This month, once again, our good friend Edward J. Taylor continues his ongoing journey through Kyoto’s past and present with the fourth installment of his “Kyoto Streets” project and a stroll along Bukkoji-dōri.
The pieces I’ve written thus far have all travelled from south to north, in keeping with how travelers would have entered the city during the Heian period. I thought for a change I’d shift 90 degrees and walk east to west. Thus I stood in early morning with my back to the Kamogawa, the rainy season humidity not yet up. Keeping the sun at my back would help in staving off the heat sure to come.
Bukkoji Park shared the name of the road I’d be walking today, Bukkoji-dōri. The park gave access to the riverside, so I walked down to look north up the bank. This time of year, most of the restaurants that line the Kamogawa have built their wooden yuka decks above the parallel feeder canal, bringing a bit of cool to those dining al fresco above. This far below Shijō, there were only a few jutting here and there, the overall frontage looking like it had an atrocious dental plan.
A mere block in and road stops, cut by the busy Kawaramachi. It makes a little diversion around some big apartment blocks, and Hakushindo, who since 1927 have been making Kyoto’s most recognizable sweet, Yatsuhashi. (I especially appreciate their phone number, 8284-01, cleverly read as yatsuhashi ichiban.) Behind it is the Kunitomo company, who were founded as gunpowder merchants in the 16th century, but in more recent days manufacture fireworks. Across the road is the diminutive Shōen-ji, one of a cluster of small temples that are lined up toward Teramachi-dōri on the next block. A small charm of paper and straw reads “Naginata-hoko, one of the better known floats of the Gion festival. The guild that looks after each float is centered around a particular neighborhood, and I realize I’ve just entered theirs. But rather than being sliced by this eponymous medieval weapon, I am nearly cut down by a Porsche moving too quickly around the next corner.
We’re not too far from Kyoto’s central banking district, and the others I see walking around look to be suffering the heat in their dark suits. One businessman nurses a cup of iced coffee, its color faded with melted ice. Since Teramachi, the road has narrowed and is quiet. I pause to admire the dolls in the window of Hashimoto, who have been selling the famed Kyō-ningyō dolls since the mid-Edo period. These dolls are a feature of the displays that accompany Girl’s Day every March, modeled on the costumes of the old imperial court. I smile and think that in many ways, Kyoto itself is a bit like a doll’s house, things tidying arranged and displayed just right.
The road widens again, the traffic heavier. I am pleased to move against the flow, so that I could at least see what it is that hits me. Along this stretch was once the site of the Toda Yashiki, founded in the 14th Century by the blind Biwa player Akashi Kenichi, and established as an organization that helped support the visually impaired. The blind were able to monopolize such professions as itinerant musicians and masseurs, the latter being still prevalent today. There also were a few machiya along here, one housing a Shōrinji Kempō dōjō, and a few others for converted to guesthouses, bearing names straight out of Sei Shonagon. Around the corner, encased by a building and vibe from another era, stands Takutaku, which since 1974 has been hosting some of the world’s most interesting live acts (each and every one of them listed on their homepage).
An expanse of tall trees just up to my left reveals Bukkoji Temple, which of course gives the road its name, though the first kanji character in the temple’s name takes the older Chinese reading. The name itself was bequeathed by the Kamakura period emperor Go-Daigo, who dreamt that light shining off a stolen Amida Buddha statue emanated from this very site.
The grounds of this “Temple of the Divine Light” are open and broad, and dominated by a magnificent camphor tree. And the wisteria crawling along the trellises would have been in their full glory a month before. A sign in a small grove nearby warns visitors that the resident crows have just birthed their young, and are aggressively protective in that corner. The twinned temple halls are a massive study of tatamied space, their altars well-girded in lacquer and gold. The precision of detail immediately becomes apparent and reminds me of the intricacy of Buddhist home altars. At the end of the feudal period, craftspeople who had once constructed samurai armor retrained their nimble fingers to make altars just like these.
Around the perimeter of the temple grounds are a trio of buildings that are the home of D&Department, serving as a café and as a gallery space that helps promote Kyoto arts. Affiliated with Kyoto University of Art and Design, the group is trying to ensure the survival of the city’s craftsmen by helping them ‘reboot’ to meet the needs of the modern world. I particularly liked a trendy pair of contemporary zori that was designed by a family whose roots go back 180 years.
The road beyond shows its own take on these shifts, many of its machiya converted to even more guesthouses, as well as small bars. One of them appears to have been forced to hang an English sign reading, “Private Residence,” though tastefully printed on a noren, and accompanied by tasteful little logo. A deft touch in keeping with Kyoto’s high refinement, and a far cry from the usual English signs rudely demanding we refrain from some behavior or such. The long term resident will be quick to notice these signs, the unfortunate side effect of the tourist explosion. (Nothing to do in this case with the previously mentioned Kunitomo fireworks company.)
And while the tourist hordes are causing some segments of the community to close their ranks, others are opening up. The foreign influence is far more palpable these days, evident in the rapidly expanding variety of shops and cafes in Kyoto, bringing with it a touch of cosmopolitanism to this most conservative of cities. (Though admittedly, it could also be that the Internet that is serving as this century’s ‘Black Ships.’) For the foreign resident, the wealth of choice is certain welcome.
