nlike many other large urban centres of Japan, Kyoto has a rich history that has been carefully preserved. Kyoto was the ancient capital of Japan
for more than a thousand years before the capital was relocated to Tokyo
in 1868. And unlike Tokyo, it has largely avoided the devastations of wars in the 20th century. Higashiyama, in particular, is an area of Kyoto abundant in old streets.
Even though many parts of Kyoto has been modernized, Higashiyama still retains traces of its imperial past. In Part 1
of this series, we started from Mangan-ji and walked south along Shirakawa River to the vicinity of Shōren-in. Now, we continue our exploration from the Shijō Bridge and walk south through Gion and Ishibei-koji until we reach Kiyomizu-dera, one of the major temple attractions of Kyoto.
Shijō Bridge and Kamo River
One thing a traveler immediately notices upon visiting Kyoto is the relative ease in street navigation. Unlike Tokyo, most of Kyoto’s streets are named. Its west-east thoroughfares, in addition, runs in parallel and are named from north to south in a series of one to ten.
Ichijō-dōri being the “First Street” while Jūjō-dōri is the “Tenth Street” (dōri is “street”). Shijō-dōri, the fourth thoroughfare from the north, is the “Fourth Street.” It extends as “Shijō Bridge” over the Kamo River.
What is special about Shijō Bridge is its location at the centre of Kyoto’s major happenings. It connects Kyoto’s modernized commercial district at the west side of Kamo River to its ancient streets at the east.
The bridge’s close proximity to Gion also makes for occasional sightings of geisha it the bridge to work. The Kamo River under the bridge flows through the heart of Kyoto and splits it in two. The dykes along the river are popular spots for strolling and picnicking.
Crossing the Shijō Bridge takes one to the edge of the Gion district. Gion is the most well-known geisha (or geiko in Kyoto dialect) district in Japan. Its fame is glamorized by Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha
and Rob Marshall’s Hollywood epic
of the same title.
This hauntingly beautiful story amplifies an air of myth and exclusivity that permeate through the cobblestone alleys and its historical wooden houses. The basis of this fiction is not unfounded. Though many tourists walk through the streets everyday, only a rare few would have access to the district’s inner sanctum.
Throughout the centuries, Gion has been hosting the most refined geiko entertainment in Japan. Not only do geiko attain celebrity status in the city, many of the establishments they work at are highly exclusive. The most famous being Ichiriki Chaya, an invitation-only teahouse with over 300 years of history.
Like many establishments of its kind, Ichiriki Chaya has no banners except for a tiny wooden plate hanged on the entrance gate. Those plates display the name of the owners, which in Ichiriki’s case, is Sugiura Jirou-uemon, the ninth generation of the Sugiura family.
Immediately south of the Gion district is Kennin-ji, one of the five Kyoto Gozan
(京都五山). The Kyoto Gozen is a network of the five most significant Zen temples in Kyoto.
During Japan’s shogunate period, when de facto political power was in the hands of the military dictators, those temples also played an important role in stabilizing the society. They were regarded as quasi-governmental institutions that held some political influence.
Today, Kennin-ji is the oldest Zen temple in Kyoto (founded in 1202). It carries visitor programs ranging from meditation, ceremony, to scripture copying. Its is a favourite among the local who would spend their afternoon strolling through its dry gravels and Zen garden.
Kennin-ji’s spacious and contemplative temple courtyards sit in stark contrast to the elaborated worldly pleasures of its neighbour, the Gion district we previously explored.
About 500 metres east of Kennin-ji is an alley called the Ishibei-koji. This alley and its surrounding neighbourhood are famous for their well-preserved, pedestrian-only streets. From these stone-paved pathways, it is easy to imagine how Kyoto used to be like in the imperial era. The streets extend freely over the bumpy terrain. They are very narrow, lined with stone walls and lamps on the side.
Inside these walls are the machiya – long wooden houses with narrow street frontage. They used to be living quarters for wealthy merchants, but have since then being redeveloped into luxury rentals, ryotei
, and ryokans
. Follow the twists and turns of the lanes in Ishibei-koji and we will soon reach Kiyomizu-michi, the bustling street that leads to the top of the hill where Kiyomizu-dera is located.
At the south end of Higashiyama stands Kiyomizu-dera, a 383-year-old Buddhist temple made entirely of wood. The temple itself was founded in 778 but the present structures were constructed in 1633. Perched on a hill, this historic structure is build without a single nail. Despite this fragile facade, Kiyomizu-dera has withstood numerous earthquakes and fires in the past four centuries.
The top of the temple oversees the Kyoto cityscape. Temple illuminations further magnifies the already-magnificent valleys of foliage. But the most incredible sights must be the perpetual flow of visitors. Regardless of season, Kiyomizu-dera is constantly congested with people from all over the world. It is rather interesting to observe a sacred site more noisy and garish than its secular surrounding.
Back to Part 1