary vibe. And I always find myself tempted to adverb the name: “I’m feeling a tad efish this morning.”
After a quick curry and coffee, I pass from its doors into the shade of a massive oak tree, its canopy proudly broad like a peacock showing off its new colors. Teramachi (“Temple Street”) begins here, as a diagonal, curving away from the Kamogawa. During the Heian period, the road marked the capital’s easternmost border, and was known as Higashikyogoku-oji. This posh residential area was completely destroyed during the Onin Wars that leveled Kyoto in the late 1400s.
A century later, the street took on a more important role, anchored by what was a gate through the Ōdoi, Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s wall that once wrapped itself around Kyoto in order to protect the old capital. Teramachi thus became a defense measure of sorts. Hideyoshi’s predecessor Oda Nobunaga, found that the greatest threat to his authority came not from rival warlords but from the powerful Buddhist temples whose extensive grounds served as fortresses. After Nobunaga’s death, one of Hideyoshi’s first acts was to align the temples along a single stretch of the city, eighty in all, in a city that may have had as many as 2000 at the time. (The most recent stats (2014) say 1527, against 243 shrines.) This was done as a means of keeping their power in check, and as way to make more efficient the collection of tax revenues. In addition, the temple grounds were large open spaces where troops could quickly mass to protect Kyoto’s vulnerable eastern flank. (Similarly, a temple-lined street called Teramachi can be found in any Japanese town of a reasonable size, usually below the castle. And the red light districts are inevitably one street over.)
Despite the uniformity of its origins, one of the appeals of the street today is how its character changes every few blocks. This first section is a little stub that leads away from the cartoon-like statues of the dueling Yoshitune and Benkei and extends across the busy Kawaramachi-dōri. There’s a definite little hipster vibe in this corner of the city, spelled out in hip-hop dance studios, a café that does set lunches with brown rice, and the locally loved Sugar Hill, with its extensive drinks menu, simple but tasty Italian dishes, and a friendly owner (who I was sad to hear passed away this past spring.)
The funky eateries carry on, and nestled between them is a little shop that sells kokeshi dolls and second hand books. A sign in English tells people to pay for the books upstairs, but oddly, there is not a title to be seen in that language. A few doors up is a lovely little shop selling hake brushes in various sizes. Not far beyond this, a beautiful machiya catches my attention. Above the affixed wooden benches in front of this funerary shop hangs a trio of massive juzu prayer beads. Another English sign greets me here, inviting me in to browse for souvenirs. A very practical Buddhist approach to dealing with the impermanence of a rapidly dwindling client base.
It is here that the temples begin. The first few deny entry with little inhospitable fences between their gates. In Japan, not all temples are built alike, and certain sects aren’t as welcoming. Perhaps this is one reason they are losing their influence with the younger generation, and could help explain the funerary shop trying to engage outside the usual norm.
The shops gradually increase in number. The next stretch north from Takatsuki-dōri was traditionally the heart of Kyoto’s electronics district, and although subsequently diminished in size, in its day it once rivaled Tokyo’s better-known Akihabara.
At the busy Shijō-dōri I am faced with choosing between a pair of shopping arcades. The temples will continue up Shinkyōgoku on the right, but its narrow confines are generally lively and just a little too crowded. In keeping with the nature of the walk, I stick to Teramachi proper, which is wider, and easier to stroll. Kyoto’s trolley once ran through here until the late 1970s and not long afterward the arcade was given a roof.
One hundred years before, Teramachi changed even more dramatically. With the coming of the Meiji Restoration, Buddhism was on the wane. Some of the temples along this street were dismantled, and shops began to replace them. A few temples were converted into Shinto Shrines, which were given new authority by a government occupied with (re-)creation myths. I’d popped into one of these just a few minutes before, the Daijingū Shrine, which enables a place to honor the Ise Shrine, for those who can’t make the long trip to that grand shrine to the south. Below the eternal chrysanthemum crest is a symbol of further change: ema plaques decorated with sexy and manga-esque shrine maidens.
