Here is the latest installment from Edward J. Taylor‘s ongoing exploration of Kyoto’s streets.
The air rings with the chimey clang of the ubiquitous ‘theme song’ for the Gion festival, supplanting the rains that had taken center stage for the previous six weeks. At least, that’s how it usually works. Rainy season this year continues to linger, and a peek at the weather forecast shows a parade of blue umbrellas, at a time when the resident of Kyoto is thinking more of festival floats.
At a time when water proves a constant, it seems fitting that this month’s walk begins at the well at Nishiki Tenman-gū Shrine. The shrine serves as the spiritual heart of the renowned Nishiki market, which was built adjacent to the shrine due to the quality of the water from this very well. This is a surprise since matters of commerce are usually affiliated with the Inari fox gods, but here, just beside the well, rests the telltale ox that designates a Tenjin shrine, dedicated to the god of learning. The supine bovine honors the animal that, in 903, pulled the funeral cart of scholar Sugawara no Michizane along the roads of Kyushu, where the man had been banished. At one point the ox stubbornly lay down, and no amount of coaxing could get him moving again. Taken as an auspicious sign, a shrine was built on the spot: Dazaifu Tenmangū, of which all Tenmangū shrines serve as satellites.
And for a shrine whose origins are in immobility, this one proves to be a bit of a journeyman. Initially founded in 1003, it was moved to the city center by Toyotomi Hideyoshi during his reconstruction of the capital in the late 1500s, and again during the Meiji period when the shrine was forcibly separated from its affiliate temple during the period of shinbutsu-bunri, when matters of religious division were official policy (Buddhism was a foreign import, and therefore had no part in the newly politicized Shinto, established in order to legitimize the Meiji emperor, descended as he was from the Sun Goddess).
I follow suit and begin to move. I decide to detour around Nishiki Market itself, partly because John Ashburne covered it so well in the Deep Kyoto: Walks book, and partly because I don’t feel like slaloming around tourists who have designated it as one of the top sights in the city. One thing you don’t get from reading John’s piece is the wonderful scent of tea that hangs over everything. And I’ll forgive him for neglecting to mention Konna Monja, whose tofu donuts are an obligatory stop for me whenever I pass by.
I rejoin Nishikikōji street at the far end of the market’s mouth. Nearby is a store with the sign reading, “Remembrance of JL.” (Just Locals?) A Chinese restaurant around the corner advertises its interesting concoction, the banana gyoza. I really do like these first couple of blocks west of the market, with its dense cluster of numerous eateries. While I usual try to ‘gollop locally,’ the nearby Starbucks serves well as an obvious meeting point.
A block up is Field, one of Kyoto’s oldest pubs, which seems to have found new craic selling traditional Irish musical instruments. I remember a meeting here with chief editor Michael, about the making of our Deep Kyoto Walks book. We were joined by Wes Lang, who was looking for advice about a book project of his own. (Recently published in fact, Hiking and Trekking in the Japan Alps and Mount Fuji: Northern, Central and Southern Alps is a great guidebook for those walkers who have a little bit more intestinal fortitude than the readers of our own.)
Across Karasuma-dōri, Nishikikōji begins to show its original face. While now best known for the market, the area was once monopolized by craftsmen who wove highly decorated kimono, hence the name Nishiki, which means “brocade”. While their numbers have significantly decreased, the street is still predominantly dedicated to that craft. And aesthetically too it stays true to the past, as most of the shops along the way have an older look, like a little historical pocket in a city that promotes itself as being historic.
The restaurants too have a uniformity of style. I think that if I were looking for a traditional Japanese meal, I would choose one of these old machiya. An interesting and beautiful exception is Zezekan Pocchiri, where a Meiji period façade has been grafted onto an older machiya structure. The traditional Chinese furniture within gives a hint of what Shanghai would have looked like in the 1920s. The scent in the air here is sesame oil and soy sauce. A good place, I think, to discuss the philosophies expounded by Edo period Confucian scholar Kinoshita Jun’an, who was born close by.
