Here’s this month’s walk with Edward J. Taylor on the historic street of Rokkaku-dō Dōri.
Though I’d already decided on Rokkaku-dō Dōri for this month’s walk, my actual starting point was unexpectedly predetermined. A few days before, I’d gone to see a special performance by local dancer Heidi S. Durning. The nearby bicycle parking lot was full, and an alternative too far away, so figuring that Sunday is usually “amnesty day” with the bicycle impound crew, I left my bicycle amongst a group of others down a dark side alley. I returned to find that only mine had been taken. Naturally.
Ironically enough, the impound yard is a block up from Rokkaku-dō Dōri’s western end. I paid a modest bail to a woman in a small shed there, as hundreds of bicycles sparkled in the sun behind. The sight of these got my back up, a reaction common to most Kyoto expats. Legal parking is thin on the ground, and right before me was the biggest lot in the city. And as each of the hundreds of bicycles impounded will be released for 2300 yen, surely they could use some of that to build more bicycle parking areas, here in the namesake city of the CO2 Protocol.
Then again, bicycles tend to get in the way of a good walk. The first couple of blocks leading from Omiya takes me along a narrow stretch that is more lane that street. Old nagaya row houses line both sides, suggesting both a former poverty and an old-time postwar feel best known from films and photo books.
In a rare exception for Kyoto, the road does a little jog to avoid a massive, 850-year old hackberry tree shading the grounds of Takenobu Inari Jinja. In 852 a luxurious villa was built here, for Fujiwara no Yoshimi, one of the most prominent members of a very powerful clan. (The nearly adjacent Senbon Dōri was during the Heian period known as Suzaku, the capital’s most prominent boulevard, and one lined with numerous aristocratic estates.) Yoshimi founded a clinic here focused on increasing the clan’s health and longevity. The later generation Fujiwara Takenobu converted this into a training ground for shrine priestesses. The shrine that eventually developed became renowned as a place where parents would pray for divine guidance in choosing a proper name for their child, names being carefully chosen according to the strictest principles of Feng-shui.
This connection with children further expanded to become a place where couples could come to declare the destined inevitability of their love connection; a pun on the word “en” or fate, and “enoki,” the Japanese name for hackberry. It is said that if one put their hands on the trunk of the tree, the cosmic energy transferred from the tree would ensure an everlasting bond. This may relate to the love story of Sakamoto Ryōma and his wife Ryō (whose father was the doctor of the Rokkaku prison that once stood next door). Legend tells us Ryoma carved his name on the trunk to let her known that he was safe from the pursuing Shinsengumi.
And love hurts, as the song tells us, though it’s doubtful that this type of wound can be healed by the adjacent Tsumekiri Daimyojin, a pair of nail clippers that when rubbed, is supposed to cure illness. And the Daimyojin would probably do nothing for a person brained by the massive branch of the hackberry that fell in a windstorm in 2013. The branch has since been carved into a fierce dragon, to honor the kanji character “Ryō” shared in the names of Ryōma and his wife.
The shrine has given me plenty to look at and ponder, and I’ve lingered long. A trio of temples comes up next, including Zenso-ji, with its 800-year-old stone Amida statue out front and the Doroashi Jizo housed inside. The latter is attributed to a story about a farmer who fell sick while desperately planting rice during a time of drought, hoping to beat the impending rains. The following morning, the villagers were stunned to see the fields had been fully planted overnight, and were further shocked to see that this statue of Jizo had muddy feet. The statue was moved to Zenso-ji in 1587, quite possibly by its own accord.
The temple across the way hosts a kindergarten, with the kids and their teachers cooking something over a bamboo fire pit at the center. Known as terakoya, temple-schools are a common sight in Kyoto, stemming from the feudal Edo period, when priests oversaw the education of the children of commoners. This led to literacy rates of 50% for men and 20% for women, quite high for that era, no matter the country.
No amount of education could convince me to appreciate the rest of this stretch leading through to Horikawa. It leaves me about as inspired as I was to pay to get my bicycle back, lined as it is with ugly homes and hemmed in by copious powerlines above. (Kyoto plaits Kyoto.) It is the type of street that makes you wonder how Kyoto maintains its reputation as one of the most beautiful cities in the world. There is also a small unattractive park, empty of kids but there are plenty of smokers. They would probably get winded walking the next block and its slight hill, a rarity for the flat grid that defines this city. Though I suppose the Café Bogota across Horikawa might offer a quick pick-me-up.
A few blocks over is Sakura, a shop that specializes in brushes, both those used for make-up and those used for writing. There are also a number of fishmongers around, and I wonder if this had once been an off-shoot of the Sanjo shopping arcade a block north. Midway up is a fading sign commemorating Shogunmon, the former estate of a famous tea teacher who often hosted Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu.
Leading all the way to Karasuma is a long row of machiya, some selling fabric and noren curtains, others simply the elaborate homes of Kyoto’s older and well-established families. Textiles obviously built this part of the city, and the wealth here is apparent. While the homes can be visited by private appointment, many will show off their opulence during the Gion festival, their lattice windows opened wide to reveal the treasures within.
