This month our friend, Edward J. Taylor, continues his exploration of Kyoto’s streets with a thoughtful stroll along Kiyamachi. To view previous installments of this ongoing series see the links at the end of this article.
It is a well-known fact that Japan is very strict about controlled substances. Never a big user myself, I’ve always felt that drugs aren’t necessary here since society itself can be so surreal. So I barely batted an eye when I exited a side gate from Kyoto Station to find myself in the middle of parade, with a full-blown marching band, baton twirlers, and a trio of puffy-cuddly mascots for god-knows-what? Just another day in Cool Japan.
If anything, the people puppeteering the mascots must have been happy that the summer heat had finally gone away. I too had a bit more spring in my previously lethargic step, as I walked a few blocks over to the canal that parallels Kiyamachi. The street’s best feature is its long array of cherry trees, which create an incredible pink canopy for a week or so in spring. But as I tend to associate drinking quarters with summer, when it feels the whole city is out and about, I intended to walk Kiyamachi before the return of short days and long sleeves.
I begin at a place I found on Google Maps that I’d never heard of before. Zenizaba existed for just under a century after its founding in 1698, exactly a decade after the birth of the Genroku era. Itself lasting a mere 16 years, the Genroku could be called the apotheosis of Edo period literary culture, when names like Chikamatsu, Saikaku, and Basho reigned. Arts and literature flourish best in a time of affluence, and as such Zenizaba was founded to mint coins for the Shogunate, who later went on to devalue the quality of the currency, which lead to widespread inflation. (And an interesting parallel to the economic malaise that has plagued the entire current Heisei Period.)
On the former site of the mint stands the Bank of Yanagihara Memorial Museum a picturesque Meiji Period bank shaded by a massive willow tree. Founded in 1899, the bank too had a short but interesting history, serving the needs of the outcast burakumin community who were forbidden to bank elsewhere. After closing in 1927, the structure was in danger of demolition in the 1990’s, but was saved to function on as a museum for burakumin culture.
The entire length of Kiyamachi street runs parallel to the Takasegawa, which definitively flows into the broad Kamogawa a few blocks south. But the stream’s movement through this bland stretch of development is often broken by dam-like apartment blocks. Far better to start the walk here, where the waters curl around the old bank, in a very narrow channel that I could cross in a single stride. Beneath me, small fish dart from shadow to shadow.
Across Shichijō, the Takase begins to take on its familiar form, splitting Kiyamachi, and crossed by many small and charming bridges. A pair of egrets fly swiftly beneath one, in a manner that would bring envy to any stunt pilot. A couple of the bridges are little more that narrow iron planks, though railings have been installed for safety. Trees shade all, and rather than the monoculture of sakura further north, here the trees are of all varieties, a veritable forest of familiar names, including dull-colored mikan just coming into fruit.
Being close to Kyoto Station, many homes have been converted to guesthouses, quiet and attractive with the Takase as frontage. There must be a dozen or so along here, and I get a chuckle when I notice their names promise increasing measures of delight, from Glad One to Happy Family through to BJ House. Omotenashi indeed. There are also a good number of cafes, restaurants, public baths and the Kyoto Beer Lab. I suppose that the tourist explosion has brought new life to the city’s southern reaches, where previously everything below Gōjō was considered a desert.
I allow myself a detour at Shōmen-dōri, called such because the road once ran directly to the front gate of Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s Daibutsu Buddha statue that once stood beneath Kyoto’s eastern foothills. The pleasant stroll garden of Shōsei-en is a few blocks to my left, once one of Kyoto’s secret places and previously free of charge. I go instead a few blocks to the right. I stop a moment at the old 1930s Nintendo headquarters (its plaque revealing its origins as a maker of hanafuda playing cards), and continue to a reasonably modern looking bridge. An older bridge was destroyed by flooding not long after Nintendo moved here (the same flood that destroyed the bridge at Ebisu-cho), though before that there was no bridge at all. The riverbank below was once known as Rokujō Kawahara, and what the local tourist board won’t tell you is that it served as Kyoto’s primary execution grounds during the feudal period, including fifty-two Christians executed in 1619. This helps explain the immense cemetery that sprawls up the hillside not far to the east.
I detour again just up the canal, but not before passing the southernmost of Takasegawa’s many ferry stops. As part of the construction of the Daibutsu, Hideyoshi ordered the building of this canal, so as to ferry stone and other construction supplies up from a larger port in Fushimi. This canal stretched (as it does today) to Nijō-dori, and its use was eventually expanded to the transport of general merchandise until it fell out of use in the 1920s. Timber was one of the main products, floated downstream from the mills that gave Marutamachi-dōri its name.
