This month our friend, Edward J. Taylor, continues his exploration of Kyoto’s modern and historical streets with a walk along Ainomachi.
“Do you Kyoto?” is a slogan seen frequently throughout the city, one puzzling both to its residents, who may not grasp the English, and its foreign guests, who are not quite sure of the vague sentiment. It becomes a point of derision to many, including this writer. What it refers to of course is the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, prodding us all in a nanny-like way about what we are doing to meet the agreement’s CO2 goals.
In a similar spirit, I think that the name of one of the city’s streets, Ainomachi, would make a good tourist slogan, if only the character for ‘Ai’ read ‘Love,’ ala “I NY”. Sadly, kanji is oft times a spoiler, and the characters instead read “The neighborhood between,” causing us once again to throw up our hands and cry “Between what?”
Toyotomi Hideyoshi has the answer, for it was he who insisted on a street being built between Takakura Street and Higashinotōin Street. Both these adjacent streets had their roots in the Heian period, as the sites of former estates of famous nobility. The latter, belonging to Fujiwara Michinaga, is said to have eventually evolved into the Imperial Palace itself.
But for my own purposes today, Ainomachi’s southern end stands between a carpark and a carpark. That is to say, the entire half block below Shichijō has been paved over into a parking lot now, an act so recent that Google Maps has yet to make the correction.
I wander away from its fenced in enclosure, to quickly find another reference to wheeled vehicles. The kurumaishi were grooves cut into stone that allowed for the smooth passage for ox-driven carts used to transport goods during the Edō period. This particular stone sits before a bicycle shop, with no apparent attempt at irony.
A block onward, the circle is squared within the walled grounds of Kikotei Garden, known colloquially as Shosei-en since 1940. The grounds were thought to be yet another Heian period estate of Minamoto-no Toru (the model for the Shining Prince Genji, who we discussed in last month’s Kiyamachi piece), which were later given to Higashi Honganji Temple by Shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu in 1641. A decade later, Ishikawa Jozan recreated the garden, along similar lines to the design of the original. The unusually-shaped Bokakaku Gate and the photogenic Kaitoro Bridge were built after a pair of fires during anti-Shogunal violence in the mid-19th century, though the Takaishigaki wall predates most everything today, constructed of stones left-over from larger feudal construction projects. Like most Japanese gardens, every element seems a poetic allusion to classical Chinese stories and legends, yet it is far more pleasant to simply enjoy it as a respite from the noise of the city outside the walls.
Not far along these same walls is the equally peaceful grounds of Ayako Tenmangu Shrine, dedicated like all Tenmangu shrines to the scholar Sugawara-no-Michizane. It is said that after his death in 903, his former wet nurse Tajihi-no-Ayako converted her modest home into a shrine in his honor, marking the beginnings of the Tenjin faith that today attracts students praying for good marks on exams. On the grounds is a stone where Michizane supposedly sat, as well as a curious little Shirataki-inari shrine, about which I can find little information, but seems a surprisingly blend of the Benzaiten and Inari sects of Shinto. Whatever the case, the amulets sold here prove popular with young women.
Signs out in front of the shrine advertise fortune-telling services, though it wouldn’t take a fortune teller to predict that there would soon be a new guesthouse nearby, probably on the site where diggers are actively pulling down a trio of old machiya. (Do You Kyoto?) For as is becoming the norm for this part of town, the street is quickly being colonized by guesthouses, including one named “Bochi-bochi” (Osakan slang for “taking it bit by bit”), and another called “Natsu House,” which brings a smile when said quickly. I also found a new location for the Hotel Ethnography, owned and managed by some friends of mine. Their three locations have been setting new standards for classical-meets-comfort, with just a pinch of hip. This particular location is called Kikoku-no-Mori, after the Kikotei (Shosei-en) Garden nearby.
The true ethnography of the area still exists in the rows of traditional lanes running off both sides of Ainomachi (proving I suppose the continuing truth in the old road’s name). An ancient coffee shop sits on one corner, and many of the homes have posters that are local-specific, like one home being a sort-of safety zone for local youths, and another flyer for a guided historical walk geared toward the older residents, this month around Maruyama Park further north.
I cross the broad Gōjō. A guy on one corner has a Suicidal Tendencies cap perched on his head, which I take to be the band although the cigarette in his mouth offers a read of a different kind. This stretch of Gōjō seems to have turned into a little tourist village, perhaps centered on the large Citadines service apartment hotel just up the boulevard at Karasuma. In a single block I find a tourist information office, antique shop, kimono rentals, as well as a tea making experience in the company of a maiko.
Back on the quiet Ainomachi, there’s plenty too for the locals (as promised by the Beautiful Excellent Life Kamibayashi apartment building), be it yoga or English classes or a sprig of flowers from the cleverly-named shop, Con Brio. A little further on, the road begins to take on the face of poverty as it enters a maze of smaller, densely packed homes. At one end of a narrow lane is a small Inari shrine, where residents might pray for the means to move to better environs.
And in this maze, Ainomachi too seems exhausted, eventually overwhelmed by the spreading grounds of Bukkoku-ji (which I’ve written of before). We’re close to Shijō here, apparent from an increasing number of people on the street, all walking fast. Nearly beside the temple is a coffee shop called Bosque, a name that harkens up visions of my native New Mexico. I ask the owner the reason for the name, hoping to strike up a stimulating conversation, but he merely says his own surname is Mori (forest), then ignores me to return to his food prep. I am tempted to stay for lunch but in the end I’m driven out by the cigarette smoke. So like the migratory birds of the bosque wetlands of my youth, I move toward home and my desk, in order to minimalize the temporality between thought and expression.
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
Article and original photos by Edward J. Taylor. All rights reserved.