Not far within the arcade I pass the famed Hōraidō tea shop, patronized by some of Kyoto’s top tea teachers. Those who prefer black tea also have the choice of the Sir Thomas Lipton tea café, serving Kyoto since 1930, apart from the war years when it was banned as a symbol of those wily British. There was a definite change of heart in the 1960s when the Prime Minister himself awarded a special prize to their Assam/ Darjeeling blend, and as such this Royal Milk Tea can be found in vending machines nationwide.
There’s a timeless nature to the arcade. Over a decade in the city, I’ve seen little turnover in the types of shops, though the owners and the names themselves may change. Some of the shops are geared for Kyoto’s older citizens, with their array of clashing patterns adorned in subdued colors. Bolder colors are for the young, and on weekends, neighboring Shinkyōgoku is the domain of high schoolers. Trends change, but the shops somehow maintain a certain commonality.
But some things do change. The mouth and throat of Nishiki Market is thronged with Asian tourists. (I won’t write about this lane since John Ashburne has written the definitive piece on market, which can be found in the Deep Kyoto Walks anthology.) Later, the sight of a new structure with clean lines brings with it the vague recollection of something beautiful and dark and wooden. And I have no idea what‘s happening in that hedgehog shop.
A person could spend an entire day in this arcade, and exploration of the side alleys offers its own reward. Looking down one narrow passage, I see a shop catering to the Lolita crowd, while across the way hangs dozens of Hawaiian shirts. (Perhaps both shops having the same owner.)
One of the arcade’s more interesting shops is the Daishodō shop that specializes in old books and prints. This is catnip to the bibliophile, the walls covered with colorful masterpieces. It is the kind of place where you want to make frequent visits, until your face takes on a familiarity with the owner, and he begins to reveal the real treasures hidden away in corners and back closets.
The road does a little jog to the right. In 1590, Hideyoshi created a little piazza here, which was once surrounded by stores selling Buddhist statues and rosaries, calligraphy brushes and books. The fan shop on one corner keeps the sole continuity with that time. Today, I’m waved through by a massive crab on the wall. Meanwhile the Mishima sukiyaki restaurant holds steady, as it has since 1873, and the coming of meat consumption in a time of paired down Buddhism.
The arcade’s next section has a certain timelessness. It was once filled with shops selling typically Japanese household items, and as such was a good place to send friends visiting from abroad in their hunt for souvenirs. Most of those are long gone now, including a little shop that sold old Buddhist statues. There also used to be a shop selling items emblazoned with the logo for the New York Police Department, which may have moved a few doors up and morphed into goods with a firefighter motif. They have also developed a tie-up with neighboring Smart Coffee, which honors the old-timey café look. There are also a few places piled high with old books, a spacious shop selling stationary and calligraphy brushes, and the famous Kyukyodō, purveyors of incense since 1663.
But my favorite shop is just below Oike-dōri, which sells and teaches instruments from all around the world. If popping in, you’ll inevitably run into one of Kyoto’s many musicians, gearing up for the next gig. One large temple across the road bills itself as Honnō-ji, the site of Nobunaga’s assassination, yet the actual location of that event was a few blocks west (and previously discussed in the Aburanokōji piece.) The now rebuilt temple is always bustling, though I remember its grounds merely as the home to a large car park. (The cars now rest piled up in one of those automobile carousels, tastefully disguised as a squat two-story temple building.) Today a new museum is on site, and a handful of English pamphlets allow visitors to undertake a self-guided tour. I am impressed that the priest here has decided to reclaim the temple’s history and engage the community once more.
Over Oike, Kyoto’s city hall looms up, a 1920’s behemoth curiously beautiful in its own hideous way. On summer nights and weekends the plaza out front is adopted by skateboarders and para-para dancers, though at the moment it is fenced in for construction. From here the arcade’s tin roof is gone, but the stroll continues pleasantly amongst the galleries and antique shops that signify yet another change of character.
There’s a gaping hole on the next corner where something large is coming in. Living in Kyoto, you often find yourself playing the “what was here?” game. Like having a mouth with a missing tooth, the mind constantly probes the absences. These next few blocks host the oldest shops on Teramachi, but I note that many of them too have vanished, to be replaced by newish bars and eateries.
