Posts Tagged ‘Kyoto’

Along the Kamogawa (鴨川)


Our first encounter with the Kamo River in Kyoto was on honeymoon in 2009. On a hot, sunny day, we headed east from our apartment to visit some temples and wander round Gion. We walked along Marutamachi-dori, past the Imperial Palace gardens, until we reached the Kamogawa. Standing on Marutamachi-bashi, we watched a kettle of black kites swooping down to pick up food from the river, menacing passersby and a lone heron as they went. It was both beautiful and slightly frightening.

The picture above is the first one I took of the Kamogawa. We are looking north towards Kojin-bashi, one of twelve bridges that cross the river today.

As I understand it from this guide to the bridges across the Kamo, Marutamachi-bashi is the site of the first bridge built to cross the Kamo. Before its banks began to be reinforced by concrete, the river was prone to severe flooding, and a wooden bridge was constructed to enable people to cross over.

The kamo in Kamogawa is currently written with the kanji for wild duck (鴨), but the river is named for the Kamo clan that used to live in the area. They spelled their name 賀茂, and in older texts about the former Japanese capital, the same kanji is used in the name of the river. Two shrines close to the river also share the Kamo name – Kamigamo and Shimogamo-jinja. We’ve yet to visit these shrines, but with our next trip less than three weeks away, I might put them on the itinerary.

We’ve spent more time wandering along the Kamo on other trips to Japan. In 2013, we stayed near Toyokuni-jinja and joined the river at Shomen-bashi to walk north to Gojo-dori. We were there in April, and it was a perfect time to enjoy some late cherry blossom along the river.


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There’s also usually plenty of wildlife to see as you stroll along the river bank. In 2013, we saw some pretty birds, but in 2015 we saw a coypu close to Gojo Ohashi and a crane close to Kamo Ohashi.


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Later on the 2105 trip, we spent more time walking along a stretch of the river to the north of the city. We had been to a festival at Kami Goryo-jinja and walked north to find somewhere to eat. Kami Goryo-jinja is west of the Takano river, which we also walked along.


We ate at Mamezen and then rejoined the Kamogawa at Kita-Oji, walking south until we reached the point where the Kamogawa joins the Takanogawa close to Shimogamo-jinja. Here the rivers can be crossed by the Kamo Ohashi bridge or by using the turtle stepping stones.

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Further downtown, between Sanjo and Shijo-dori, there are clusters of restaurants that front onto the river. Some of them form part of Pontocho. In the summer, large wooden platforms called yuka are built to extend the restaurants out towards the river.

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It must be lovely to sit out in the evening, enjoying the cooling air coming up from the river, seeing the lights across the river in the hanamachi of Gion and Miyagawacho.

You never know what you might find when crossing one of the bridges over the Kamogawa, either. On our 2015 trip, we encountered a mikan leaning against one of the finials of the Shichijo Ohashi.


Back in 2013, at Shijo Ohashi, we came upon the statue of Izumo no Okuni, former shrine maiden and later influence on kabuki theatre.


I really want to walk more along the Kamo river. There’s a walk in the Deep Kyoto book that I fancy doing. Or maybe I should just go for a wander and look around at what goes on down by the river. Autumn might be an interesting time to do that.


Pontocho (先斗町)


We’re heading back to Japan in October, and one of the places I want to explore more thoroughly is Pontocho in Kyoto.


We’ve wandered along its narrow alley on a couple of visits, usually at the end of a long day of sight seeing, but never really paid much attention to it as a destination. It’s often been an afterthought. A place we’ve slipped into as we were passing along Shijo-dori on our way somewhere else, or on our way home. It’s usually crowded with people and we haven’t eaten at any of the restaurants or tried to go into any of the bars that line it. We did once see a small Tetsujin 28-go sitting in a basket of charcoal, though, which was cute.


Pontocho is one of Kyoto’s Hanamachi, but we’ve never timed it quite right to see a Geiko or a Maiko making her way to an appointment at one of the exclusive tea houses in the area. The Pontocho tea houses are beautiful from the outside, but without an introduction we know we’ll never get to see inside one.

We’ve admired the exterior of the restaurant Takara (多から) a couple of times, but haven’t ventured inside there, either. Mainly because we’re vegetarian and traditional Japanese restaurants are generally off limits to us.



Peering down the alleyways that run off at tangents to the main street is intriguing. I usually feel too gauche and lacking in adequate Japanese to venture down them and see where we end up. They are pretty to look at, though, and I think that is part of the charm of Pontocho. You don’t have to spend money and visit the bars and restaurants to feel like you’ve spent time there.

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I do fancy popping into the Hello Dolly Jazz & Whisky Bar, mainly because of the Doris Day picture in the window, but also because other people’s photos on Trip Advisor make it look great.


I want to try Vodka Bar Nakanishi as well, since vodka is one of my favourite things in life, and it has a corking display of matryoshka dolls in the window. Maybe this year will be the year we pass through its doors.


