Another arcade parallel to Shinmachi starts conveniently a short walk up river, so I decide to do the day as a long loop that criss-crosses the city twice. As I once lived equidistant to the two shopping streets, I found myself patronizing both, though Omiya better provided for daily food needs, and I liked being able to bicycle up to shop counters as if at a drive-thru window.
I start the second half of the walk at a little park whose perimeters are defined by the remains of Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s Doi, Kyoto’s ‘Great Wall,’ which once ringed the old capital. There’s a great, more impressive stretch slightly to the north and west, within the grounds of Omiya Traffic Park, where school-age kids race around in little motorized hot rods, buzzing past their mothers who gossip away the time.
As I begin to walk I wonder if Hideyoshi would find what’s here today is worth protecting. The street is wider and lined with modern homes, barring one old wooden structure that seems affiliated with a woodworking company. There’s also the Haneda Memorial Hall, Kyoto University’s Center for Eurasian Cultural Studies, named after Professor Dr. Toru Haneda (1882–1955), who pioneered the academic study of Central and Northern Asian history and languages. Despite the focus on diversity within, the style of the building is pure Heisei-era Japanese, which looks to have used the same amount of concrete as the airport of the same name.
Only a little bit down, this Eurasian synthesis emphasizes itself in an unexpected way. The wine specialty store “Remuage” focuses on French in a store designed by designer Takuma Inoue, creating ”a novel space where ‘Japanese’ and ‘Western’ are fused.”
Back outside, the scent of garlic almost knocks me on my back, so thickly does it cut through the early winter air. I never find the source, but I do find a place that’s dealing with high-quality vinegars and oils. The Euro side of things is presenting itself well in this part of the city.
The garlic scent is now being overwhelmed by the strong scent of coffee. Perhaps it is emanating from Coffee Cento, or maybe Kissa Kōbō 4331, or even from my old favorite Circus Coffee further down at Kitayama. I’d always thought the arcade began there, but it appears to begin a few blocks north. It again proves to be the nicest shopping street in the city, in terms of consistency, and sheer variety. A person living in the neighborhood could attend to all their daily needs along this single stretch. Modern architecture aside, this is probably how Kyoto used to look. If only they’d do something about those damned powerlines.
Circus is a sometimes hang-out spot for myself and Joel Stewart so it seems fitting to meet him out front. A longtime Kyoto resident and artist, Joel’s atelier
stands a half-block off Omiya, so he has a decades-old relationship with the area. The shops are in too great a number and variety to cover here in detail, but as we stand in front of the gourmet butcher shop Gyusaika, he begins to elaborate on that familiarity.
It begins a few steps down Omiya in an old clothing shop whose wares are primarily spun with yarn. Joel spins one of his own in pointing out the little Anpanman vests that have been hanging in the front window for about the entire time he’s worked nearby. He mentions that he’d buy one if they had them in adult sizes, and I find it a shame that, as he’s recently turned 60, he didn’t wear the obligatory red chanchanko with the face of Baikinman at center.
Across the street is a SEEK, a lego-like building with steps leading downward. It is from here that the children’s Halloween parade begins, as well as a Samba line that marches through at the summer festival in July. Joel mentions that one day, in front of a shop just up from the corner of Kitayama, his attention was caught by the Grateful Dead playing through a small speaker placed in a coffee can. Surprised to find Deadheads here in sleepy Kyoto, and having played in his own Dead cover band Grateful Ted, he ended up making friends with the shopkeeper. One year, during a post–festival after-hours party held in the basement of SEEK, he was introduced to a group of itinerant fruit pickers who made up a band called Mystery Box, and he wound up sitting in with them as they worked their way through “Eyes of the World.” Joel and the Deadhead shopkeeper recently performed together in a jug band just a month ago.
Besides the musical connections, another thing that holds the street together seems to be chicken. I used to buy mine at a shop further down, and Joel tells me that he’d often have excellent chicken katsu lunch at the shokudō where we’re now standing. Joel tells of the time he was eating with another local artist, when his companion looked under his table to find a bible in the rack underneath. An ardent atheist, he vowed never to return. Unfazed, Joel’s admiration for a good katsudon kept him coming back though.
Omiya’s healthiest option is 03 Slow Café, which very much induces the philosophy imbued in the name. Not to say that the service itself is slow, but the meals have been lovingly and carefully prepared and are well-worth lingering over. The café is one example of the numerous shops run by younger people, who, attracted by the culture of the area (and the cheap rents), have begun to start diverse and funky little businesses: dance studios and aromatherapy, bakeries and bubble tea.
