Here is the latest installment from Edward J. Taylor‘s ongoing exploration of Kyoto’s streets.
A funny thing, serendipity. It’s as if life is springing a pop quiz, to see how well you’re paying attention. I was watching a new box set containing Akio Jissoji’s controversial Buddhist Trilogy, which included as a bonus his beautiful period film, It was a Faint Dream. The story is set during the Kamakura Period, primarily at the villa of the emperor, which he calls Tomikōji. Now, I’d walked its eponymous street six months ago, but found out that walk had been along the new Tomikōji, so called only after the 16th Century. The original Heian period Tomikōji (and locale of the film), is a street now referred to as Fuyamachi, rebuilt and remonickered by Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 1590 after the Onin Wars leveled Kyoto a century before. So not only did the film take me back a few centuries, it also took me to the villa where I’d culminated my walk not many days before.
Fuyamachi got its name due to the large number of merchants selling fu, a wheat gluten most commonly seen floating like little clouds across the steaming sky of miso soup. I’ll see some later on in the day, but for the time being, this walk begins, like so many others in this city, with my back to a car park. Just a few steps up from this start on Gojō-Dōri, I come to the Daiki Bookstore. It is a small, independent bookshop whose type is becoming all too rare these days. They seem primarily dedicated to oversized books on architecture, with ample amounts of photos. But there are a few wild-card titles, on subjects as diverse as Sri Lankan modernism, South India cooking, and a lovely picture book on the Hyakumeizan, the 100 Eminent Mountains of Japan.
You could always take your purchase to the nearby Café Suzunari, located on the ground floor of what was an old wooden factory of some sort. The Lumen Gallery is just upstairs, and I’m sad that I missed by a week an exhibition by Robert Frank. In another case of film-born serendipity, the filmmaker passed away just a few weeks before. Oddly enough, I caught his classic Pull My Daisy in the unlikely venue of rural Yonago back in the 1990s.
Across the road is the Asahi Shinmeigū shrine, which once covered a good number of blocks in all directions, so large that it was referred to as Sai-no-kami-no-Mori, or “forest of the blessed gods.” Tiny today, what’s left of the shrine is dedicated to Sarutahiko, one of Japan’s most important deities, and a symbol of spiritual strength. As such the god is considered a patron of the martial arts, namely aikido, as its founder Ueshiba Morihei saw Sarutahiko as the god of Aiki, or metaphysical martial abilities.
A contemporary of Ueshiba was Kyūō Kendō, a man with similar ideals of utilizing philosophical hybridization to make sense of the ever-changing realities of post feudal Japan. His Shuseisha had been located within the shrine grounds, as a place to study Shingaku, of which he was lineage holder. This form of ethical Shinto was originally founded by Ishida Baigan in the Edō period, incorporating elements of Zen and neo-Confucianism. I have read that “Shingaku was one of the cultural foundations for Japan’s industrialization.” And in Japan, industrialization tends to compress culture, and history. I suppose there is some karmic justice in the fact that the old structure has given way to industrialized progress, as the grounds of the shrine itself have been badly cut into by yet other carpark.
Maybe it is this kind of divine disrespect that has made the weather so odd lately. It is October 3rd, incredibly humid, with the temperature still hanging on the polite side of 30 degrees. This type of heat means that rain is due anytime. I pick up my pace then, through what is mainly a residential neighborhood. One house is marked with a sign reading, “House of Peace,” and I wonder if there is any connection with the police recruitment posters hanging nearby, (not to mention sharing a name with the diplomatic structure that overlaps the two Koreas, where all the peace talks are held). Another mystery is why the Happiness Support Office could not help dear Fukui-san’s shop across the street, a property now for sale, with the name of the previous occupant still proudly emblazoned on the wall. The unusual names continue. Play Zendō conjures up images of randy monks, yet the Grand Demure Fuyamachi holds itself above all of that.
There’s a massive open space on the corner of Takatsuji, and as I often find myself doing in Kyoto, I try to remember what was once there, what has been lost. And as ever, in the block leading to Shijō, the road grows funky, all cool looking little cafes and bars. One name, “Anji,’ gets me humming The Rolling Stones. A half block up Shijō to the east is the Kyoto Ukiyoe Museum, one of the city’s hidden gems. Beside the more modern copies, original antique prints still hold their color, despite all the changes that have come over the past two centuries.
And the rain finally begins to fall. I find shelter, briefly, for the three steps it takes me cross the covered Nishiki food market. The Kikuya health food shop on the corner is a vital stop for me in the waning days of February, in order to buy Tencha, which I find an effective preventative remedy against the vicious cedar pollen of spring (though its diuretic side-effects I could do without. Tends to slow down the walking.).
Today, rather than pollen it is rain. Not heavy but steady, which at least it breaks the grip of the humidity. The change in the weather makes more inviting the twinned machiya cafes, Omo and Mikasadeco. But I carry on, through a street taking a turn toward the traditional. There’s a half-dozen antique shops, and a handful selling the aforementioned fu. Guests houses along here have all been tucked into tasteful machiya. There are also a startling number of cafes emphasizing historic chic, such as the Tudor-style Miss Daisy English Tea Room, and a Taisho era house representing the Sarasa chain, which are always creative in repurposing old buildings. The Midorinokan is a curvaceous eye-catching beauty covered in ivy (and irony, as it now plays host to a plastic surgery clinic). The Senmai tsukemono shop shows its roots in its feudal era architecture, and in the rubbish bags piled out front, stuffed with the unedible parts of daikon. Most notably are the historic Hiiragiya and Tawaraya Ryokan, a pair of grand dames of 200 and 300 years respectively, where royalty and Hollywood slept, in those days before Kyoto discovered steel and concrete.
The final café of the day attempts to halt my progress. I’ve long been intrigued by Blue Books, so step inside for a few minutes to browse the books displayed behind the bar. I’m tempted to linger, but the rain has ceased for the moment, and looks ready to start again anytime. I don’t have that much further to go. These last few blocks have a nondescript little Shiroyama Shrine, and a temple, Daifuku-ji, that has a nice bell and 1,400 years of history (including hiding one of the pro-imperialist troops at the end of the Edō era). Unpretentious Hafuu is one of Kyoto’s better steak shops. By contrast, Agri promises that “Agriculture is Foodculture.”
But for me, the find of the day would certainly be Sansar, a shop unique to Kyoto, and for that matter, Japan. Besides selling some basic South Asian furniture, tapestries, and other household furnishings the shop specializes in Indian black tea, namely that used in chai. The owner’s passion began during a long backpacking trip through India during the halcyon days of the early 1970, when many young Japanese dropped out of the mainstream to explore the world. During that time, Nakasu-san learned that a good cup of tea is a fine way to slow the clock. While we don’t share a cup, I do enjoy a bit of conversation with this soft-spoken man and his wife, before I resume my race with the rain.
The weather holds as I reach the Imperial Palace, then it eases into a drizzle. The Tomikōji villa is long gone of course, replaced at some point with a baseball field, today busy with practice. Between these, in 1881, an Exposition Hall was built here, as a place to display Kyoto’s industrial products, as a means of maintaining the city’s importance and preventing its decline after the Meiji Emperor relocated the capital to Tokyo. Before the erection of the hall here, previous expositions had been held in the Sento Imperial Palace itself.
But I appreciated the irony that progress here is now measured by the advance of a base-runner. As the rain-covered leaves are all that remain of Emperors’ dreams.
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
Article and original photos by Edward J. Taylor. All rights reserved.