Shinkyogoku & Teramachi-dori : Crossroads of Today and the Past

April 16, 2007

by Miki Katao

Shinkyogoku is one of the biggest shopping arcades in Kyoto. Whenever you visit, you will see crowds of people. Some are children who come from around Japan on their school excursions, while others are sightseers from around the world. I cannot help thinking that Kyoto is an international city when I hear people in the arcade speaking in Japanese, English, Chinese, German, and Korean, among many other languages. I wonder what impression these international visitors bring back to their countries. Most of us Japanese tend to see Shinkyogoku as a nice and stylish shopping area, but the street is not just for shopping. There is another way to see it. It also has temples and a shrine. First, I should tell you about Teramachi-dori so that you will understand Shinkyogoku better.

Teramachi-dori is next to Shinkyogoku.The word teramachi literally means “temple town.” And in fact, various temples moved here from around the city center because of the big remodeling of Kyoto started in 1590 by Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Temples moved to the east side of this street, while on the west side, stood many shops for religious accessories and stationery. Even now there are several shops for Buddhist prayer beads on Teramachi-dori. Big prayer beads are seen on the signs of these shops.

Shinkyogoku is a much newer street than Teramachi-dori. Since many temples moved to Teramachi-dori, their precincts were used for temple festivals and the surroundings developed with some shows and events. However, Teramachi-dori and its surroundings lost their liveliness because of the war during the last days of the Tokugawa shogunate (1860s) and the relocation of the capital to Tokyo after that.

In 1872, the second governor of Kyoto Prefecture, Makimura Masanao, created brand new street in the precincts of the temples which stood between Shijo and Teramachi-Sanjo in order to encourage citizens.

In 1877, some theaters and restaurants appeared and it became one of the familiar arcades in Japan. Many Japanese never quite noticed that there are some temples and a shrine in Shinkyogoku. Most of them stand quietly sandwiched between shops. I’ll introduce you to them.

When you walk along this Shinkyogoku, you will first notice Nishiki Temmangu Shrine). Sugawara Michizane is enshrined there. Since he was a statesman, scholar and poet, he is worshiped as a god of wisdom, study, good business. This is the only shrine of a local deity on this busy street. The shrine has the strange well. Its depth is about 300 meters and water always springs out from there. According to a survey, the water is tasteless, odorless and germ-free and it is suitable for drinking. You can obtain it free of charge. This shrine is nice to visit at night because many lanterns are lighted and you will feel as if you were in the movie “Spirited Away”.

Next, after a little walk, you can find an exotic temple, Tako Yakushi-do. “Tako” means an octopus. This temple has an interesting legend. From 1249 to the beginning of 1256, the priest Zenkou lived there. One day his mother became sick. She told Zenkou, “I will probably recover from this sickness if I eat an octopus. It has been my favorite food since I was a child.” Zenkou ran to the market and bought one. People actually suspected him for buying fresh seafood because priests were not supposed to kill living things. People made him to show what he had. As legend has it, he no sooner showed what he had bought than the eight legs of the octopus changed into eight rolled sutras and they shone with light. After that, the octopus returned to its former state and was placed into a pond. It gave off azure lights and Zenkou’s mother is said to have recovered from sickness because of the mysterious light.

In keeping with this legend, it is said that not only physical illnesses but mental ailments will be cured here. In the temple, there is a wooden octopus named “Nade yakushi.” You pray by touching it with your left hand, and your illness will be cured. When I visited there, the temple was covered with a strange atmosphere since some visitors had been graced.

Walking a bit farther, you can find one more temple, Seishin-in. When I visited this temple it was silent and no one was there. The first chief priest at Seishin-in was Izumi Shikibu. She was a famous tanka poet of the 10th and 11 centuries in the Heian period. They say that she was a woman of beauty and intelligence. Alongside Seishin-in, there is a small pagoda, which is said to be the grave of Izumi Shikibu. There is another nice thing near this pagoda. It is suzu nari guruma. You wish for something while rolling the stone carved with a sutra (see picture, below right), and your wish may be realized. In this temple, there are many other graves as well, so you had better visit there before it starts getting dark.

In this article I have just introduced the spots I found interesting, but actually there are more temples. You will find some interesting things at these other temples as well. Once you enter their precincts, you will feel comfortable even though you are on a busy street. It is good for you to rest at these silent temples when you become tired of crowds of people and noise. This is one of the unique features o Kyoto.

While walking through Shinkyogoku and Teramachi-dori with another perspective, you can find that both streets have historical aspects as well as modern ones. In Kyoto, busy streets are not just busy streets, but contain various wishes and hopes which people had a long time ago. The street where you walk now is also one which Izumi Shikibu might have walked through a millennium ago. The temple where you prayed for peace is the same place where people in Heian period would have prayed. Don’t you think it’s romantic to walk through both streets thinking so? We can say that we live and walk together with people who lived before. Both Shinkyogoku and Teramachi-dori are the streets where today and the past cross each other.

– Nishiki Tenmangu 8:00~21:00

– Tako Yakushi-do 9:00~17:00

– Seishin-in Anytime

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