Architecture is another topic that we linger on. There’s a house at the corner, whose angle to the street slightly ruins Omiya’s near-perfect symmetrical line. As previous entries will confirm, I’m quick to criticize structures that victimize the old look of the city (one house further down is so self-consciously modern and suburban that it is as if the owners have thumbed their noses at Omiya’s tradition). But Joel has another take on this. When he first moved here in 1995, the whole street was all sleepy mom-and-pop shops. He found their concrete and metal facades to be ugly, depressing. But now that the years have passed, they bring comfort somehow, like the tattered nostalgia as expressed in Ghibli films. Perhaps in 25 years these homes that we both find repulsive today may inspire in us a longing for the old days.
Joel mentions a house just down a side street that has a swimming pool on one of its upper floors. Another shop has a tiled wall on its second story that juts forward some, almost a design flair inverting and riffing on the vertical eaves at roof corners that once served as firebreaks back in the feudal era.
Interiors too catch one’s interest. Joel points out what he calls the messiest shop on earth, a jumble of goods filling this broke-down palace. As if in contrast, there is the shop that seems to sell only kerosene and milk. The Singer shop looks lived in, but the age of the machines in the window suggests that the last time it did business was two Emperors ago. In this vein, I think I most appreciate that many of the shops have signage so old that the phone numbers emblazoned upon them have only six digits.
Beneath the old-timey vibe, there is a certain bohemian element at home here. (And dare I say that non-mainstream thinking lends itself to historic preservation?) Gomagoma Café channel the Amami Islands and the more laidback life, while the sound-alike Oui Oui Café goes for a noir French, after-hours vibe. The owner of Ebisuya bakery not only bakes wonderful bread but has also steadfastly carried the banner for progressive politics since the 1960s. As if to add a splash of local color, one older, bearded fellow pops his head out his front door. Joel mentions that he can often be seen enjoying a beer on the bench across the street, watching the world continue its spin.
And most important is the palpable sense of community here. It is most resonant at the street festival held every summer, when the shopkeepers erect stalls from which they sell food. Besides the Samba drummers mentioned earlier, a number of school-groups and local guilds perform at various places up and down Omiya. Midway down, I notice that they’ve built a small plaza for people to sit and relax, just beside a shop offering share bikes. I’ve lived in a few neighborhoods in this city infamous for being cold and standoffish, and nowhere else felt even half this neighborly.
Just below Kitaoji-dōri, the street opens a little and traffic gets a bit heavier. While there are still a few places selling food, down here things are geared more toward household needs. Besides old-timer Matsumoto, a photography studio since 1881, there’s a sake shop, a hobby shop, the obligatory bathhouse, not to mention Sou Sou, a cobbler who makes trendy looking shoes built upon old Japanese designs. There’s also a bizarre old-looking pharmacy that’s been colonized by a Family Mart.
One side street is a little fortified stub, with a row of nagaya that lead to a door that can only be opened in the event of an emergency. We’re well into the old weaver’s neighborhood of Nishijin here, and the sound of the clacking looms seems to mock the pace of our footfalls. We’re tempted to slow them even further at the stylish KoiKoi, where the mingei ceramics you purchase can be used instantly when dining on the Thai food that the multitasking owner also specializes in.
There are also a handful of Trattoria, so perhaps Italian noodles and reels of Nishijin silk threads have found some kind of symbiosis. One of the shops, Oasi, is a long-time favorite, well loved for the local and healthy ingredients it uses.
An incongruous suit of armor in a park ushers us past the Kanze Inari Shrine, tutelary shrine of the family that started Noh theater. We are just steps from broad Imadegawa Boulevard, where a bank curls itself around the corner in a nod to the famous Ginza Currency Exchange Building in Tokyo. Just beside it is my favorite Kyoto bakery, Le Petit Mec, bedecked as it is with old French film posters. As the road continues we find a fascinating diversity of small establishments, like the Germanic Rhinebeck café, the bicycle-themed Café Cycle, the western honky-tonk Koza, and of course Jitokku, a “live house” whose stage has been graced by some of the world’s top musical acts for over 45 years.