Thankfully one of my favorite restaurants still carries on, standing as it has for decades. More often than not, French cooking in Japan is something of an extreme sport, the chefs trying to go higher and higher as they reach for the (Michelin) stars. Le Bouchon by contrast is more like French peasant food, the stuff you’d find in any non-descript auberge in the countryside, and as such, it stands out. Next door is a new shop I’d never noticed, increasing the number of record shops in this area. In the window is a sign saying “Stop the Wars, Stop the Nukes” below an odd mixture of LPs, avant-garde book titles, and even an issue of Rolling Stone circa 1971, complete with mailing label addressed to San Lorenzo, CA.
Some of Kyoto’s oldest and proudest shops stand tall along the next block: the famous Ippodō tea shop from 1717, and the Shinshindo boulangerie, from 1913, not to mention the former residence of famed 13th Century poet, Fujiwara no Teika, and Horinbō, where the game of go was divested of its Chinese roots and formalized into the familiar style of play consistent since the 15th Century. Nearby is Gyōgan-ji, one of the temples on the Saikoku Kannon pilgrimage circuit. The associated stamp books always make for a nice memento, as each of the identical kanji characters reveal the uniqueness of the hand that wields the brush. I recall the woman here as being one of the most dignified in looks and demeanor, yet having the roughest handwriting of all.
As I move across Marutamachi-dōri I begin to notice more places that are no longer there. A large brick event space anchors one corner, a concrete fortress like the home of a gangster. The day is quickly becoming an exercise in what once was. Quite apt I suppose, in keeping with the theme of impermanence, characteristic of the Buddhist thought that underlies Teramachi’s very existence.
Thankfully one building has survived, and it is one of Kyoto’s most beautiful. It was on this spot that Doshisha University was born in 1875, and upon moving northeast to its present location a year later, the former school building was replaced with the current structure by the university’s founder, John Hardy Nishima. This low building with broad verandas and high windows would look right at home in 19th century Singapore. Beside it is a lovely brick building that is emblazoned with Doshisha’s university crest. It reminds me of the trefoil symbol that marks radioactive materials.
The left side of the road is defined by the former grounds of the Imperial Palace. The road itself is heavily trafficked and not much fun on a bicycle. Walking proves an equally unattractive prospect. I duck into the trees to follow a narrow path running parallel, along a long section of earthen wall. It is pleasant and shaded and a month from now will ring out with the voices of cicada. Today there are a few walkers strolling by, enjoying a May afternoon growing warm. Rainy season can’t be too far away.
Midway up I come to Nashioki Shrine. There is a well on the grounds, and locals can often be seen filling plastic bottles with its fresh water. It always proved a pleasant place to rest. I haven’t been through here for a number of years and am horrified to see that they have built a luxury apartment block between the main and inner torii gates, a metaphor so obvious that I need not spell it out. This is a disturbing trend in Kyoto, of a shrine selling off its land for development. Most controversial is the razing of a section of sacred forest for a similar structure at Shimogamo Shrine, itself a UNESCO World Heritage Site.) If asked they will argue that they need to recoup operating expenses in these days when interest in religion is on the wane. Yet these are two popular shrines, in the most touristed city in the country. (Not to mention their tax-free status.) Shinto defines itself by nature worship, but I suppose that today this includes the nature of turning a profit. I wonder if the eight myriad gods are getting their cut.
I leave this behind and walk back over to Teramachi proper. Rōzan-ji to my right hosts one of the city’s more interesting festivals. According to the old calendar, February 3rd marks the official start of spring. On that day, children across the country throw beans at a parent wearing a oni demon mask, as a means of dispelling the darkness of winter. Here at Rōzan-ji, three men tromp about in thick bulging demon suits, swinging huge clubs at each other and at the crowd (guaranteed to scare the pants off the youngsters). Local celebrities then throw packets of beans to the eagerly awaiting crowd to take home in order to bring luck into the household.
