Block Party
Renowned for its legendary temples and manicured gardens, Kyoto is one of Japan's top tourist destinations. Simon Rowe steps off the beaten path and delves into the ancient city's more charming corners.
By: Simon Rowe | Dec 2, 2009 | No Comments | 1,310 views

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“Autumn gales drive the moon, its reflection falls on the clear river, cold as a great length of glassy silk,” wrote Sesson Yubai, the 12th-century Zen master. He might have been perched on the banks of Kyoto’s Kamogawa River as he scribbled his ode to Japan’s most “desirable” season. Its wide flowing waters cut a swath through the ancient capital, dividing the heat and hustle of its downtown precincts from the cool, lofty ambience of its hillside temple precincts. No one can fully appreciate both without crossing the Kamogawa at least a half-dozen times.

Many do, but it’s usually within the air-conditioned comfort of a tour bus, which means the sights and smells of the city’s serene neighborhoods are sadly missed. A clean and efficient subway system makes the cross-town dash a breeze, city bus services run to a clockwork schedule, yet it’s only by putting your soles to the pavement that you can access Kyoto’s true back street charm.

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Time travel In Shimogyo-ku district, located in the city’s southeast and only 15 minutes walk from Kyoto train station, daily life can be experienced intimately and without charge down its alleys and narrow streets. Houses here are warped and withered showpieces of Edo Period (1600-1868) architecture, but they attract few ogling tourists. Just as well, since many of these dangerously leaning old-timers seem to be just a puff of wind away from becoming stove kindling. In Gojo-cho, to the north, some houses are barely able to hold their heavy wooden eaves from drooping into the streets.

Gojo-cho exudes a wonderful calmness during the summer months from May through to September, between the torrential downpours of the rainy season and the wrath of rogue typhoons later on. Doorways are left open on the hot evenings to catch any passing breeze. Noren entrance curtains flutter overhead, and behind them you might glimpse the impossibly cluttered interiors of their owners’ living rooms: old men sharing a beer over a TV baseball game, women kneading large tubs of rice dough in preparation for o-mochi (rice cake) season, or a tired-eyed salaryman dozing behind a newspaper after an uneventful day at the office. Through it all, homely smells of senko (incense) waft from family shrines and there is a constant trace of old tatami grass mats, shoyu (soy sauce) and fried fish on the breeze.

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Heat of the night
Scattered about the narrow alleys, ryokan (traditional inns) offer meals and lodging to tourists and traveling business folk. During Edo times, Shimogyo-ku’s inns were a popular pit-stop for roving samurai, merchants and geisha, and today they continue to offer moderately priced accommodation in cozy Kyoto-style surrounds. Ryokan Hiraiwa, on Kaminokuchi Street, tucked between the Takase and Kamo rivers, receives a steady stream of foreign travelers. Rooms are tiny, the walls paper-thin, and toilets are of the traditional “squat” variety, but the ¥4,500/8,000 per night tariff make it an excellent place to hang your hat. Green tea with a hot water urn, a starched and pressed cotton yukata (robe), and a thick fluffy futon laid out over tatami mats provide all the necessary comforts.

Nearby, and recognizable by its fluttering entrance curtain, stands Ume-yu, or “plum bath,” a local bathhouse where for ¥300 you can let the aches and pains of your swollen feet slowly dissolve in the hot spring water. First-timers should follow their nose; enter through the curtains, deposit shoes in a locker and proceed through a sliding door. Here an elderly cashier relieves you of your small change and directs you to a single-sex communal bath. Pick up a plastic stool, plonk yourself down at one of the shower heads and with towel and soap, get scrubbing. Once rinsed, you can ponder your tub options: a jet spa, a rocket-jet spa, a scalding hot bath, and an herbal essence bath. Deliverance from any dizziness comes in a deep cold-water pool fed by an icy spout that brings even the most pink-boiled bather slowly back to the land of the living.

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The Takasegawa River runs parallel to the Kamogawa, but because of its lower water volume and gently snaking course through Shimogyo-ku, it makes for a far more atmospheric neighborhood stroll. Weeping willows dip into the river while ducks and geese putter between small floating houses, purpose-built by the residents to keep the birds local.

“Local” is also how you could describe the atmosphere in a Shimogyo-ku izakaya, or local pub-restaurant. Decor may sometimes be a little greasy or down-at-heel, but these cramped and smoky mainstays of the Kyoto salaryman are a worthy once-off for a glimpse at daily life. Look for the telltale red lanterns hanging outside, take a deep breath and enter.

English-speaking staff might be lacking, but just pointing to dishes displayed will be enough to convey your order. Yakitori, takoyaki (octopus dumplings), cha-han (combination fried rice) and tsubo-yaki (shellfish grilled in its own shell) are popular year-round dishes. Even if you’re not dining, Shimogyo-ku makes for a lively evening stroll around 6pm, as weary office workers tackle their first tebasaki (yakitori chicken wings) and icy bottle of Kirin lager in what is sure to be a long night at the local bar.

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Getting there
The JR Tokaido and Sanyo shinkansen travel between Tokyo Station and Kyoto Station and take about two and a half hours. Tickets can be purchased at the station or any JTB travel bureau. The nearest airport to central Kyoto is Osaki’s Itami Airport. See Japan Airlines at www.jal.com or All Nippon Airways at http://www.ana.co.jp/asw/index.jsp?type=e or information on flights from Haneda and other cities throughout Japan.

Where to stay The Tourist Information Center (tel: 075-371-5649) opposite Kyoto train station can help with accommodation, maps and sightseeing recommendations. One lodging recommendation is Ryokan Hiraiwa at 314 Hayao-cho, Kaminokuchi-agaru, Ninomiyacho-dori, Shimogyo-ku, Kyoto. Tel: 075-351-6748, fax 075-351-6969. Single rate ¥4,000, double rate ¥8,000. English service available.

Information In addition to the Tourist Information Center listed above, Japan Travel-Phone (tel: 075-371-5649, or toll free from outside Kyoto 0088-22-4800) provides advice and travel information in English. General information can also be found online at www.jnto.go.jp

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Summer Festival Fever
During almost every month of the year, high spirits, raucous behavior—or perhaps solemn self-reflection—prevail as Kyoto folk take part in the hundreds of city, shrine and neighborhood festivals. Summer is perfect festival weather. One of the most vibrant is the Gion Matsuri, July 17, featuring a parade of towering floats pulled through the city streets by men in traditional costume. Food stalls, beer stands and thousands of locals attired in yukata turn Kyoto into a huge street party.

Daimon-ji Yaki, on August 16, is another spectacular event in which the whole city gathers to bid farewell to the souls of their ancestors, sending them off with huge bonfires lit in the shape of the Chinese character “dai,” meaning “big.” Then, on October 22, the Kurama-no-hi Matsuri (Fire Festival) takes over and dozens of small shrines are whisked through the streets by young men bearing torches. It’s a big day on Kyoto’s calendar, as the Jidai Matsuri (Parade of the Ages), with more than 4,000 participants dressed in classical costumes, also makes its way past cheering office workers and school kids cramming the city. Starting from the Imperial Palace and ending up at Heian Shrine, the procession lasts four hours.

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