Here is the latest installment from Edward J. Taylor‘s ongoing exploration of Kyoto’s streets.
Back in my piece about the Gion Festival, I mentioned that I was intending to revisit Shinmachi, due to its old-timey shopping arcade that I often patronized during the three years when I lived close-by. Had I reread my own words, I would have forgone starting the walk at its origins, where the road is birthed from the conjunction of the Kamogawa and the Kyoto Jūkan Expressway. I somehow tricked myself into believing that I’d find something interesting south of Kyoto Station, but once again all I find are factories and metallic monuments to industry, here in the historical and cultural desert that is this part of the city. At least the autumn weather proves more pleasant to walk beneath.
The lack of inspiration quickly drives me forward. The Nintendo building looks a lot like a Rubik’s Cube, symbolic of the type of games that the company eventually supplanted. Across from the Terrsa conference center, I stop for a few minutes to watch a group of working-age men play baseball, the sport being the only thing that ever makes me homesick. After the game, the players might make their way to a nearby public bathhouse popular with tourists and locals alike, the Taisho-yu, which undoubtedly originated during that period, though I can find nothing to corroborate this.
I again face the gauntlet that is an overly touristed Kyoto Station. Then I am back out on the street, quickly find Shinmachi again, and turn north. Above Shichijō the road grows narrow, probably as wide as all Kyoto’s streets had been before the age of the automobile. Further north, the cafes that have colonized the parallel blocks just below Gojō proved to be hip and modern, but here they maintain their character and age, tidy machiya one and all. This leads to the first stirrings of the arcade look to Shinmachi, quite befitting a road developed by Hideyoshi as Kyoto’s merchant center.
I covered the section north of Gojō in my previous piece, but as usual with Kyoto, you’ll always encounter something new. For example, I have already introduced Shimokyo No. 14 Elementary School in the Manjuji chapter, but today I discover that in the 16th Century it was a semi-autonomous handicraft guild. That sense of independence took a different shape in 1902, when the school did double-duty as the town hall for the area. I also get a better look at the 1822 Nagae residence, an old family of kimono makers who host an impressive display of folding fans during the Gion festival. I also missed the stone marking the site of where Japan’s first batteries were produced, an industry that accelerated after the country joined the fight against the Germans in the First World War. Very close-by, another stone tells me that this was once the site of an important residence of the powerful Fujiwara clan, and when one daughter bore an emperor in the late 12th century, the residence itself took on the moniker of ‘palace.’
And what I mainly couldn’t see amongst the towering treelike Yamaboko Gion festival floats of July was the forest itself; a tremendous majority of Shinmachi’s buildings along this middle section of the city have maintained their traditional machiya style, quite possibly the biggest concentration in the city. A sad reminder that when people mention Kyoto’s beauty, I am tempted to reply that what we find beautiful is that which remains.
Eventually I get to Kita-oji, and the beginning of the true arcade. I moved away from this neighborhood five years ago, and have been looking forward all day to a revisit. I often patronized the Henna health food shop, one of the better places in town to get earth-friendly products for home and kitchen. While it could be argued that prior to the coming of chemicals, all products were considered natural and earth friendly, the idea, and the purpose of the shop itself, appears to us as somehow new. The businesses that appear as I go along are most certainly those that harken back to an older Japan: tofu and fresh fish, kimono sellers and a public bathhouse. Even two sports shops look more Showa than Reiwa. And in exactly this is the charm, in goods geared to those raised in that earlier age.
One shop that is most definitively new (and one opened only two weeks before) is Crossfit, (https://www.crossfitkyoto.com/en/) where longtime resident Russell Trott will continue to help keep Kyoto fit, as he has for over a decade. (And he is apparently keyed into this area’s demographic, vowing to help build a body that will keep one fit and self-reliant until age 100.) Converted from an old sento public bath, the location is ideal for counterbalancing the Kamo Donut shop a block up. Moreso than the doughnuts, a threat even greater is the liquor shop just beyond. The vending machine out front once stocked craft beer, the only one in the city as far as I know. It was a frequent haunt of mine, and served as the heart and catalyst of my piece in the Deep Kyoto Walks book.
There used to be a funky little café along here that served ethnic type food in the days when that was more of a rarity in Kyoto. Sadly today it has become a generic oden place. And an old little coffee shop/art space that sat on another corner also appears to be long gone. Happily the grocer One Drop is still around, which is another choice looking to develop a healthier diet (and shouldn’t we all?) All its produce is locally sourced from farms north of the city.
Over Kitayama, things get definitively more residential, but being this far north that means tidy little homes rather than cookie-cutter apartment blocks. In between pops up the odd yakitori place, or izakaya. Most bizarrely there are two of the same pizza delivery service. Plus Natural Popcorn!
Then Shinmachi ends, reunited with the river after ten slightly meandering kilometers. Here, all is quiet, beneath a grove of tall trees that shade an array of massive stones. This could be the staging area for a garden designer, or perhaps part of the foundation for Hideyoshi’s Doi, the protective wall that ringed the Kyoto he developed at around the same time that he built his New Town, Shinmachi.
A place definitively older, older even than Kyoto itself, is Kamigamo Shrine, which stands one bridge north. That bridge is undergoing major widening, probably to handle the increased flow of tourist buses of the past few years. Their impact on the city is certainly palatable, as Kyoto becomes another town yet again.
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
* Brocade & Octopi: From Nishikikoji to Takoyakushi
* Walking with the Dead Along Matsubara-dori
* Strolling in Reel Time along Fuyamachi
Article and original photos by Edward J. Taylor. All rights reserved.