April 13, 2004
by Kazumi Yoneo
Toji Temple’s Kobo-ichi (also known as Kobo-san)
Kobo-ichi is a festival day and outdoor market fair that takes place on the 21st day of every month on the grounds of Toji Temple (not far from JR Kyoto Station). The reason for this monthly date is that March 21st is the anniversary of temple founder Kobo Daishi’s death in 835 AD., so a lot of people who want to pray to his spirit for help visit the temple on that day.
A long time ago, some merchants appeared in the temple precincts to sell green tea. After a while, some nurserymen and pharmacists also turned up. Since they all made very good money through the business they did at Toji, a lot of other merchants began to appear, one after another, on the day of the founder’s death. This story is known as the origin of Kobo-ichi (which people in Kyoto call Kobo-san). Nowadays, about 1200 stalls open their shops and as many as 200,000 people visit the festival every month.
A lot of antiques, secondhand clothing, iron goods, vegetables, garden plants, seasonal foods, crafts, miscellaneous goods (and even useless articles!) are sold at low prices. Visitors are eager to check the items and search for better ones to make a lucky find. They negotiate prices with stall owners. There is a difference between a flea market and Kobo-ichi. At this fair, the general public cannot open stalls; only traders do. So, if you find a favorite stall, you should ask for the address of the actual shop in town.
Kobo-ichi lasts the whole day, from 5:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. However, the best items often sell quickly and there is a crush from 11:00 a.m., so you should get there by 9:00 a.m. The times when stalls open and close differ with each shop. Basically there is no postponement for rain, but some secondhand clothing and antique stalls may be open for business, yet doing virtually none at all.
Customers range widely from young to old and there are a lot of travelers from foreign countries who come to get some unique souvenirs: kimonos are a really popular item. Kobo-ichi’s strong point is its prices. You can get nearly everything at a ridiculously low price. For example, kimono prices start from 300 yen!! Nowhere else in Japan can you buy them so cheaply.
By the way, you should bring three things to Kobo-ichi: First, a big bag to carry everything you buy. Of course, almost all stall-keepers will give you a bag when you buy something, but it is better to keep your purchases all together so as not to lose anything. Second, regarding money, you must bring plenty of small bills and coins instead of a credit card, which won’t be accepted. The last must-bring item is a cellular phone, if possible. As mentioned above, Kobo-ichi is a crush in the daytime and the temple precinct is very large, so you can easily get separated from your companions. A cell phone is handy in that situation. You can rent one at the airport for about 600 yen a day.
In Japan, you cannot beat the price down in almost any of the stores, but at Kobo-ichi, you’ll enjoy bartering with Japanese veterans. Toji Temple, incidentally, is one of the UNESCO World Heritage sites in Kyoto and it preserves more than 8,200 national treasures or important cultural properties. The treasure palace is open to the public only in spring (March 30th to May 25th) and fall (September 20th to November 25th ). If you visit Kobo-ichi in April or May, or in September, October, or November, why not enter the treasure palace? The entrance fee is only 500 yen.
By the way, on the 25th of every month, from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., there is another festival and market fair day, held in Kitano Tenmangu Shrine, which is called Tenjin-ichi or Tenjin-san. The scale and the details are comparable to Kobo-ichi.
So, if you come to Kyoto, we really suggest that you be here on the 21st or 25th and enjoy one or both of these wonderful events.
Access: It takes about 15 minutes to walk to Toji from JR Kyoto.Station’s Hachijo-guchi exit. Follow the bullet train’s tracks. Look for Toji’s tall pagoda or just follow the crowds on market day. It takes about 7 minutes to walk there from Kintetsu Railways’ Toji Station.
Access: It takes about 20 minutes from via subway Karasuma Line from Kyoto Station Imadegawa Station. Exit the subway transfer to the No. 203 city bus west a few stops to Kitanotenmangumae bus stop. (The fare of subway is 230 yen + fare of city bus is 220 yen.) You can also take the No. 50 city bus from JR Kyoto Station to Kitano Tenmangu without any transfer (a flat fare of 220 yen is charged on the city bus), but it takes a lot of time to get there, about 40 minutes, and the bus will be crowded with people heading for Tenjin-ichi. So, we recommend taking the subway and a city bus.