This is the final guest post from Edward J. Taylor and marks the end of a series of articles in which he explored Kyoto’s streets. Many thanks to Edward for his long-term commitment to this project which he actually set out on two years ago. To read more of Edward’s wanderings and ramblings both in Kyoto and further afield, please visit his blog: Notes from the ‘Nog. This month Edward and friends visit three of Kyoto’s arcades…
For a city with a population of 1.5 million, Kyoto can feel awfully small. One is constantly running into those one knows. The expat population in particular is quite close (though it could be argued that it can be stratified into generations). Within foreign circles are even more circles; those connected by interests, or by geography.
In the latter case, three of us discovered we’d all attended the same university, UC Santa Barbara (with a fourth popping up later). One night, we three met for dinner at Dining Room You, where a fellow, best known by the moniker Larry Kyoto, proposed that for one of these Deep Kyoto pieces, we walk a series of disjointed arcades that triangulate the city.
It took us a year to coordinate, but on a warm sunny Monday, Larry, Robert Yellin, and myself find ourselves disembarking the train at Nishi-Muko station. But almost immediately, we see a sign for the Gekikara Shotengai, which I’ll very loosely translate as Spice Alley. The sign bears a superhero-looking pepper pod called Karakki and at shops and restaurants all throughout town, the pod is a constant, by which they measure the flame.
It turns out that the shotengai, or arcade, in the name is a misnomer, and it’s as if the seeds of that initial mascot have been scattered across a cluster of little streets between the Hankyū and JR rail lines. I had presumed that due to the name, there would be some kind of scent in the air, like in the markets of Southeast Asia. But all I see around me is just another suburban Kyoto neighborhood.
We find a Gekkikara map at the mouth of an actual arcade, which is little more than a simple stub a single block long. Most of the associated restaurants are either Chinese or Korean. My immediate assumption is that this Spice Arcade idea came up decades ago, when those two countries defined the limited idea of ethnic food to a Japanese population recovering from the war. But a later Internet search tells me that the idea for the arcade was born in 2009, as a way of drawing visitors to a place that the residents themselves admitted had little to offer.
As we walk around, I read a few travel articles on my phone in order to figure out a route, but unfortunately the shops that seem most interesting are no longer in business. (I really wanted to follow up some spicy gyoza with habanero ice cream.) In the little arcade we do find the Chinese chain shop Min Min, but not much else. As means of consolation, we eat some fresh age tofu that rolls off an ancient looking iron press, similar to a donut maker in the West. Though the antithesis of spicy food, it is at least something to put in our bellies, purposely kept empty in anticipation of grazing as we go along.
Back on the main street, we wander along in an arc, attempting to pass the shops marked on the earlier map. Most of them were shuttered, possibly because it’s a Monday (a common business holiday in Japan), or perhaps because it is mid-afternoon, a time when restaurant workers rest between the lunch and dinner hours. I kick myself for the timing of the walk (meant to conclude at happy hour at a latter arcade), but I’d expected something akin to Nishiki Market back in town, with vendors lined up along a single strand.
So the start of the day can be called an abject failure, but owners of the Chinese restaurants might remind us that from failure comes opportunity. In this, I plan a return at a better hour, perhaps in conjunction with a visit to Muko’s bamboo forest, which though smaller, is relatively unknown to the hordes currently Instagramming themselves silly in Arashiyama.
A train brings us back across the city to Tofukuji station. Just outside we find Dragon Burger, set in a lovely little machiya on the corner. Created by the young Parisian chef Adam Rawson, the menu includes things like wasabi- or yuzu koshō-burgers. Still expecting to graze later, we settle for a simple slider, then press on, passing a stone marker for Kujokosen-bashi, once an important bridge on the Kyō Kaidō feudal highway, and Hira Inn, an attractive café in a modest modern house.
The 350-meter Imakumano Arcade begins where a side street climbs up to Sennyu-ji temple, one of the Saikoku 33 Kannon Pilgrimage. As we are on one of our own, we continue straight along a street more or less unchanged since its halcyon days in the late Showa Period. There are the obligatory rice, tea, and sweet shops, a clock shop, a few clothing stores, plus the butcher, the baker, and the incense maker. It all proves a wonderful time capsule to things nearly lost.
Being this close to a pair of famous temples, there are of course the usual Buddhist funerary shops. One of these has shifted its focus to the needs of the time, crafting prayer beads to be used as quaint straps for mobile phones.
The find of the day is the massive camphor tree that launches itself out of the Imakumano Shrine that gives this area its name. Being very late autumn, the tree is beginning to shed its decorative cover, which helps better reveal the massive boughs that bring shape to this giant. According to lore, the tree was transplanted by Emperor Go-Shirakawa, Japan’s last absolute monarch, just before the shogunate took over. Both before and after this, the emperor proved a real journeyman, undertaking the Kumano Pilgrimage 33 times, including the one in 1160 when he had the tree brought here. Under its canopy two centuries later, Kinkaku-ji founder Ashikaga Yoshimitsu saw his first performance by Kan’ami and his son Zeami, and afterward became an ardent patron of their new art of Noh.
After a few circumambulations along the platform built at the base of the tree, we wander over to the nearby workshop of Kojima Shōten, (http://kojima-shouten.jp/english/index.html) makers of paper lanterns for 230 years. While not usually open to the public, Robert has been here before, on one of those occasions when he expands his role as the foremost foreign expect on Japanese ceramics to include leading crafts-based tours. The Kojimas prove gracious, though obviously busy this close to year-end, so after a quick chat we let them get on with things.
A taxi brings us to Furumonzen Bridge, which spans the Shirakawa canal. Up somewhere to our right are the steep steps of Chion-in that Tom Cruise climbed to meet the Meiji Emperor in Last Samurai. A few meters up the canal is the narrow Shirakawa-ippon bridge, also known as Gyoja-bashi since it is crossed by the marathon monks of Hiei-zan when they cross it during their 1000-day practice. This bridge marks the start of the Furukawa Arcade.
I’m not sure whether or not the monks make their way up the arcade, but if they did, I’m sure they find it quite different than their predecessors. The covered street is a great example of the shifting needs of a neighborhood, and where Imakumano had been an example of tradition, here the old time mom and pop shops are gradually being replaced by the new. As Reiwa-era Kyoto is beginning to be defined by yukata rental shops and guest houses, here we find plenty of the latter, neat and polished and taking a jump back into time to the old wooden façade of a previous century, before the invention of concrete and metal shutters. There are also cafes, galleries, and massage, not to mention Tsuneshin, which Larry tells me is the best knife sharpener in town, and even offers knife-sharpening classes from time to time.
But our own needs are best fulfilled at Komachi, one of Kyoto’s better-loved craft beer joints. I’ve noticed that they’ve recently expanded, into what had once been an unagi shop next door. The all-wooden interior of exposed, unfinished beams always looks a bit work-in-progress to me, but I’m not about to turn my nose up at their beer. The selection tonight is representative of the current Japanese trend at ‘creative beer,’ one I hope they get past soon. Amongst the coffee stouts, saisons, and hazy options, I’m able to parse out a trusty old pale ale, and then the conversation moves beyond our walk and onto our usual topic of music.
The poster on the near wall is a perfect encapsulation of it all, mentioning that David Bowie ate unagi next door, at a shop that no longer exists. And that’s the thing about history; it slips away silently and nearly unseen. Not unlike, in fact, the foam on a pint of beer.
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
* Revisiting Shinmachi
* A Stroll with Joel on the Omiya Arcade
Article and original photos by Edward J. Taylor. All rights reserved.