November 24, 2018
by Shinji Yasuda, Shogo Koizumi and Kosuke Ono
A lot of tourists from foreign countries visit Kyoto. Most of them go to famous temples and shrines like Kiyomizu temple and Kinkaku-ji temple. However, Kyoto has other attractive points. Did you know Kyoto is a city in which streets are laid out in a checkerboard pattern? If you have ever been to Kyoto, you may noticed that. These straight roads are based on the ancient Chinese capital city. This article tells you why Kyoto imitated ancient China, and the background and history of Kyoto’s layout. Most Japanese cities don’t have long, wide, straight roads, so you may enjoy Kyoto city more after reading this article.
The checkerboard was made about 1200 years ago by the 50th Emperor of Japan, Kanmu. Largeness of area was 23.4 mk2, and this was smaller than it is now. In addition, Kyoto had a spiritual role as well as a practical aspect. It is said that ancient China made streets like this to fulfill military functions. Such streets are capable of moving a large-scale army quickly and impressively. Such wide streets are useful in preventing the spread of fire. Next, it is important to manage the population. The management is essential to stay calm and be safe. Thanks to this road, people who were in charge could figure out what might happen there and move soldiers or workers quickly to the needed area. And then current Kyoto is became increasing narrow alley. Now each intersection is named for the two crossing roads. This custom was started from Heian Era (794 – 1185). The most flourishing section of the town was Kawara-Machi. The reason is that Kawara-Machi was given a boost after much of Kyoto burned during the Ounin Rebellion (1467 – 1477).
Kyoto has songs that can tell where you are if you have no idea where you are. For example, Kyoto has plenty of streets, including main streets, and one way roads. Many roads have similar names so visitors may be confounded. Even most of the people who live in Kyoto do not understand some of its geography. First of all, the checkerboard is divided by 3 rivers which are used as boundaries. The song named Teragoko starts with Teramachi and ends with Senbon. Thirty names of streets are included the song that is about streets at southeast. Next, the song named Marutakeebisu starts with Maruta and end with Kujo. This song has twenty-six name of streets. Each song is structured in the right order. Most of words that appear these songs are an initial letter of the street. These songs are a mnemonic to help people remember where streets are laid out, before they had access to GPS. This song was uploaded on Youtube. You can search and listen to it.
The northernmost is named Ichijyo, which means first in Japanese, and the southernmost is named Kujyo, which means ninth in Japanese, and one more easternmost is named Teramachido-ri . As for easternernmost, that place doesn’t have particular name because it hasn’t being considered as the official road. The history of streets of Kyoto has some interesting stories. For example, there is a street called Higashikyogoku. About 427 years ago, the general Hideyoshi Toyotomi conducted a big improvement which might be called urban renewal. He forced several temples to move to the eastside of the city. Higashi is east in English, so the name Higashikyougoku came from this event. Even Honnoji-temple are moved from it used to be. Teramachi-street has Shinkyogoku-street at a more eastern location. Shin means “new” so it’s New Higashikyogoku Street. These two streets help Kyoto with its prosperity and history of road.
Role of streets
Roads like checkerboard are called jouri-sei. Jouri-sei is system of land subdivision in ancient Japan. This system could also be seen often in capital city of ancient China. Thanks to jouri-sei it is easy to maintain roads and manage people. First, Heian-Kyou (kyou means capital in Japanese) was made in a wide and open field, so they were able to organize this city from the beginning. The model of Heian-Kyou was Cho-an which was capital city of ancient China. There is an entrance gate, Gate of Suzaku-oji in Heian-kyou which was named Rasho-mon. In addition, this Japanese city has spiritual meaning. It was called Sijin-so-o that is an ideal topography for the four Taoist gods, with a river in the east, a broad avenue in the west, a basin in the south, and a hill in the north. In Kyoto, Mt. Daimonji in the east, Arashiyama in the west, Lake Ogura in the south, Tamba upland in the north. However, in current Kyoto, there is no Lake Ogura. Lake Ogura became agricultural land now. Benefit of Sijin-so-o is that people will prosper for all eternity.
Shijo street is one of biggest street in Kyoto. Gion festival is held there. Gion festival is said that one of the three major festivals of Japan. This festival lasts for a month. Traditional folding screens which feature pictures spreade over several frames or panels and other treasures are shown on the street. Moreover, huge wooden vehicles, called Yamaboko go around city and these are called moving museums. The purpose of this festival is to enshrine god in Gion and protect the city from disaster. This Yamaboko procession is registered in UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage.
Kyoto looks like a useful city, but actually there is a problem. Nature is hardly seen in Kyoto. To fix this problem, the municipal government is promoting one project. This project involves both the government and private Kyoto citizens. The goals of the project are as follows.
・Protect and plant cherry blossom trees
・Double trimming trees before and after autumn leaves
・Create lines of trees on wide streets
・Nurture nature reflecting citizens’ opinions
・Make green spaces in the city (green roofs, green walls)
・Establish and management volunteer centers of green space
There are many old, covered streets in Kyoto that are called shotengai, or shopping arcades in English. On wide streets like Shjio street and Kawaramchi street there are many modern, multistory buildings with department stores and famous brand stores. But there are also narrow alleys with many small souvenir shops. These are crowded with many students from all over Japan on school trips. A famous Kyoto street is Nishi kouji, which has many stops selling traditional Japanese foods and food s unique to Kyoto. This street is crowded with tourists every day. The number of local shopping arcades is decreasing in Japan because of huge supermarkets. However, Kyoto’s shopping arcades are not declining because they are deeply connected with peoples who live in Kyoto and currently Kyoto has many tourists so they spend money.
Kyoto has a very long and interesting history about its roads. The origin of the roads was China but the form has been changed by people. Now, Kyoto’s roads have their own unique style, which can be called part of the identity of Kyoto. These streets are not only part of functional life, but also have traditional aspects. Moreover, Kyoto is still changing, hopefully in a good direction as evidenced by the municipal project above. We hope you got more interested about Kyoto after reading this article.