Here is the latest installment from Edward J. Taylor‘s ongoing exploration of Kyoto’s streets.
History is written by the victors. A well-known expression of course, but I’d go one step further and say that history is also rewritten by the victors. (Quotes too are attributed to victors, but nowhere is there evidence that Winston Churchill actually said this.)
Likewise, the layout of cities is redrawn by victors, and as a city with a very long history, the face of Kyoto has been etched upon near incessantly. I start today’s walk at Kyoto Imperial Palace grounds, at a gate near the precinct’s southwestern corner, a gate that may not have even been there before the Meiji era. As it is, I’ll be walking Tominokōji, a street created by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and named for a court noble Tominokōji Susumu, of a minor Fujiwara lineage who lived at the southern area of this street. Hideyoshi moved the road from its original Heian period location further to the west, possibly because an 1177 fire that originated there went on to destroy over one-third of the city. To me, though, the name inevitably reminds me of corn.
Heading south, I walk beneath a pleasant array of sakura trees, providing shade for the shady dealings going on within the palatial headquarters of the Japanese Bar Association beneath. Its proximity to the palace again infers that these offices would have been built upon those of their medieval counterparts.
While lawyers tend toward relative truth, poets go for absolute truth, and a block away I find the former residence of Kamakura period waka poet Saionji Saneuji. A nobleman himself, his estate became the residence of Emperor Go-Fukakusa after a 1259 fire destroyed his original palace. This residence too would be destroyed in a 1306 fire, and the residence rebuilt in the original Heian style would in turn be burned down thirty years later. (Not to mention that daimyō Masanaga Hatakeyama torched his own residence one block over, an action that set off the ten-year Ōnin War that destroyed Kyoto many times over and ushered in 150 years of civil war.) Maybe there is a lesson to be learned here.
That lesson might possibly have been taught one block further south, at the site of one of Japan’s first primary schools, built in 1870. Or perhaps it was taught next door, at the Kyoto Commercial Training School, founded in 1900. The latter would continue until the education system itself was reshuffled in 1948. Today the grounds are still enjoyed by the young in the form of a spacious park, decorated by cherry trees newly budding.
An alignment of nagaya rowhouses lingers from that latter time, amidst the area’s usual vertically built higher end residences. Calligraphy Kyoto is tucked into the far end of the alley, taking an international approach in attempting to reach across cultures with its classes and full event schedule.
Over on Oike, Tominokōji takes on a more commercial look. It is lunchtime, and the world-famous tempura of the Yoshimura Ryokan tempts, but I decide it can wait for another day. Café Kocsi a block down will be a name familiar to readers of this website, and is a personal favorite of myself and the editor. I chose to forgo its services too and instead get a coffee at Santomi Center, intrigued by the cheese coffee they advertise. It is an interesting twist on a Viennese coffee, using cream cheese rather than whipped cream. A marginal advantage in calories I suppose, but isn’t that partly what walks are for?
Further caloritic danger lurks a few blocks down, past a Betty Boop shop, a stationary shop dealing in beautiful postcards, The Association for Conservation of National Treasures (but not definite articles such as the), and a puzzling set of edict boards put up in the current Heisei period. For a cerevisaphile like myself, that danger may be found at the Spring Valley Brewery, but for the general walker, it is instead found next door. Nishiki Market is a food lover’s paradise, provided one for whom crowds don’t provoke claustrophobia. A woman at Tanaka Keiran on the corner is deep-frying chicken tempura, whose warmth takes the chill out of an unseasonably cold day. On the adjacent corner, the equally warm skewers of the Hōkyūan are selling nicely.
Crossing the flow of punters of Nishiki Market is like a live-action game of Frogger, but I get by quickly enough not to be late for my rendezvous with Joshua Breakstone. Joshua is a relatively new resident to Kyoto, though he has been playing music here for over thirty years. A well-known jazz guitarist, he has played with many of the greats, and has over twenty albums to his credit. Since moving to Kyoto, his monthly First Fridays gig has quickly become a favorite with the foreign community.
Joshua’s guitar playing has been described by one critic as being “fire in velvet.” Fitting then that we are walking a street that has hosted so many fires, not to mention firewater. The stretch between Shijō and Gojō was dotted by liquor shops in the previous century, supplanting the blacksmiths and archers of feudal days. Despite now being a residential area, the svelteness of the road hints at its roots as a narrow shopping arcade.
Over time, commerce has given way near completely to private homes. Two-story houses reign from here, but for a handful of modest Pure Land temples and a couple of other notable exceptions. As we pause at TakuTaku to look at the posters of coming acts, I wish we could go inside to see the posters of previous shows that would no doubt bear the faces of a few of Joshua’s musical colleagues. Across the road stands the offices of Iori Machiya Stay, a group well-known for its series of luxurious accommodation in restored traditional homes. And further down at Gojō-dōri is the French International School, which proudly hosts traditions of its own.
Tominokōji angles slightly, before coming to a definitive end at the formidable north wall of Shosei-en Garden. Over the last few blocks Joshua muses about the broad variety of houses here, and how difficult it is to find something suitably authentic anymore. I mumble something about the average house here being about 25 years old, which makes sense in a society where the head of the family changes with each successive generation. Not to mention the difficulty of zoning in a culture that is built upon notions of Buddhist impermanence.
But Joshua counters that preservation is an equally valid concept, and an important one. He says that most people don’t think much about this, until a proposed development project threatens their own neighborhood. He speaks from experience, having led a successful fight against an apartment block back home in the States. The refinement and beauty of Kyoto are what has enticed him here, and he’d hate to see it disappear. And I, and probably all readers of this website, would agree.
But the sole consistent in Kyoto’s long history is change. I recall reading a fantastic quote once about this city, though sadly I can no longer remember the exact wording, nor the source. It essentially said that Kyoto’s look is that of an aging beauty. That beneath the imperfections and heavy make-up, traces of the former beauty remains. And therein is the magic of this city, that in taking a hard close look, one can once again find the face that one holds dear in one’s heart.
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
Article and original photos by Edward J. Taylor. All rights reserved.