This month Edward J. Taylor walks Sanjo; one of Kyoto’s best known streets, and finds so much to talk about that we have to post it in two installments! The second installment will follow in a few days time.
Until now I’ve shied away from walking Kyoto’s major boulevards, mainly because they’ve been built and rebuilt so many times that, like with someone who wears too much makeup, you’re not sure what they really look like. Sanjō-dōri in particular is one of the city’s better known and most visited destinations, and the shops and cafes along the way change nearly as rapidly as the calendar. Not to mention the fact that it is one of Kyoto’s longest avenues, stretching in theory from the Hozokawa River boat dock in Arashiyama to Tokyo’s Nihonbashi, since it becomes the Nakasendō (and for 23 kilometers anyway, the Tōkaidō) from Sanjō Ōhashi eastward.
Oddly enough I walked those 544 kilometers, on and off throughout the summer of 2012. I had no interest in a repeat, finding the eastern Kyoto sections too built up, with little history remaining, aside from the historical markers clustered around Sanjō Ōhashi, designating that here was the “former site of X.” But then I remembered the shopping arcades, which would be certainly be abuzz with shoppers gearing up for both Christmas, and more importantly, the New Year holiday.
So there I stand, at the arcade entrance at Kawaramachi, a gentle wind blowing off the river a few blocks east. I leave the busy take-away sushi window to my right and step into shadow. Even inside, the day remains warm, after so many bespotted with rain. So it is that the promise of warm drinks offered by the many cafes along here feels a bit anachronistic somehow, which might in fact have gone well with whatever it was that inspired that odd donut sculpture above where I’d just been standing.
This first covered section is only a couple of blocks long, and besides the cafes there are also a number of music stores, their walls hung with brass instruments and guitars. There is another branch of the Sir Thomas Lipton teashop, the roots of this location going back to 1890. Nearby is a Buddhist funerary shop with some beautifully intricate carvings in the front window. I further appreciate that above them on the fourth floor is a fitness center named Reborn Myself. Seems perfectly fitting.
I note that the benches that once bisected the arcade have gone, though they were there less as places to sit and more as a means of preventing bicycle riding. I assume that the space is needed to accommodate the increase in tourists, and most of the shops along here are certain to attract, selling traditional goods at reasonable prices. It’s ironic in that these same types of shops used to be pretty thick on the ground here, and I would always send visiting guests there for their souvenir shopping. But traditional items began to disappear from the arcade during the previous decade, replaced by newer shops geared to the youth market. With the recent increase in tourists, the old ways have returned.
There are only a few shops that are truly old, none more so than the Misuyabari shop that is set back off the arcade in a pleasant little garden. I am lucky to find both the 16th and 17th generation shopkeepers behind the counter, who tell me a little of the shop’s 400 year history. We also talk about the interesting Japanese belief that to break a needle brings bad luck. (I tell them how a needle broke during a bit of repair on an old backpack of mine, which I last saw during check-in on a flight from Vietnam twenty years ago.) In fact, Arashiyama’s Kokuzo Hōrin-ji temple held their annual needle festival the week before, where people not only pray for better sewing skills but hand over broken needles as a means of alleviating bad mojo. The younger owner tells me that one needn’t go all the way there for this reason, as to bury the needle in the backyard will counteract the bad luck. Well, except for anyone who might step on it, I counter.
I decide to grab a custard-filled taiyaki cake at Naruto Taiyaki Honpo. The arcade opens up from here, and I’m back in the sun (which on warmer days might even drive me into the 300-year old Hakuchikudo to buy one of their fine folding fans). Arcades like this are generally found in cities that get a lot of snow, which Kyoto no longer does. The next covered arcade is about a kilometer west from Horikawa, but this next section is architecturally rich, and worth a look on such a fine day. This kind of weather will be pretty scarce for the next few months, so it is best to enjoy it. It puts a spring in my step, though the accompanied whistle is inspired more by the Happy Jack record shop on the far corner.
And any good song deserves a good musician. Luckily I’ve arranged to meet up with one, Max Dodds, who has always been one of the musical highlights of this city (and is featured in Michael Lambe’s piece in the Deep Kyoto: Walks anthology). Max has worked for years at a school a few blocks over, and as such has a long personal connection with the area. Almost immediately he launches into a story, first about how the grand and copious grounds of the meat-packing plant has been shuttered for years, one of the few on this lively street.
The aesthetic grandeur of those other buildings must be allowed to speak for themselves. The “GEAR” theatre is located in the building just before us, a fine example of art deco architecture, built in 1928 as the Kyoto bureau of the Mainichi newspaper. I’ve never actually visited the upstairs theater, but I have seen performances at the funky, Euro-bohemian Café Indépendants on the ground floor, celebrating its 20th year. Kitty-corner to this is the PARC gallery, renovated in 2010 yet still within an 1870 frame. Nearby, the Yabetoku clock shop dates to 1890, and is a beautifully unique structure with an art-deco frontage grafted onto an older Victorian brick façade. Japan’s oldest extant western-style shop, it is now utilized as a modern fashion gallery, with an old vault serving as a small atelier, and whose second floor can be reached by an incredible wooden spiral staircase that looks 18th century European.