As we are not far from the site of the former imperial palace, the historic landmarks begin to appear. First is Senryō-ga-tsuji, a 250 year-old kimono maker founded in one corner of what was once Hideyoshi’s Juraku palace. (We’ll pass another monument to the palace a few blocks further on.) Nearby Nawa Park is a fantastic of example of Kyoto’s multi-tiered history. During the Heian period, this was the site of Ichijōin, the make-shift palace of Emperor Ichijō after the actual palace burned down in 999, a place mentioned in The Diary of Murasaki Shikibu. Nearly four hundred years later, Nawa Nagatoshi helped Emperor Go-Daigo escape from exile in Oki Island in order to restore the emperor to the throne. Nawa was killed here, during the fighting that broke out during the attempt. And a mysterious metal box is thought to be a covered well installed during WWII, to be used to help fight fires if Kyoto was bombed. Though the real mystery to Joel and I is why the road inexplicitly widens at one point, then narrows again (though there are no explanatory signs nor any one around to ask).
Omiya is most definitely truncated by the moats of Nijo-jo. We undertake a mental coin toss and almost instantaneously turn right toward the west. This takes us past an array of old administrative officers affiliated with the old Heian period palace. We rejoin Omiya again, soon passing the Edo period Nijo Jiya. Known colloquially as Kyoto’s Ninja house, the house dates to 1661 where it was utilized as a rice exchange until 1791, when the Ogawa family began hosting feudal lords on their visits to the old capital. And much like those lords, Joel bids his farewell from here, needing to get back to his art. It is just as well, for Omiya’s localized neighborhood feel that we’d been seeking ended back at Imadegawa.
But I feel the need to close the circle. I soon come to a single block of bars that lead to the busy Shijō Omiya intersection. The character of the road suddenly becomes broad and more grown up somehow. And growing up all too often lends itself to a sort of boring conservativism. That’s what we find here, with chain shops, and convenience stores, and cookie-cutter Showa period apartment blocks. Its look is pure modern city, and an unattractive one at that.
There are a few exceptions, as there always are. Most important to me personally was the Taiko Center, where I spent many Wednesday nights back in the days when I used to play. I quite like the fact that none of the adjacent buildings share any walls.
It is the open spaces that serve as oases: the earthen walls of fortress Hongan-ji Temple, the quiet refined plantation buildings of Ryukoku University, and the open greenery of Umekōji Park. But even this final space has its problems, notably its aquarium, which a decade ago was loudly protested by Kyoto residents, including here in Deep Kyoto. A city politician was quoted in saying that it was being built as an attraction for tourists, since the Chinese like to look at fish. Work took me there a few years after it opened, and one thing I didn’t see anywhere was information written in any Chinese dialect.
Under a cat’s cradle of rail lines, the next block is a similar scramble of little lanes leading to the sprawling grounds of Tō-ji temple. I remember staying somewhere around here in a backpacker guest house palace of sorts back in the autumn of 2000, when I was visiting Kansai in order to attend the events around the 400th anniversary of the battle of Sekigahara. That same weekend an earthquake hit my rural city of Yonago, measuring 7.3, which is one degree stronger than the quake that leveled Kobe five years before. Amazingly enough, there were no fatalities, and only minimal damage. I did get home to find a bag of flour had fallen off a high shelf, causing a small blizzard in my kitchen.
South of the temple, Omiya makes one final attempt to assert herself as a shopping arcade, though its hard to imagine it being interesting to anyone under the age of 70. At this point, I’m not sure which is more weary, my feet or the environs. Then Omiya finally dies smothered under a concrete flyover, as witnessed by a handful of convenience stores.
This is longest of these walks that I’ve done, especially as the final third was broad and bland and traffic filled, contrary to the spirit of what these walks are meant to be. The bigger avenues are purpose-built for the movement and presentation of commerce, and as such, there is “no there there.”
Commerce continues to move along the Kyoto Jūkan Expressway overhead, much like it once did along the Kamogawa below. In between I find a small skate-park, so sit awhile in the grass to delight in a conjunction of arcs: in the hypnotic movement of skaters; in the waning sunshine of the day; and in my own journey, my return having closed the circle.
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
* A Detour Through the Quiet Life on Kuromon & Koromonodana Streets
* Finding Old Magic on Kyoto’s Tominokōji
* Walking into the Light on Manjuji-dōri
* A Rainy Season Stroll on Kyoto’s Gokomachi
* Brocade & Octopi: From Nishikikoji to Takoyakushi
* Walking with the Dead Along Matsubara-dori
* Strolling in Reel Time along Fuyamachi
* Revisiting Shinmachi
Article and original photos by Edward J. Taylor. All rights reserved.