I also like looking at the signs outside the restaurants and bars that try to tempt passersby with their creativity. I only eat fish in extreme circumstances and Mr Hicks doesn’t eat it at all, but I love the hand drawn images that we saw outside one sushi restaurant we passed.



Almost everywhere you look there are traditional lanterns featuring the chidori, or plover, which is the symbol of Pontocho.

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Perhaps this year will be the year we make time to visit Pontocho on purpose and have a few drinks alongside the Kamogawa.

If you’ve been to Pontocho and have any hints and tips, please make suggestions for where we might go in the comments!



I am still in contact with my first Japanese teacher, 中村りつこさん, and before we headed off on our sixth trip to Japan in 2015, she had put up on Facebook some photographs of a trip she took with her family to Kyoto. Among the places that she visited was Sanjusangendo. Her pictures looked amazing, and so I determined that this trip we would make time to visit. Especially since the machiya we were staying in was literally around the corner. There was no excuse not to!

Of course, in the same way that we rarely make time to visit the cultural attractions on our doorstep in Manchester, we behaved as though we lived in Kyoto and had all the time in the world to pop to the temple up the street from us. We finally visited on our last day in Kyoto.


It was a sunny day, hot but not as humid as the rest of the week had been, and a visit to a cool shady temple was just the ticket. Sanjusangendo roughly translates as Hall with 33 Intervals, which is an accurate description of this 120 metre long temple building. Its official name is Rengeo-in (蓮華王院), which means Temple of the Lotus King.

The outer walls and gates of the temple are stained a brilliant vermillion, and create an impressive barrier both to entry and to seeing the buildings inside. They’re quite forbidding from the inside as well.

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A school group had arrived at the temple at the same time as us, so we took some time to enjoy the gardens before we headed into the hall. The gardens are really beautiful, and include a couple of pools, a large bell, and a purifying fountain said to sound like a child crying in the night.


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Known as the Midnight Crying Stream (pictured above), the story goes that its location was revealed to a priest in a dream, and people believe that the water has the ability to stop children crying at night.

Photographs inside the hall aren’t permitted, so here are some more of its exterior.

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After our wander around the outside, we were feeling pretty warm and in need of some shade, so we headed into the hall. As with all Japanese buildings, we had to remove our shoes before entering. As photography isn’t allowed, we decided that we would also stash our bags in the lockers near the ticket gate. We left our shoes in the pigeonholes at the entrance to the hall, then followed the other visitors inside.

The temple was founded in 1164. It was destroyed by fire and had to be rebuilt around a hundred years later. As well as being Japan’s longest wooden building, it is also the only surviving example of a Sentai Kannon-dõ. This is the real attraction of Sanjusangendo, and the reason photography isn’t permitted inside. The hall is home to 1001 statues of Kannon, the goddess of mercy. Ranked around the central Senju Kannon (1000 armed Kannon) are a further 1000 Kannons, arranged in 50 rows of 10 on either side of the central National Treasure. The 1000 Kannons are designated as Important Cultural Properties. 124 of the statues date from the founding of the temple in the 12th century, and the remaining 876 are from the period when the temple was rebuilt in the 13th century. The Kamakura Period sculptor Tankei carved a number of the statues, with the others completed by his apprentices and later craftsmen. Each statue is slightly different, depending on who carved it. Some are signed by Tankei.

The atmosphere inside the hall was quite special. Some of the doors between the 33 bays were open and a cool breeze wafted through, stirring up the smell of incense. The lighting was dim, to protect the statues, which are covered in gold leaf. The train of people making their way through the hall moved slowly, and it all combined to create a sense of reverie. Close to the central Kannon, visitors can pay for prayers to be written out by the priests and offered up to the Kannon in the daily ritual. Visitors can also offer up incense to the goddess.

In front of the Kannon statues are statues of Raijin, the god of thunder, and Fujin, the god of wind, who are imposing figures with faces contorted by wrath. They stand on cloud shaped pedestals. Alongside them are 28 other deities, whose role is to protect Kannon. The ferocity of their expressions is in stark contrast to the serenity seen on the face of Senju Kannon and her 1000 companions.

I’m glad that photography wasn’t allowed. It enabled me to spend more time actually looking at the statues and thinking about their significance to people who follow Buddhism, rather than thinking about angles and lighting and how to take the best shot. I have more of a sensory memory of the visit as a result.

Goryo Shrine, Kyoto (Kami Goryo Jinja/上御霊神社)


In May 2015, we were staying in a machiya in the East of Kyoto and were thinking of things we hadn’t done in Kyoto before. My husband has long wanted to visit a flea market at a temple. The only time we’ve sort of done this before is when we went to Kitano Tenmangu, where a very small flea market was being held among the food stalls and plastic tat aimed at children.

I read up on shrines in Kyoto that hold regular markets, and discovered that Kami Goryo Jinja in the north of the city had a monthly market that fell while we were in Kyoto. I wish that the information I’d found had included this site, because then I would have known that the flea market isn’t held in May!