On the corner of Karasuma, I stand behind a young woman looking at her smart phone. In the past, the back of the neck was always considered the most beautiful part of a woman, demonstrated most overtly in the plunging neckline of a geiko’s kimono, the exposed skin accentuated with white make-up. But today we are more often exposed to the humps of protruding vertebra, as the head strains forward and down toward the handheld screen.
This seems a fitting metaphor for Ikenobō across the street. It rises if not like a graceful curve of a neck then like a vase, most fitting as the building serves as headquarters for Japan’s largest school of ikebana, and its oldest, at 550 years. Named after a pond where prince Shōtoku Taishi supposedly bathed, Ikenobō is considered part of Rokkaku-dō temple itself, which it now perpetually shades.
Space doesn’t allow for all I could write about the temple’s importance to Kyoto, so important that it is considered the true geographical center of the city, Kyoto’s navel. Simply, Shōtoku Taishi was on his way to Osaka to dedicate Shitennoji, which being 587 places it as Japan’s first Buddhist establishment. The day being hot, he stopped at the pond here to have his bath. That night he dreamt that the deity Nyoirin Kannon asked him to build a six-sided hall (rokkaku) in order to enshrine her. The larger temple itself was supposedly founded around 200 years later, with current structures dating to 1876. There are a marvelous and varied collection of buildings and iconography throughout the grounds, prayed to by locals who drop in for a quick respite from the bustle of downtown beyond the walls.
This bustle too, apparently has a long history. The street really begins to show its age from here, with coffee shops, candy shops, and what must be one of Kyoto’s oldest French restaurants, dating to 1951. There is also Tattoo Domestic, whose kanji etched in skin probably mean what they’re supposed to for a change.
On one corner a few streets up stands the Papa Jon’s, a local chain which has been serving authentic New York style cheesecake since 1990. I drop by for a warming cup of coffee and a chat with the owner, Charles. He and I prearranged to walk the next few blocks together, and as I prefer to do when doing one of these walks with someone, it is best to catch up first, so that the conversation during the walk itself stays pertinent to the actual road. We settle in over cups of coffee, and as is usual with Charles, the conversation immediately launches itself to lofty heights, about art and aging and the nebulous character of love and friendship. I’ve found over the years that this is a man seemingly incapable of small-talk, and discussions with him are always a joy.
As it is, we talk so long that he no longer has time to do the walk. So instead he walks me through it. Though I tend to think of the Rokkaku-dō shop as Papa Jon’s flagship, it is actually the most recent, and one of four, with Charles ever-moving between them. As such, he claims not to be too familiar with the street. He does enjoy dropping by the izakaya Apollo a few doors up, housed in a machiya a few centuries old. Though quieter than the more lively roads that flank it, Rokkaku-dō Dōri has been getting new life lately, or at least a twist on the old. Nearby Kuradai Miso serves up various flavors of miso, in containers not dissimilar to those in an ice cream parlor. And Casa ala Mode Ume across the road allows you to make you own plum wine. I suppose Charles’ strongest connection with Rokkaku-dō is second-hand, having been greatly impressed with a painting he once saw of the eponymous temple, whose intricately represented tilework had him reassess his own approach to painting. Many of his works can be seen in Papa Jon’s itself.
I eventually return to experiences had first hand. For the final blocks leading to Teramachi, Rokkaku-dō Dōri becomes almost a physical manifestation of the cultural schizophrenia of contemporary Japan. The south side is all tradition (dolls and fans), while the north is modern (North Face, Italian bicycles). My favorite pairing is Japanese Lacquer Black Barbarians, specializing in leather jackets, just across from Hokusai, selling old prints. There is also Dolce Vita, surprisingly not a sweet shop but a dance studio, and I wonder if its specialty is Anita Ekberg’s moves in Tivoli fountain. The Euro theme continues with a pair of Belgian beer restaurants. The road eventually bisects the paired covered arcades of Shingyoku and Teramachi, with a small triangle park in the middle. It is a good place to grab a crepe and a tapioca drink and sit, pondering just whatever the hell is Tom’s Mr. Hedgie.
Truncated sections of the road dogleg around to the north, the first half filled with places for hipsters to shop, and the other half where they can drink. But for all intents and purposes the road end here at Seiganji. A decade ago the temple hosted a screening of the film, Chikyū no Hesō, which had the premise that Kyoto was a sort of island within Japan, populated solely by foreigners (and thus many of the city’s long term expats can be seen as extras). And with the large and sudden increase in foreign guests, one can’t help think about life imitating art.
To my right is Nonohan, which reminds me of the bizarre story of a different film, 1953’s Anatahan. Newly opened on August 1st, all seats of this restaurant are oriented to a wonderful view up the arcade. Most importantly, they have Kyoto craft beer on tap, and beer is always a fitting reward to any walk. So I nurse one while people-watching, letting others stroll for a change.
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
Article and original photos by Edward J. Taylor. All rights reserved.