Here is the latest installment from Edward J. Taylor‘s ongoing exploration of Kyoto’s streets.
The weather over the weekend had proven a surprise, with the blemish-free bluebird skies of May bringing with it temperatures of 29°C. (It’s going to be a hot summer.) So I decided to set off early, which isn’t terribly ideal as things in Kyoto don’t begin to open until 10 am. But Manjuji-dōri looked predominantly residential anyway, and I wanted to beat the heat.
I started with my back to the behemoth Aeon Mall. I’m mere steps into the journey when I realize I’ve chosen the wrong direction, and would spend the duration of the walk staring into the sun. When doing walks like these, it is important to keep what in martial arts is called Enzan no Metsuke: gazing at a far off mountain. It is important to keep one’s eyes soft, like in taking in something large out in the distance. In doing so, the field of vision broadens, and one is able to notice more overall across the landscape, rather than having the attention get captured by a single object. But with the sun directly in the eyes, it is impossible to do anything but squint. Good thing I’m wearing sunscreen.
Kyoto’s western neighborhoods are by no means her most attractive, and these first few blocks consist of little besides low squat apartment blocks of an older vintage, and unnamed boxes of small industry. Traversing the cross-streets is like fording a river; commuters pour down the roads in the direction of workplaces and factories just like these.
Manjuji-dōri is suddenly severed by the Kyoto College of Nursing. Google Maps shows a pedestrian path that cuts across campus, but I’d have to detour anyway around a small stream on the other side. Not much later I’ll face a second detour around a rail line, with its accompanying row of pre-fab houses designed by an architect’s cookie cutter.
In hindsight, I should have taken an even bigger detour, skipping all I’ve walked thus far. It would have been better to have started instead from Kotoku Park, the first thing of interest I’ve seen today. (In fact, I was a good thirty minutes into the walk before I took my first photograph.) Rather than the usual child-friendly open spaces of Japanese parks, the look here is more that of the commons found in American towns, with circular strolling paths and a concrete gazebo at center, ringed by benches. One of these provides a good place for a homeless man to bed down on a warm night of early summer.
A couple of blocks later, small temples begin to appear, and I realize that I’ve reached the outskirts of the old Kyoto. In ancient times, these temples would have been surrounded by forest and farmland, away from the distractions of the Heian capital. One of the temples, Hōren-ji, provides a lending library for neighborhood children. The scent of orange blossoms rises pleasantly from its narrow garden.
I come to a sign that tells me that I’m standing before the former grounds of Honkoku-ji. The temple hosted the diplomatic missions sent from Korea to Edo, the first in 1636, three years after the enactment of the sakoku (closed country) policy of the Tokugawa shogunate. There would be seven missions in all over the next two hundred years, each consisting of 400 members, including the samurai guards sent along with them from the island domain of Tsushima, which lies geographically closer to the Asian mainland than to Japan itself.
I undertake a crossing of my own, over Horikawa, and begin finally to note some variety. The road narrows, barely the width of a single car, so the walking becomes easy. A few of the inevitable guest houses pop up, which would be pleasant places to stay, nestled as they are in one of Kyoto’s narrower lanes. The quiet persists in these daytime hours, as a tatami maker quietly sews his mats nearby.
But the dominating industry here is the shops selling Buddhist funerary altars, whose construction might entail some banging and clanging. Historically, this particular craftsmanship evolved from the former makers of yoroi, as the end of the feudal period made samurai armor obsolete. I note a couple of the shops have a newish looking sign boasting of being “Kyobutsu Sommelier,” so the pride of the old days apparently lives on. Yet none of the irony, as the loanword now being used comes from the same nation whose military advisors brought with them the technological changes that drove the old armor into extinction in the first place.
There are also signs reading Machinami Bunkazai, which hang near the entrances to some of small (and obviously older) businesses housed in the Edo-period machiya that help this narrow street maintain its reasonably uniform and traditional look, albeit with a few concrete and prefab exceptions. One of these is the Grand Japanning Hotel, part of a chain of new guesthouses. In this particular case I hasten to ask question, “While Japanning, do you Kyoto?” The Meiji emperor certainly did conjugate the verb “To Kyoto,” despite his irreparably breaking the hearts of the local subjects in moving the capital to the newly renamed Tokyo in 1868. I come across a stone marker denoting where the Emperor lived during his six month stay in 1877, finding a highly secure safe haven during the violence of Saigō Takamori’s Satsuma rebellion down in Kyushu. The Shimokyo No. 14 Elementary school would open on the site a year later, before closing for good in 1992.
