Here is the latest installment from Edward J. Taylor‘s ongoing exploration of Kyoto’s streets.
The Okuribi fires have cooled, the ancestors have departed, the aubergine and the cucumbers have been eaten. August is the month of ghosts, and Kyoto in particular feels thick with them, due both to the city’s long and oft-violent history and its heavy, muggy summer air. It seems quite fitting that the anniversary of the end of the Second World War falls during the month, creating an arc that seems to begin with that of the Hiroshima bombing on the 6th, and lasting until Kyoto’s more upbeat Jizo-bon celebrations for children on the 23rd. The presence of dragonflies is perhaps the most obvious manifestation, as if the dead are swirling all around us.
It seems fitting then that the taxi driver is trying to kill me, swerving erratically and jostling me about. An apparent crib sheet has been affixed to his dashboard, written with little hints such as checking the left wing mirror before making turns. At least the heat was no longer trying to kill me, as the nation’s fatality rate this summer had been particularly high. The early morning air actually felt a bit cool.
Kyoto’s western face isn’t her most attractive. More than that, there’s a certain downtrodden look. Some of the characters I see seem to reflect this. There’s a certain desperation out here, although that could simply be that everybody has this sort of look during a hot summer. One guy lopes in a deliberate straight line right toward me, insistent on not altering his path. As I step aside to let him continue his antlike forward motion, he comes to a complete halt and stares at me as I stride by. Beyond him, a woman driving a sports car right out of a 1960’s spy film nearly takes out a bicyclist, who pulls to her window to glare. And just behind this, on Nishioji-dōri I see another woman on a bicycle nearly get run down by someone speeding through a yellow. It’s ten until 9, Monday, the first day of work after a nine-day summer holiday. And it is starting to get hot.
This whole area had undoubtedly been much cooler, as it had once been an enormous Pine Grove, which lent itself to the name of this street, Matsubara-dōri. And things are not altogether unpleasant, like a pair of delicious smelling bakeries, a bright and welcoming Tapas place, not to mention a bar whose name quickly jumps onto my all-time favorites list: “Karaoke Café Capricious.”
I pass a stylish clothing shop called “Jiji,’ which is probably trying to reference the classic film, “Gigi,” but the romanized spelling harkens little beyond Maurice Chevalier’s somewhat creepy rendition of “Thank Heaven for Little Girls.” I see a new political poster for the opposition party, arguing to limit things to an 8-hour work day, probably in response to the recent spate of karoshi, or death by overwork. A well-publicized recent case led to the ruling party creating measures that are seen by many, as insufficient. Ironically, it could be argued that this same opposition party is committed to underwork, as their main platforms seen to be criticizing those in charge, which is rapidly leading to their own demise as a political body. At least they have eye-catching posters.
It’s yet another ironic metaphor for today, as people race back to work. And now it is my turn to nearly be run down, by a taxi driver looking the opposite direction as he rounds a corner at a ridiculously high speed. The risks I take for the readers of Deep Kyoto.
Closing in on Mibu-dera, the road appears to be raised in the middle, and gradually sloping on both sides toward buildings old and new. I understand better now why an old woman was pushing her buggy in the street, rather than on the sidewalk. There is no apparent drainage either, so I imagine this area must get pretty messy in a storm.
Over on Horikawa-dōri, the ugly 60s and 70s facades begin to give way to both an older and newer look. There’s an old shopping arcade I pass through here, including a new coffee place that had the clean, bright interior of an American shop, yet with the tachinomi vibe of Italian cafes. I take a quick iced latte, the beans provided from Weekenders, one of Kyoto’s better-known coffee shops.
Refueled, I think how little there is to Kyoto’s relatively newer south and west, as most of her historical riches lie at center. And now that I’m finally inside that grid, they begin to appear. The small Kōen-ji temple tucked between apartment flats is the place where the great Buddhist reformer Shinran passed away, little knowing then that his Jōdo Shinshū would grow to be the most practiced sect in Japan.
Even more solidly established is the Fukuda Company, who have been working with metal since their roots in dealing with gold back in 1700. The history of the neighboring Godo Printing Company is a bit more modest, going back only to 1933.
But Kameyama Inari Shrine down a small alley just in front, has the oldest lineage of all, stretching back to a time before the recording of its origins. Inari Shrines are tell-tale by their row of red torii gates, and bizarrely all the gates of this shrine were erected on the same December date ten years ago. Another shrine, Niita-matsushima Jinja was founded on the site of the estate of Fujiwara Toshinari who collated a renowned poetry collection here in 1183. Five hundred years later, the shrine priest was Kitamura Kigin, the teacher of Matsuo Basho. As such, poets often come to pray here, in the hope of improving their haiku and tanka skills.
