Remembering Kyoto Street Names

June 25, 2015

By Manami Otahara and Miki Sawai

What is a Counting Song?

Do you know the  streets of Kyoto? Our city has so many streets! The names of some of the more famous ones are, for example, Kawaramachi-dori, Teramachi-dori, and Muromachi-dori, to name only a few. However, it is difficult for us to remember all the street names, so a folk song was created in the Edo period to help citizens remember the names of all the streets. It is called Kyoto toori na kazoe-uta 「京都通り名数え唄」and it is a  “kazoe-uta” or a “counting song.”

Why is Kyoto made in a Grid?

Before we look at the counting song, we have to understand how Kyoto was built. Kyoto is laid out in a grid pattern that originated in the Heian era. It has many north-south and east-west main streets. Why was the city  built in such a way?

The main reason is that it was built according to funsui (in Chinese, feng-shui) or geomancy, a system for choosing the most propitious building sites based on the Taoist principles. Funsui is mainly concerned with the harmonious flow and balance of energy. Therefore many cities and Chang-an—present-day Xi’an and capital of China during the Tang dynasty (600-900AD)—were constructed according geomantic principles.

The ideal topography for the construction of a city was based on four Taoist gods who administer the four directions. Heian-kyo adopted its design from Chang-an in the 8th century, which was protected by the four directional gods based on its topography. According to Chinese geomancy, an ideal location is a basin which has mountains on the east, north and west sides, and is open to the south. The basin is then dissected by a river. In Kyoto, the god of the north, Genbu (a large turtle), is represented by a small hill in northern part of the city called Mt. Funaoka;  the god of the south is Suzaku (a phoenix), which was represented by Ogura pond (now nonexistent) to south of present-day Kyoto; the god of east is Seiryu (the blue dragon), and was represented by the Kamo River; and lastly the god of the West is Byakko, (the white tiger) and was represented by a long straight man-made canal.  Ancient Kyoto was located within these four topographical features. So modern-day Kyoto retains the grid pattern from the original Heian-kyo.


An old map of Kyoto showing the basin surrounded by mountains and the Kamo River


The streets of Heian-kyo. The Daidairi was the imperial palace.


Learning the Street Names

Because there are many streets in Kyoto, it is difficult to remember all of their names. So people in the Edo period made a folk song to help them. In this song, a street name is shortened and so, for example, Takoyakushi-dori becomes “tako,” Ebisu-dori becomes “ebisu.” In Kagiya-machi,”kagi” means “key.” The sound of keys in Japanese is “chara-chara,” an onomatopoetic word.

The song the east-to-west streets, begining with Marutamachi, are all shortened to:

maru, take, ebisu, ni, osi, oike, ane, san, rokkaku, tako, nishiki,  shi, aya, butsu, taka, matsu, mann, gojo, setta, chara-chara, uo-no-tana, rokujo, sanntetu, torisugi sichijo koereba, hachi, kujo, jujo, toji de todomesasu.

In the song, the north-to-south streets are:

teramachi, gokou, fuya, tomi, yanagi, sakai, taka, ai, higashi, kuruma, karasuma, ryogae, muro, koromo, shin, kama, nishi, ogawa, abura, samegai, horikawanomizu, yoshiya, inokuma, kuro, omiya, matsu, higurashi, ni chiekoin, johuku, senbon, hateha nishijin.

In the counting song, a story is  told. In the story ‘maru’ comes from the street Maruta-machi, which is represented int he song as a Buddhist priest, because he has a round (maru) bald head. In the story he slips and falls, buys  medicine on Nijo street, but finds some that is free on “Oshikoji. He meets his oneesan (older sister) on Oike, gets six yen and buys an octpus. But he lost the octpus at Nishiki, so was scolded,and apologized to his mother. But he knows how much he should compensate her.

If you go sight-seeing in Kyoto city, please remember the song. It just like looking at a map.

Song: Visions of Kyoto

“Visions of Kyoto” is a project to photograph 26 east-west Kyoto streets that are named in an old folk song, Kyoto toori na kazoe uta. The project is a collaboration between book designer Fumio Inoue and seven foreign-born photographers of various nationalities now living in Kyoto. Each, through his own work and pursuits, shares his love and fascination for this city through photography, writing and the producing of events.(-From Visions of Kyoto Website)

For more see:


Foodelica is a restaurant located in Shugakuin. It has a handmade book of photographs of the streets mentioned in the the song. It is one of a kind. If you visit Kyoto, you should go Foodelica. It is located on the south side of Kitayama-dori, between Shugakuin Station and Kitashirakawa-dori, and  just a minute walk east of the Eiden Shugakuin Station.


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