Kyoto’s Historical Boulevard

October 16, 2017

by Takumi Abe

Many people who visit Kyoto want to seeonly  Kiyomizu temple, Kinkakuji temple or the Ryoanji rock garden. However, when most people first arrive in Kyoto, they will see the Kyoto Tower and a wide avenue going to the north. This street has many cars, taxis and buses. Its name is Karasuma-dori, and its length is six kilometers. Karasuma street is an important and central street in Kyoto, so there are many business buildings and some temples along it.  In addition, two universities are located on Karasuma, and the Kyoto Imperial Palace flanks the avenue as well. It is an important street especially from the views of the economy, education and Japanese history.

Karasuma from 794

Kyoto city has prospered for about 1200 years so many streets in Kyoto have a long history. If you walk down Karasuma street, you can see buildings from various eras. Karasuma was constructed in the Heian period (794-1185). At that time, this road was called Karasumaru-koji street. “Koji” means small road. This street was named after a family of Heian-period aristocrats. Karasuma has been significant because among the many Fujiwara families it was the largest area where Heian aristocrats lived. The street flourished,  but it fell into ruinduring the civil war in Medieval times. After this period of battles, the street was revived by Hideyoshi Toyotomi. Due to his project, the street had many upper-class mansions, houses and stores. In  the Meiji period (1868-1912),  one of the modern Japanese periods, Kyoto Station was built at the south end of Karasuma street. As a result, this street was expanded and extended to all the way to northern Kyoto. At the same time, a streetcar started to run along the street. Today, Karasuma is in the central business district, where there are many banks and companies. Additionally, it is a gateway to Kyoto for people from various countries first arriving at Kyoto Station.


The gateway of Kyoto

What you can see on Karasuma

Shijo Karasuma

Shijo-Karasuma is one of the big commercial areas in the city. Many banks and insurance companies are located here. You can see the modern Japanese architecture and a long history. On the left side of the above photo of Shijo -Karasuma is the Mitsui building. This entrance was created in 1941.

Cocon Karasuma

Doshisha University

Cocon Karasuma is a commercial complex and office building. You may be fascinated by the arabesque pattern on the wall. This building was constructed in 1938, and it was recently renovated. It was not exposed the fires of war, so you can see the old-style stairs and floors inside. “Cocon,” in Japanese means both ancient and modern, so this amazing building shows the past  and the present in Kyoto.

If you continue much further north on Karasuma you will come to Doshisha University. This university was founded in 1875, and now about 27,000 students go to this school. It was established by Jyo Nijima. He was the first Japanese person to graduate from a university in the USA. He opened the door to modern education in Japan.


If you want to eat Japanese sweets, I recommend that you go to Toraya. It has a long history, and this store has been around for nearly five centuries. From the days of old, this store made sweets for the Emperor. Its famous itme is Azuki-bean jelly. It has been loved for more than 500 years. Is is on Karasuma just southwest of Doshisha University.

Traditional culture inJapan is not only concerned with food, but there is also kadou or literally “the way of flowers”. Kadou is arranging flowers beautifully. It represents and expresses the beauty of Japan. Kadou was formed in the Muromachi era (1336-1573). It is said that it originated at the pond of Rokkakuji temple. This temple is crowded with tourists. Next to it on Karasuma is the headquarters of the Ikenobo School of Flower arrangement.

Manga museum

Moreover, people who love Japanese culture had better go to the Manga museum, which is nearby the Oike-Karasuma intersection. As the name indicates, this museum keeps more 30 thousand manga. You can read manga in the museum or in its garden. The Giga-Ukiyoe, which is a collection of funny pictures and was printed in the Edo era (1603-1867), is in the collection of the museum. Moreover, some manga housed here are from overseas. The amazing thing is that this building has been used since 1929. it used to be an elementary school, therefore you can see also the old style of Japanese school.