But the old guard too has its representation here, bizarrely enough in a disproportional number of yakiniku barbeque joints. One of these has the odd name of “Mr. Lamb and Mrs. Salad,” a row of ham hocks ‘curing’ in a second story window. Tenuously related is a shop called Gypsy, which both designs and repairs leather handbags. Not far away is the former residence of renowned poet Yosa Buson, as well as the possible birthplace of scholar Sugawara no Michizane. Both were legends of Japanese history as well as men of their respective times, and as such, preferred a predominantly vegetarian diet and would have dined elsewhere.
On the expansive grounds of what was once the former Sugawara estate is a shrine dedicated to Sugawara no Michizane, dating to the Kamakura period. In the courtyard is a ‘flying plum’ tree, and the history accompanying the shrine tells of a split between two lineages, one marked with red plum blossoms and others as white, with the latter decorating the shrine’s inner walls. This shrine is part of an eight shrine Tenmangu pilgrimage around Kyoto (Tenman being Michizane’s posthumous name), and is obviously well used, if judging from the worn floorboards before the altar. The mirror here is unusual in that it hangs diagonally above to reflect the visitors as they pray. I had entered the shrine from the side gate, flanked by a number of row houses. Many had 19th century fixtures, which suggests they might once have been the accommodation of pilgrims. There are more of these just over Nishinotoin-dōri, the names of their former incarnation as inns fading on their ancient nameplates.
I notice a beautiful house around the corner, and detour to take photos. It is only when I read the plaque out front that I realize that I have already mentioned it in the Aburanokōji piece. This exemplifies why multiple trips to Kyoto are recommended, as like a Noh mask, the city reveals subtle changes in expression with the shift of light and the season.
The Apollo drum shop stands on the far corner of Horikawa. There is a definitely older look to things on this west side of the grand boulevard, the wooden frontages proudly bearing what once had been grand names in business or small industry. A drum shop of more local flavor is the Kyoto Taiko center, just up the block at Omiya. This entire stretch also had a preponderance of beauty salons. As the days of lifetime employment recede further and further behind us, a lot of young people are opting for different types of lives altogether. For men, this often means opening a bar or a small eatery. Women tend to shun the nightlife and go in for cafes or beauty salons, the names of which serve as a primer of basic Japanese girls names.
Kyoto has always been a city obsessed with taste and fashion and styles. As if to exemplify a shift in the latter, an array of houses before me presented themselves in grandiose forms of self-expression, in complete disregard for tradition. It can be argued that the clash between old and new is what has defined Japanese society in the modern era. Among the best-known defenders of the old guard were the Shinsengumi, who had headquartered themselves at my next destination, Mibu-dera, where they had tried to root out opposition to the ruling Shogunate in the mid 19th century. But the temple’s own history started well before that. Nearly a millennium before finding fame in the 15th century for its Mibu Kyōgen, the site had served as the former residence of famous priest Ganjin. There is no record for how his house may have looked, but the principles of Buddhism that he helped bring to Japan have gone beyond mere dogmatics to impact every form of art and architecture that has come since.
I’ve visited Mibu-dera numerous times, so keep today’s visit brief. Just before the Kyogen-dō is an impressive Jizo statue with a telltale slash across its body, scarification no doubt in the backlash against Buddhism in the 1870s. One thousand other relocated jizo have been piled into an impressive pagoda beside the main hall. As I walk over to have a closer look, I notice a sign on the toilets warning that there is no paper within. This seems not only unkind, but also shows a lack of responsibility, for isn’t the main occupation of Japanese Buddhism the supervision of human remains?
A trio of grannies sits on those little push-buggies they use, chatting in front of a small vegetable stand. I’ve written before that Kyoto is the most Asian of cities in that so much of life here is lived out in the narrow lanes between their homes. You don’t see this as much in Tokyo or in the cities of provinces. When asked by visitors to Kyoto what I would recommend, I tend to suggest riding a bicycle around, or having a stroll. This, not the monuments, is Kyoto.
And Bukkoji-dōri too begins to show more signs of life as the shops line up, all of which specializing in daily needs, selling chicken, rice, and tofu, stationary and clothes. The commercial nature of things becomes fully articulated in a short three block shopping street covered by retractable awnings that runs perpendicular to the main road. This in turn is bisected by small lanes that have a few row houses amongst the newer homes. There is a pleasant sense of community here, though I suppose there would have to be, living in such close proximity to your neighbors. I bow to the local fishmonger, but he doesn’t return my greeting. Oh well, I suppose that is part of Kyoto too.
A local sake shop displays lovely old 19th century wooden signs, as they often do. In this case their beauty helps draw the eye away from the ugly 1960s concrete façade behind. A stop here could perhaps be followed by a visit to the Kinzan-Yu public bath house of a similar vintage, marking a time before the coming of indoor plumbing, and the manifestation of that feeling of community could be best demonstrated in the literal scrubbing of one another’s backs.
The last few blocks of Bukkoji-dōri have become strictly residential, a reality growing common on these walks, as we move further out from the city center. Although there is still occasional evidence of the stratification of Kyoto’s long history, the traditional grid that once defined the city’s Heian period perimeters mark where the true historic relics remain, which may dictate a more defined focus to future walks, particularly in heading west, as it was in that direction that the city sprawled. And another lesson today is that the northbound routes are “fuller” somehow, as those once led toward the imperial palace and the center of things.
Newer residential areas tend to develop around trains, and if to prove it, Bukkoji-dōri comes to a sudden end where it has been cruelly slashed by the Hankyu Line, in a way not unlike the old Jizo at Mibu-dera. Change can be brutal.
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.
Article and original photos by Edward J. Taylor. All rights reserved.