Old, quiet memories in a wild, new world
The Takasegawa Canal
Ian Ropke writes…
This month, if you have the time, consider strolling down the Takegawa Canal along the lively, yet always interesting, world of Kiyamachi and Pontocho. Though the Takasegawa is called a river in Japanese, it is actually a canal, built with thousands of laborers. This is quite amazing, when you consider that the canal runs from Nijo all the way down to the Yodo River in Fushimi/Chushojima, a distance of some 15 kilometers. The water in the river was siphoned off from the Kamogawa River, and the canal ran parallel to the river until Jujo Street, at which point it crossed the river and continued in a southeasterly direction until it merged with the Ujigawa River.
The giant Takasegawa Canal was the brilliant idea of one man: Suminokura Ryoi (1554-1614), a prominent 16th/17th-century Kyoto merchant and overseas trader, who was responsible for a number of visionary projects in Kyoto. A colorful figure of great confidence, Suminokura boldly proposed and funded the construction of the canal, which had a huge impact on Kyoto commerce and also greatly facilitated his own business activities. He was born in Kyoto, to a family of physicians and money lenders. In the 1590s, he obtained an official license to engage in overseas trade from Toyotomi Hideyoshi and quickly built up a fortune trading with Annam and Tonkin (both located in present-day Vietnam).
In its heyday, the canal functioned as an important transportation artery, moving goods to and from Osaka. The canal played a special role in the wood trade. Lumber was harvested in the areas north and west of Kyoto (logs were floated down the Hozugawa River from Kameoka and then moved on giant carts on Marutamachi (or “log street”), to the head of the canal, where they were turned into lumber and then shipped on to Osaka). More than 100 Takase boats, characterized by their flat bottoms and high sides (there is one laden with sake barrels at the head of the canal, just south of Nijo), plied the canal.
After the Meiji period (1868-1912), the Takasegawa Canal was no longer used as a commercial canal. However, lined with trees on both sides, the canal adds a distinctive charm to downtown Kyoto.
Pontocho & Kiyamachi
The head of the Takasegawa became one of Kyoto’s busiest merchant centers. And to take care of all the new traffic in the area, Kiyamachi (running parallel to the first few kilometers of the canal) became a boisterous world of inns, bars and restaurants. Today, most of the inns are long gone, but the bars and restaurants, old and super new, live on. And a few meters east of the busiest section of Kiyamachi (between Sanjo and Shijo) lies the refined and generally much more upscale world of Pontocho.
Too narrow for cars, Pontocho is one of the few pedestrian-only paradises in downtown Kyoto. It is linked to its lower scale sister by a number of unbelievably narrow passageways (most of them just barely wide enough for one person). It is also the home of Kyoto’s second-largest geisha quarters. The street’s history is closely connected with the canal that parallels it to the west. Pontocho catered to the off-hour needs of the wealthier tradespeople. In 1712, the Tokugawa government permitted the area to become a pleasure quarter.
Nowadays, both streets engage in mizu-shobai, Japan’s “water trade”; the world of bars and the drinking life. Kiyamachi caters to the student crowd and the young salaried set, and thus tends to get pretty wild and crazy on weekends. But slip down one of the many alleyways that connect it to Pontocho and you will find yourself in a different world.
Although the neon tackiness of Kiyamachi is slowly infiltrating the street from either end, the central part of Ponto-cho still retains an elegant feeling of Old Kyoto. Many of the latticed and lacquered house fronts are those of Ocha-ya, or teahouses, where businessmen wine and dine important clients with the help, of course, of a witty and charming geiko. Needless to say, business is not the topic of conversation. In spring and fall, the geiko of Ponto-cho put on public performances in the old theater at the street’s north end, and all the shops hang red lanterns from their fronts. The street becomes even more magical then.
Text by Ian Ropke. Picture by Michael Lambe. Ian Ropke is the author of the Historical Dictionary of Osaka and Kyoto, editor of Kyoto Visitors Guide, and director of Your Japan Private Tours. He posts regularly for Deep Kyoto on the 15th of each month.