An oni would do well to sink their fangs into the specialties at Grand Burger, which serves up a particularly tasty burger. If they prefer continental, Epice which holds court in an old machiya next door, with a name that makes a pretty good pun on Ebisu, the god of wealth in business.
The palace grounds officially come to an end at Imadegawa. On the northeast corner is the Ōharaguchi Dōhyō, which marks one of the official corners of Heian-period Kyoto. Just west of here was where Honyaradō once stood. This famed Kyoto landmark was run by renowned photographer Kai Fusayoshi, a good place to grab a coffee or curry, the walls around you stacked up with Kai-san’s books and photos. More than this, Honyarado served as a major center of counterculture in Japan, and in its heyday hosted such big names as Kenneth Rexroth and Gary Snyder. Kai-san could often be seen roaming the streets taking photos of cats, bicycles, and the attractive locals that are a result of a millennium of imperial heritage. Inevitably long-term residents could find their own photo inside one of the books on displays. Sadly all these, as well as over two million of Kai-san’s negatives, were lost in a fire in 2015.
But the neighborhood is redefining itself in positive ways. The stumpy two-block Masugata arcade connects Teramachi with Demachiyanagi and the river beyond. As that marked the southern end of the Saba Kaidō, which brought seafood down from the Sea of Japan, traditionally the arcade was once filled with fishmongers. It is also famed for the home of Demachi Futaba, where fans of its tasty mocha queue halfway up the block. Nowadays the arcade has filled in with shops selling chicken, tofu, and meat. But most noted are a few new hip looking bars, as well as Demachiza, a new and compact Art House cinema.
As I continue north, the road becomes more definitely residential. This quiet neighborhood gives a glimpse of what Teramachi must have looked like in days past, as here the temples are consistent, lining the road shoulder to shoulder. Some of these would have had far more spacious grounds in the past. Others are more modest and are huddled closer the road. I come to one wide-open expanse, tricked into thinking the temple here to be particularly huge, but it proves to be a grouping of five temples, clustered around a shrine at center. Passing a map of the area, I note that the temples had all been allotted a similar of amount of space. The surrounding homes too have been placed along grids of a similar size, hinting at former temples that haven’t survived to the modern day. So I suppose my earlier criticism of selling off sacred land to developers is not a new issue after all.
It goes without saying that each temple has a tale to tell, but a few of them resonate more historically. Amida-ji contains the grave of Oda Nobunaga. Saion-ji was relocated here after Shogun Yoshimitsu wanted to use its former site for his new villa, Kinkaku-ji. Nearby Tennei-ji was similarly relocated, from far off Aizu Castle, no doubt to the benefit of its appearance, as the main gate perfectly frames Hiei-zan rising behind. Another gate, that of Kanga-an reveals a certain Chinese influence, reaffirmed by the statues in its garden and its lineage in the Obaku school of Zen.
Aesthetically, the temple that most stands out must certainly be Junen-ji, due to a shape that could have moonlighted as a Byzantine church. The temple was built in 1993 by the same priest that designed the equally bizarre Issin-ji in Osaka. The shape of the windows above the main entrance suggests that he may have been a closet Led Zeppelin fan. Stairway to Heaven indeed.
Walking along, the eyes are drawn westward to a tall grove of trees. They shade and protect the vast grounds of Kamigoryō Shine. The Onin Wars began here in 1467, and over the next decade Kyoto was razed to the ground. The shrine now commemorates the souls of those killed in the violence. A flea market is held here on the 18th of every month, except for in May when the shrine has its own version of the Festival of the Ages, where men in period costume accompany a portable shrine as it circles the neighborhood, pulled along by an ox cart.
The road thins as it crosses the Kuramaguchi shopping street, then again at the busier Kitaoji. The temples appear to stop, but maps show that a few are hidden amongst the squat apartment buildings and homes growing larger. The road is sheared by the Vivre shopping center, then comes to a definitive end at a house whose number is prominently written out front: 54. As in half of 108, the most auspicious number in Buddhism. Does that mean I have to walk back?
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.
Article and original photos by Edward J. Taylor. All rights reserved.