A block over to my left was once a red-light district, discreetly disguised as a geisha quarter. These brothels lined a single lane, patterned on the teahouses of the floating world of Gion across the river, and although the women here were also able to perform some of the same dances and ballads as their sisters to the east, they served more prominently as ‘pillow geisha.’ The brothels were shuttered after a strengthening of anti-prostitution laws earlier this decade, although a few have been replaced by guesthouses. Maybe fittingly, at the northern end of the lane stands the former site of Kawara-no-in, the estate of Heian Period minster Minamoto-no Toru. Though only a single hackberry tree remains from the lush forest that once shaded the grounds, its magnificent height hints at the estate’s scale and importance, which proved the model for Rokujo-in from the The Tale of Genji. Minamoto himself is considered by many to be the model for the Shining Prince, the world’s first true protagonist of a novel. Though perhaps some of that luster is being rapidly and rightfully lost in the age of the #MeToo movement.
Back at the southern end of this lane stands Gojō Kaikan, depressingly a shadow of its former self, when it was called the Gojō Rakuen Kaburenjō. One of Kyoto’s most beautiful theaters, it could seat an audience of 250, who’d come to watch the traditional dances of the area’s geiko and maiko. Ten years ago I took part in the making of Swiss director Roger Walsh’s film Tengu, and it was at this old Taisho Era theater that we finished the shooting and held the wrap party. I’m glad we could capture some of the unique magic of the place in the film’s concert scenes.
Things take a turn again past Gōjo. Rows of impressively large hotels have been squeezed between the Takase and the Kamogawa, many with older-looking facades that imply rooms whose luxury dates to simpler times. During the summer months, wooden decks called yuka are extended out toward the Kamogawa, enabling for al fresco dining where the cool water running below takes the edge off the muggy nights of a Kyoto summer. These decks extend north all the way to Nijō-dōri, with a sheer variety that is staggering, spanning from Italian to French, Chinese to Thai. (My personal year-round favorite is perhaps Ikariya, and its wood-fired pizza.) On the opposite side of the Takase too, large windows hint at more even restaurants, with entrances one street over.
Bars are beginning to build up as well, though they won’t take their fullest form until north of Shijō. A recent trend is the stand up bar, where patrons sidle up to the bar cowboy style. One on the corner of Shijō proudly announces that it is open from noon. Japanese bars in general are an interesting phenomenon and there appears to be one to fit just about everybody. Many cities in Japan make the claim that they have the largest number of bars per capita in Japan. I am not sure where Kyoto stands, but it could possibly be true here. Across the canal to the left begins a little warren of lanes that are chock-full of bars. Many are in multi-story buildings, and you have to crane your neck upward to read the vertical, multi-colored neon signs. Often when searching for an address in one of these areas, you’ll forget this last point, and look only at the street level frontages. Meanwhile your friends are waiting up on the seventh floor. The canyon-like wall of buildings along the Kamogawa is testament to this, and it is always good fun to walk along and read the names and their wonky English.
One notable exception is the new bookshop along the canal, low and rambling and white, with doors opened wide to the waters drifting by. At its far end is a lending library of sorts, though the books need be read on the spot, all the titles related to walking the area. Next door the eye is drawn to the large Rissei Elementary School building, the oldest extant concrete reinforced building in Japan, dating from 1928. Classes let out for good in 1993, but it lived on for awhile, promoting theatre and cinema, offering film workshops and frequently screening classics from Japan’s silent era. The circle was thus closed as this very spot saw the birth of the Japanese motion picture industry, dating to a production made in 1897 by Inabata Katsutaro, a year after he spent time in Paris with the film pioneering Lumière brothers.
The end of the feudal period is in rich evidence along this stretch of Kiyamachi, as the former headquarters for the important Tosa clan provided grounds ample enough for the Rissei school to be built in the first place. The Hikone clan manor was further up, and there are also a number of sites related to Sakamoto Ryoma, who was simply everywhere, popping up like a phantom throughout the city.
Near the corner of Sanjō are two sites that represent both the brightest and darkest parts of Kyoto history. The former is the Pontocho Kaburenjō theater, an eye-pleasing structure of tile and brick, lit with red lanterns in spring and autumn, when visitors can watch dances performed by Pontocho’s resident geiko and maiko. (I find that if I am to happen upon a geiko in Kyoto, it is usually along the narrow lane south of here.)
Kyoto’s darker past can be seen in the grounds of the adjacent Zuisen-ji Temple, built to inter the spirits of Toyotomi Hidetsugu, adopted son and one-time heir of Hideyoshi, who was executed in 1595 after the birth of Hideyoshi’s actual son. Thus supplanted, Hidetsugu was falsely accused of plotting a coup against Hideyoshi, and forced to commit seppuku at Koya-san. What followed was the grisly execution of thirty-nine of his family members on the riverbank below Sanjō Bridge. Their graves lie in rows in the back corner of the grounds, with ages etched in stone to reveal that three of the executed were under four-years old. Today the temple is going to great lengths to engage the community in more positive ways, the annual Flower Festival being the most popular in a busy calendar of events. I note that just a week before they’d held a concert by renowned local musician Robin Lloyd, a journeyman who seems to get around even more than Ryoma.