Further west, the overall look falls away into the usual visual cacophony that defines the modern city. On this muggy day, I’m tempted by the hammock stretched across the faux-tropical garden of Re:CENO furniture and interior. Bistro Nakano has a prime corner location not far off, set just below street level, in a way that is structurally similar to the French cafes that give this unique ‘French Ramen’ joint its inspiration. There is also the familiar little enclave of stand-up bars and compact izakaya that prove lively on any given night. Eventually I get to Nishikikōji’s western end, and Thilaga, a tidy little curry restaurant where the friendly trio in charge is as smiley in real life as they are on the poster out front. (Their new sign also shows they have apparently discovered spell-check.)
It’s too early for lunch, and despite the humidity, there is no rain. So I diagonal along Ōmiya, then turn right onto the parallel Takoyakushi-dōri. A mere street away, it feels miles from the more traditional Nishikikōji, as nearly all along here are modern concrete homes. These flank a few modest temples, hemming in upon what had once been spacious grounds.
I’ve passed few people today, but suddenly a long line of high school students stroll by, one of the girls surprising me by wearing the same uniform as the boys. Living in Japan, one grows accustomed to the ‘sailor suits’ worn by schoolgirls, based upon the look of the old English navy, and the uniform of the boys, modeled after Prussian army uniforms. Initially intended to neutralize the workings of teenage hormones, the former has instead become a fetish object for some. Over the decades, the girls have taken it upon themselves to modify the look to counter this, or sometimes to enhance it. Recently inspired by LGBT issues, some schools have begun to allow their students a choice of which uniform to wear, and this is what caught my attention, being the first time I’ve seen the gender-neutral option.
This nod to changing mores has older precedents. Nanban-ji temple once stood a few blocks west of Karasuma, created by Oda Nobunaga in 1561 as a place for Christian worship. It quickly became a center of European culture, and all the trappings that it brought with it. As the number of followers swelled to a few hundred, the name of the temple was changed in 1576 from Nanban (Southern Barbarian) to St. Mary’s, however it was razed a decade later with Hideyoshi’s Christian Expulsion edicts.
Today it is traffic that has been expelled, as the neighborhood guilds prepare their yamaboko floats for the Gion festival next week. The streets running north-south have had their overhead wires pulled back, revealing the sky, a sight that almost startles. In a similar vein, I stop briefly to admire the old Muranishi residence, a fine example of what preservation non-profits can be capable of.
Many of the shops have decorated their frontages in honor of the festival, or have opened them up completely. Where the corresponding stretch of Nishikikōji had mainly been restaurants, here it is all mostly shops, tending to traditions old and new. There is an Owl Café (with no owls) and a Dog Café (whose policy is strictly BYOD). Then there are the nods to ‘70’s music: Italian trattoria Divo Diva standing beside Spice Dining Biji. (How Deep is Kyoto?)
Just outside the opening to Teramachi arcade is a huddle of Italian, French, Crepe, and Dolce shops. And then Bubble Market Kyoto, which has been selling the drink for a decade, possibly a pioneer of Japan’s current bubble tea craze.
Finally, I come to Eifuku-ji or more colloquially Takoyakushi-dō, and hence the origins of the name of the street I’ve just walked. This Zen temple has roots going back to 1181, when it became a center of worship for Yakushi-nyōrai, the deity of healing. But a legend a half-century later gives the temple its name. Apparently a temple monk was caught by locals buying an octopus at the fish market for his sick mother, who loved the food. They were shocked to see the octopus suddenly transform itself into eight scrolls of Buddhist sutras. Transforming into an octopus yet again, the animal escaped into the temple pond, from which a strong light began to shine, thereby relieving the mother of her illness. As such the temple has become a place of healing, and small ceramic octopi can be seen throughout the grounds, each a prayer to get well.
One of the wonders of Japan is the enduring presence of folk customs, in the face of ever-changing modern bustle. My guess is that the temple’s name has some connection with Buddhism’s eight-fold path, but old tales prove much more charming. And what harm is there in giving the wooden Nade-Yakushi octopus on the altar a good rub, with a corresponding prayer for good health? But only with the left hand. Save the right one to eat takoyaki, at one of the many stands that have miraculously popped up nearby.
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
Article and original photos by Edward J. Taylor. All rights reserved.