The honey shop Mielmie on the next corner dates to 1930, yet a renovation last spring is of a Paris of similar vintage. The 1916 Sacra Building across the road is a marvel of wood and brick, a former bank now filled to its three stories with shops, including one dedicated to Tintin (just don’t say his name in Japanese). On yet another corner is Yanagiya, a fugu restaurant that, although built in 1926 during those those same heady days of rapid westernization, personifies Kyoto tradition.
Somewhere along this stretch was the Café David, but neither Max nor myself could remember exactly where. The café features prominently in Alex Kerr’s Lost Japan, as artistic salon of sorts, run by David Kidd, a real Renaissance man, or whatever is the Asian equivalent. I checked with Alex who confirmed that it had closed about three years ago, and in modern Kyoto tradition, is now a parking lot.
It is on the next block where the real gems lie, a pair of towering Meiji era structures in Victorian brick, imported from Britain. The first is The Museum of Kyoto, opened in 1906 as the Bank of Kyoto before finding new life in 1998, though sadly no longer host to the Japan Institute of Paleological Studies (which has since moved to the western edge of town, if you’re looking). It is also probably the only history museum in the world that has absolutely no information about its own history anywhere on its website. Its near twin up the street is the Nakagyō-ku Post Office, whose interior is as impressive as the outside. Built in 1902, it was slated for destruction in 1974, but saved after an outcry by local residents led to a compromise where the façade was maintained, the first act of historical preservation in Japan.
As we walked amongst what is probably Kyoto’s densest collection of early 20th century magnificence, Max spun his own tales, of a more recent vintage. The YMCA where he works used to have Japan’s first bowling alley, not long after its 1889 founding. A statue out front mentions that it was also the site of Japan’s first basketball game, and Max told me that even today people drop by looking for a pick-up game.
Sanjō used to have more trees apparently, and now all that remain are a crooked pine that stands in the courtyard of the beautiful old house that is the Tomita dental clinic, and a willow that has outlasted the bicycle shop, gas station, and convenience store that have over the years all utilized the same site. We’ll see how the current Chinese noodle shop fares. At least the old store selling tabi has proved steadfast, providing Max with footwear on the day of his wedding.
Besides the trees, a large stone in the area also has a certain prominence. Apparently the legendary hero Benkei passed his childhood in this area. After he was killed in Hiraizumi in Japan’s far north, people in that area began to sicken. Fearing that Benkei’s spirit was imprisoned in the stone, it was moved to a temple in Shinkyokoku in 1893, then in 1967 transferred here, where Benkei spent happier days (and gave the neighborhood of Benkeiishi-cho its name). Young boys are encouraged to touch the stone, to ensure that they’ll grow up strong like Benkei. I’m afraid in the case of Max and myself, it is too late.
A stand outside the post office is the first sign I’ve seen of anything relating to the upcoming holidays. Two students sell a kimono-clad woman a collection of traditional nenga-jō postcards, on which the sender can write greetings before mailing them out. Each card has a number, which will hopefully correspond to winning numbers drawn in a massive lottery held by the Posts and Telecommunications Ministry on New Year’s Day. I wonder how such things fare in the digital age.
In this same intersection as the Post office is Biotei, one of Kyoto’s oldest organic restaurants. Across from this is a pair of historical signs in front of the NTT offices. One marks the site of an old teaching institution that offered education to the general public as a rehabilitation measure after a famine in 1837. The other sign is for a time capsule buried to mark the centenary in 1997 of the founding of NTT. The capsule was only meant to be buried for 20 years, and as such, was opened in 2017. This marker must have been written by the Museum of Kyoto up the street, since there is no mention of what it contained.
As we read these, Max says he’s always thought that its a shame that they hadn’t founded Kyoto’s business section west of Karasuma, and left this section just for the old shops. But at the birth of the Meiji period, this area was the financial heart of the city, an evolution from the money-lenders around Sanjō-Ōhashi who dealt with the travelers heading up the old highways to Edō. The Mizuho Bank on the corner of Karasuma is the only bank dating from the time that still operates out of the original 1906 building, though this was formerly known by another name. Another just a little beyond was built a decade later as the Yamaguchi Bank, though it is now the Kyoto home of Dean and Deluca. I used to teach yoga in a non-defunct studio upstairs, back in the days when I did such things.
While I have little sense of nostalgia for that, I do quite miss the Shimpukan that once stood a half-block north. Built as the Kyoto Central Telephone Office in 1926, nearly a century later it hosted not only restaurants and trendy shops, but also a good number of musical and cultural events on its courtyard stage. The foreign community most miss the Papa Jon’s Café up on the third floor, which for a brief time was one of the most active places for acoustic music and spoken word. The main façade has been left, with a hotel being constructed beyond. I’ve often bemoaned the fact that Kyoto is rapidly becoming a city of hotels, losing a lot of the charm that is the city’s raison d’etre, which may have a boomerang effect in that people will no longer want to come. The new hotel coming in here, I’m told, is looking to rekindle a lot of what the city still has, including an artistic connection with the local community. One can hope.
To be continued…
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
Article and original photos by Edward J. Taylor. All rights reserved.