The former school grounds have since been converted into an assisted living community. Much has been written about a rapidly aging Japan, and the replacement of the youngest segment of the population by the oldest is now a common sight. Much of the infrastructure built in earlier years for the young are now being repurposed for the needs of the old, and one surprising stat is that adult diapers now outsell those for infants. Recently I was shocked to read that “If fertility continues to hover at current levels, the Japanese population is projected to shrink from 127 million today to as low as 89 million by 2060. More importantly, by 2060 the working age population will collapse, declining by as much as 43 percent, while the population over 60 will explode to account for as much as 49 percent of the population. In that scenario the number of adults over 75 will come to exceed the number of children and young adults under 19 by a factor of 2:1.”
And the older faces continue to appear. Up at the corner of Karasuma stands Japan’s first streetcar, Number 28, which trundled the streets of Kyoto from 1896 to 1957. (Though the pioneering technology for Japan’s railways was British, the heart of ole Number 28 belongs to Italy, for her headlights are in a direct line with the lemon-themed Capri Shokudō, and the Bar Amalfi, both over the boulevard.) Antique shops similarly celebrate the old, including one selling kimono. A woman walks past it, with a striking resemblance to the famous artist Foujita, in the flamboyance of her clothing, bowl haircut, and choice of spectacles.
She may be affiliated with one of the many galleries that have begun appear, interspersed eventually by tiny drinking establishments. Here too is the Salon de Sakuragakaoru, which on this hot morning is advertising its lemonade, perhaps in a spiritual affiliation with the lemoncello of the earlier Capri Shokudō.
And all the way to Kawaramachi, the sellers of the Buddhist altars keep up their steady presence, a reminder of the inevitable. Just down Teramachi and to my right is the Mar Café, which I wasn’t yet aware of at the time of my piece on that particular street, but whose rooftop terrace seating and good selection of craft beers has moved it to my list of favorite eateries. A more recent addition to that list is a few steps from where the final spur of Manjuji ends at Takasegawa. The “punk kaiseki” of Giro Giro Hitoshima has been getting a good deal of attention lately, and it is always good fun to sit downstairs at the counter and watch the chef and his team run through their paces.
And as for my own pace, I am pleasantly surprised to finish the day’s walk before ten a.m., even before the garbage trucks have finished their rounds. But there was more to Manjuji than I had originally thought.
As I began to do the research for the writing of this piece, I learned that the road historically led to Rokuharamitsu-ji Temple, located on the other side of the Kamogawa. I’m not sure whether there had once been a bridge, but on the eastern bank I find that the side street that runs just beside the newer Kawabata-dōri is a couple of meters lower, suggesting a bridge had once been here, one whose arch would have needed the extra space to feed Manjuji as it leads away from the riverbank.
Whatever the case, it is a road of lesser importance, just guest houses and older residences. In front of one, a very old woman clips flowers from a pot out in front of her house. (When I pass by later in the day, I’ll see her again sitting there, admiring those same flowers that now rest in her lap.)
I detour up a side road to Rokuharamitsu-ji, a temple best known for its statue of Kuya, reciting the Nembutsu, represented by little Buddha figures extending from his mouth. I won’t enter today, having been a number of times, the most memorable being when an ajari from Mt. Hiei-zan northeast of town was doing his extended kaigyō pilgrimage into town. He was followed here by a number of pilgrims (including myself), who knelt before the temple gate to get a blessed bonking on the head with his weighty rosary.
I could stop here but decide to follow Manjuji to where it curls to a definitive end a couple of blocks away. Another short stub of a road leads diagonally to the south, punctuated on the map by the Fujihira Shin climbing kiln. Curiosity drives me onward, yet I find little but a large open carpark, hemmed in by a narrow workspace and a large telltale chimney that usually denotes a sake brewery, a public bath house, or a kiln.
It is a puzzling find, for I remember once being told by ceramics expert Robert Yellin that Kyoto city banned the firing of pots after Kawai Kanjiro died. (Something they hadn’t the nerve to do while the old master was still living.) Bizarrely enough, I am on my way to meet Robert, and he refers me to an article he’s written on the kiln and on Fujihira Shin, which can be found at this link.
And though my walk, and the road itself, will not continue to the actual Manju-ji Temple from which the road gets its name, (now part of Tōfuku-ji much farther south), this feels like a proper place to stop, as the realm of the physical passes into the intellectual, in keeping with the spirit of the character of manju (万寿), or longevity. Over time, the body will eventually lose its ability to serve as a vessel for the acquisition of knowledge, but the knowledge itself will nevertheless continue on.
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
Article and original photos by Edward J. Taylor. All rights reserved.