The area around Sanjō Bridge has always been busy, serving as the western terminus for both the Tokaidō and Nakasendō feudal highways. As such, the area would have been a riot of inns, restaurants, and bars, not to mention money-lenders, shops, and other services that would help travellers prepare for the journey ahead. (Harkening to this time is the statue on the south side of the bridge, featuring the bumbling protagonists of Jippenshu Ikku’s picaresque travel classic, Hizakurige, translated into English as Shank’s Mare.)
Today’s maze of little streets and seemingly numberless bars have a certain continuity with the 19th Century Bakumatsu period, a time when pro- and anti-Shogun factions were battling in the streets, and foreign elements were knocking on the door, attempting to end Japan’s self-imposed isolation of over two centuries. This dense area would offer no end of places to hide out, such as the Ikeda Inn, where plotting rebels were ambushed by the shogun’s vigilante police force (honored by a modern pub of the same name standing there today). Street fighting was rampant, resulting in, among other things, sword scarring on Sanjō Bridge which can still be seen on a pillar on the bridge’s southern side, two pillars from the western end.
Thus, the wooden historical signage between Sanjō and Nijō is almost thick enough to be a forest, nearly all of them relating to the violence in those waning days of the Edo Period. In this single 600 meter stretch we find: multiple sites related to Ōmura Masujirō, the father of Japan’s modern military, assassinated nearby by disgruntled ex-samurai from Chōshū; another site of assassination, the victim this time Sakuma Shōzan, killed five years before Ōmura; the hideout of Yoshimura Torataro, founder of the anti-shogun faction, Tenchi-gumi; the former site of the house of the powerful Kaga clan, whose immense wealth was funneled into the creation of the culturally rich Kanazawa.
The modern street has a similar upmarket feel, and less dense. A pizza place sits at the water’s edge, and offers a rare case of outdoor dining year-round. Beyond are galleries, trendy European restaurants, a spacious wedding ‘theatre,’ and the museum/showroom for traditional chirimen weaving. Further on, The Empire Building is an old Kyoto classic, with the Ace Café occupying the prime spot up on the 10th floor, offering fantastic night views over the river and the city. A good rule of thumb for visiting any bars through here (or Japan in general) is to be aware of the terms before taking a seat. Many places do have a cover charge, and not being prepared for this can make for an unpleasant scene at the end of the night. I happen to know one former resident of Japan who got into a fistfight over this matter. Three days later he was put on a plane home.
Over Oike-dōri, Kiyamachi grows more spacious still. The riverside is quieter, the restaurants larger, more exclusive, making for a feeling that is almost rural. This stretch hosts the businesses of two of Kyoto’s better known foreign faces, Jeff Berglund and Tadg McLoughlin, as well as the pleasant Ganko Takasegawa Nijoen, built upon a 1611 feudal estate of (nearly) the same name. In the canal in front is an old wooden boat that marks the first of the Takase’s nine former loading docks (the sharp of eye may notice the others numbered in concrete during the walk north), today decorated with mistflowers, one of Japan’s seven autumnal flowers. The final historic site on the walk is the Shimadzu Museum, which houses a selection of wares from the company’s origin as a manufacturer for Buddhist altars. The road comes to a definitive end here, at the Ritz Carlton, one of Kyoto’s best and more attractive hotels and host of one of the city’s many Michelin restaurants.
I’m not quite ready for that, but the walk still feels unfinished somehow. As Kiyamachi is the showcase for Kyoto’s nightlife, I decide to return, this time with a guide of sorts. The aforementioned Tadg McLoughlin is a well-known figure in town, having midwifed a number of Kyoto’s Irish pubs into existence. His latest restaurant features 10 taps of craft beers, and as we begin our walk down Pontocho we both notice an incredible proliferation of craft beer bars here lately. It is always a pleasant stroll down this narrow lane, watching the softly lit signs compete with shadow.
As Shijō, we swing back up Kiyamachi proper. Night really suits the old street, as the neon lights climbing the frontages ripple across the flow of the Takase-gawa. This is the liveliest section of the street, always crawling with young punters, though things are admittedly tame on a Monday night. It also has the seediest charm. Silhouettes duck into suspicious looking bars down small dark lanes, though the nondescript love hotels we pass won’t do their fullest business until later into the night. The same can be said for the kebab shop, which has been a feature of this block for years, though ramen is a more typical go-to food at the end of a heavy night.
Salarymen seem to favor the bars above Sanjō, pairs and trios of dark suits walking stiffly past with briefcases swaying like metronomes. The spacious windows of the Italian and French bistros frame instead young women. They act as counterpoint to the occasional hostesses clacking past as they rush to buy a pack of cigarettes for one customer, or to hail a taxi for another.
Tadg and I settle into his own bar, as expected. Halloween is a month away, but a pumpkin ale seems an appropriate place to start. We engage in what the Japanese call nomification (drink communication), with the ensuing conversation taking us far away from Kiyamachi. By the time I am heading home, I notice that it is later than I’d thought. Little surprise though, as night in Japan’s floating world can seem as endless as the number of its bars.
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
Article and original photos by Edward J. Taylor. All rights reserved.