The street as a face of Kyoto

Kyoto Imperial Palace

Karasuma street has a long history. It is rare that you can see a story that is 1200 years long. This place has faces of traditional Japan, modern Japan and present-day Japan. You can feel a Japanese passion to create the city, protect its heritage, and reinvigorate its culture.  The street is bustling with university students and some of its cafés are filled with young power. What is more, many workers use the street to find lunch or dinner, or go shopping. In  old times, there were many people riding in a carriage or walking in kimono. Suppose you come to Karasuma—you may feel the history of Japan.


Jo Niijima

Jo Niijima (1843~1890)

Founder of Doshisha University

Nao Mochizuki & Marino Takeuchi

Jo Niijima was an educator who held a Bachelor of Science degree, and is famous as the founder of Kyoto’s Doshisha University. Jo was actually born Shimeta Niijima in Edo, in 1843, and spent his youth in that city, where he also attended school. He began to take an interest in the American system of education after he grew to be a man, and he started to study Western Learning methods at an educational institution of the Shogunate. In 1864, he stowed away on a ship to the US and went on to study Christianity at Amherst College, from which he graduated in 1870. This was the first acquisition of a degree for a Japanese from that university. It was while in America that he also went under the western name of Joseph Hardy Neesima. After he came back to Japan, he was appointed as a missionary and traveled around the world doing Christian missionary work. It is said that he was a true gentleman and very passionate about education and studying. He worked hard at the propagation of Christianity and the establishment of the university until he died in 1890.

Establishment of Doshisha University

There were few universities in Japan in the late 19th century, and Jo hoped to establish the first one in the hands of a private citizen. In 1875, he rented about half the Kyoto residence of Viscount Sasuzane Takamatsu to use as a school building and opened the Doshisha English School. He took office as the first principal with the support of Masanao Makimura, Governor of Kyoto Prefecture, and Kakuma Yamamoto, advisor to the prefectural government. The school had a very humble beginning, as there were only two teachers (including Jo) and eight students at first. The following year, he married Yae, the younger sister of Kakuma Yamamoto and his life changed completely.

Marriage with Yae

One day, Yae visited the home of a Mr. Gordon, a christian missionary, while Jo was busy shining shoes there (he lived in Gordon’s house at that time). Jo and Yae hit it off and began a courtship with the blessing of Gordon. Yae was said to be a strong-minded woman and knew what she wanted. They were eventually engaged and then held a Christian-style wedding ceremony, which was the first Christian-style wedding ceremony in Japan for Japanese.

Yae Niijima

Yae was born in1845, and was known as a spirited child and woman, not good at feminine work, like sewing. She grew up looking up to her father and older brother. Her father was an instructor of gunnery, and she became very interested in this and began to practice it herself. Later she became an expert in gunnery. When she was 21 years old, she got married to Naosuke Kawasaki, an associate professor in the Aidu Domain. After Naosuke’s death, she remarried with Jo, and though Yae’s character was said to be the exact opposite of Jo’s, they had a good marriage. She has always remained of great interest to many people, and her life story was made into a Taiga drama “Yae no sakura” and broadcast by NHK in 2013.

Jo’s Later Years

Niijima Jo was often a sickly man, and his physical condition was not good when he was around 40 years old as he suffered from heart disease. He was admitted to a hospital in Maebashi city in Gunma at first, but later the doctors moved him to another hospital as they thought the cold there was bad for his health. The new hospital was in Oiso city in Kanagawa and though he improved there and carried on his work, he passed away at the age of 47, and was buried in Kyoto. His life was too short to see the establishment of Doshisha University, which gained university status in 1920. Along with Keio University, Waseda University and Meiji University, Doshisha became one of the first private universities allowed in Japan under changes to laws in 1912. Following this, a lot of universities sprang up all over the country, due to the great strides made by Jo and others. Nyakuoji mountain which is located near the Eikandou and Nanzen temples in Kyoto, is also home to Nyakuoji shrine. It is here that not only Niijima Jo and Niijima Yae are laid to rest, but also Yamamoto Kakuma, Yae’s brother. Nyakuoji shrine is also famous for enshrining the gods of achievement in studies and business prosperity.


Doshisha University, Imadegawa Campus