The art theme is further enhanced by a number of antique shops, and the fitting pairing of a paper maker and fan maker across the road from one another. Another interesting pairing is the 10th century Yakushi Medicine Buddha temple of Byōdōji Temple Inaba-dō, standing beside the Inaba Pet Hospital, this in a country where pets now outnumber children. Whatever the case, the statue of Yaukushi Nyōrai within the temple is considered one of the most beautiful in Japan. Yin-yang divination services are also available.
Another famous statue is enshrined just up the street at Myō’ōin Fudōji Temple. When Toyotomi Hideyoshi built his Jurakudai Palace, he took the statue of Fudō-myō to be displayed within. Legend has it that the statue gave off an eerie glow at night, so was hastily returned here.
There are a couple of large buildings being erected along the next stretch. The workmen are all wearing those ‘air conditioned’ suits with little fans built into the back. I have never seen these before this summer. I wonder if they use the same technology as those little electric fans that all the foreign tourists seem to be carrying around.
I cross the quiet Kiyamachi canal and come to the Matsubara Bridge. This was once the old Gōjō Bridge, and the real site of the legendary battle between Benkei and Yoshitsune, at the conclusion of which the great monk became the latter’s retainer in defeat. That structure is long gone, as were those that came later, as this current bridge was built to replace one lost in a 1935 flood.
Over the river, all was considered the land of the dead. I’ve mentioned in another piece that the former execution grounds were on the riverbank just south of here, with the city’s burial grounds covering the mountainside just in front of me.
Today not all is so bleak. Miyagawa-chō, one of Kyoto’s five geisha districts stretches along the far bank, down a pleasant little stone lane. In former days, this area was the haunt of Kyoto’s entertainers, including the earliest practitioners of kabuki. Traditional geisha performances can still be seen at the Miyagawa-cho Kaburen-jo every October.
A pleasant little shopping street begins from here, rich with the sense of the old Kyoto. There are a good number of places to buy local food, as an almost non-touristic counterpoint to Nishiki Market upriver. I drop in to say hello to the young owner of Shinto, who I believe has the best selection of cooking knives in town.
Then I finally come to Rokudō Chinnō-ji. The temple is very much the reason that I chose August, the month of the Hungry Ghosts as it was once known, to do this walk. Here is the center of Kyoto’s underworld, and its usually empty grounds resonate with… something. While all Buddhist temples in Japan are in the funeral business, this temple has always had a strong connections with Kyoto’s dead, established as it was near the burial grounds. Atago Nembutsu-ji shared in that role, (and I’d walked past its former site), before being relocated to its current site in Sagano in 1922.
Rokudō Chinnō-ji is part of a six-temple pilgrimage that is meant to be undertaken in the days preceding the Ōbon holiday, as a means to go to greet the ancestors as they return for their annual visit. The ‘six’ refers to the number of Buddhist underworlds. These six worlds are said to overlap here, hence the large, fiery-eyed statue of Emma, who judges souls at the time of death. There is even a well behind the temple which the famed Heian Period poet and scholar Ono no Takamura was said to use as a portal back and forth as he went to assist Emma as a juror. It was he who carved the Emma statue that sits beside another carved likeness of himself.
Across from the Emma hall is a set of Jizō statues, the largest of which is Mizuko Jizō, the protective deity of miscarried or aborted fetuses. Many of the smaller Jizō stones lined around her show great age, and all have fresh red bibs, this beloved folk figure being well looked after by the locals.
Nearby is Minatoya, which has been selling sweet candies for 450 years. The shop is popular with Kyoto residents, including the ghost of a woman who died in childbirth in 1599. When the shop owners went to investigate the rumor of this woman’s death, they found her baby alive beside her, licking the very candy that she bought the night before.
I leave this area to return to the ‘real’ world. Funerary shops, both Buddhist and Shinto lead me up to Higashiōji. Here everything takes on a definitive touristic turn, with new hotels, moneychangers, and kimono rental shops. Kiyomizu-dera Temple up the hill has become one of the city’s hot spots, and is always busy. Matsubara presents an approach I rarely take, and apparently neither do the tourists, as their number seems relatively low compared to the more popular Gōjō-zaka or Chawan-zaka slopes. Ironically enough, the most beautiful things along here is a new wedding hall, which I would describe as Tudor Japanese.
Of course, the most interesting approach would certainly be past the Otani Hombyō tomb and through the enormous cemetery above. In the earliest Heian times, people simply abandoned their dead here, as they were unable to pay for the wood for cremation. Other bodies were hung from trees to be eaten by birds, giving the cemetery the name Toribeno, or Field of Wild Birds.
And Kiyomizu itself has many legends associated with this place. The popular Otowa Waterfall was meant to provide water to the spirits of these dead. In fact the reason that the temple is so high up the hill is to get away from the stench. Most far-fetched perhaps is the rumor that the Shimizu platform, so popular with the selfie set, was a place where the bodies were chucked off. Whatever the case, the temple is certainly the most lively in the city.
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
Article and original photos by Edward J. Taylor. All rights reserved.