Instead, the 18th May is the date of the shrine matsuri, which is one of the oldest continuously held matsuri in Japan. The shrine has a long history, dating back to 794. It was built on the site of a former Buddhist temple which had served the local population as a family temple until the imperial court moved from Nara to Kyoto and Emperor Kammu ordered that a Shinto shrine be established on the site. Kammu dedicated the shrine to eight spirits of people who had died violently, and Kami Goryo Jinja became the guardian shrine of the Imperial Palace. The role of the shrine became one of protection, with the kami driving away vengeful spirits which threatened the safety of the capital.

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Things didn’t work out so well with the kami, as the 15th century Onin war started in the forest around the shrine, and the shrine itself was burned to the ground during the decade long battle. (We’d learnt a little about the Onin war as a result of our visit to Ginkakuji.)

A century later, the Shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi rebuilt the shrine. Under the Shogunate, Kami Goryo Jinja ceased to be the guardian shrine of the Imperial Palace and reverted to being a family shrine, protecting the local population.

The matsuri has been held at the shrine since 863, and features three mikoshi, a variety of ox carts, taiko drummers, dragon dancers and local children dressed in Heian era costume. The spectacle more than made up for the lack of a flea market!


We arrived just as things were getting started. Small trucks and wagons were parked up in the street in front of the shrine entrance. Among the wagons was a beautiful ox cart. A couple of men were inspecting the cart to make sure it was ready for the procession.


The man on the right noticed us taking photographs and walked over to chat. One thing we learned about the Kami Goryo Jinja matsuri is that the local people are incredibly proud of the festival, and were pleased to see tourists visiting. We had a short conversation in Japanese about what was going on, and he gave us some advice on where to stand to see the mikoshi pass by once they left the shrine precincts. We thanked him and then made our way into the shrine, because we could hear flutes and bells, so thought something must be happening.



How right we were! The purification ceremony was just beginning, and we joined the local people in watching as the shrine priests waved a willow wand over the mikoshi and then offered sake, mochi, fish, vegetables and fruit to the kami in their temporary homes.


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The ceremony was beautiful to watch, executed with solemnity and grace. It felt like a privilege to be there, witnessing it. We only saw three other Western visitors, which interested me because the shrine is located not far from Kyoto University. When we’ve wandered briefly around the Demachiyanaga area, we’ve noticed a reasonable number of Western students, but perhaps they don’t live in the area near the shrine.


After the blessings and offerings, the shrine carriers started to prepare. They were dressed in dazzling white happi coats. Among the crew for one of the mikoshi was a Western man. What an honour to have become such a part of the community around the shrine that he was part of a mikoshi crew! I think he’s on one of the videos I recorded, but I didn’t get a photograph of him, unfortunately.




Around the other side of the shrine to where we were standing, musicians sat and accompanied the ceremony.

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I always think that traditional Japanese music has an eerie melancholy about it. It fitted well with the ceremony, somehow.

Also standing around the shrine, watching the mikoshi crews get ready, were children dressed in Heian era costumes. The head priest passed through the crowd with his willow wand and blessed the children.

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Less benign were the dragon dancers who snapped their mouths and threatened to bit the heads off the children. One small boy burst into tears at their antics, but the two young ladies dressed in red took the abuse stoically!



At one point, while I was wandering around, I got a little too close to the ropes that would be used to tie the mikoshi to their carrying poles. One of the mikoshi crew warned me not to step too close. When I stepped back and said, “はい、わかりました,” (yes, I’ve understood what you’ve told me) he nodded back to me and gruffly said, “ごめん”. Judging by the expression on his face, I think he meant that he was sorry that he had scolded me!

Suddenly the mikoshi were ready, and with a lot of call and response, the mikoshi crews put on a great performance of bouncing the portable shrines off the main shrine platform and out into the street. The mikoshi are decorated with bells, so there was a lovely jingling to the movement, and this mixed with the shouts of the men as they bounced the shrines on their poles. It was amazing to see.


The mikoshi were carried out through the East gate, so we headed back through the South gate to the spot pointed out to us by the ox cart checker earlier that morning. He was right about it being a good place. We saw the ox arrive and be harnessed to the cart, then a parade of costumed people, followed by the first mikoshi, which was put onto its wagon right in front of us. That was a precision operation, getting it to sit right.


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I really loved this matsuri. It felt cosier than the Sanja Matsuri in Asakusa that we stumbled upon during our honeymoon. As we left the streets around the shrine and started to walk towards the river, looking for the vegan restaurant Mamezen, we could hear the procession making its way along the streets that encircle the shrine. As we crossed a bridge over the river, a man cycling the opposite way shouted over his shoulder to us, “祭り、祭り!” (matsuri, matsuri!) and gestured at the parade behind us. “はい、見ました、凄いです!” I replied. (Yes, we saw it, it’s amazing!) He seemed to be satisfied with that response, and cycled on his way. How lovely, though, that he was so proud of his local festival that he stopped some random strangers he thought might be missing out and urged them to turn back.

If you’re in Kyoto on the 18th of May, any year, then this matsuri is definitely worth a look. We took the Karasuma line on the Kyoto subway to Kuramaguchi station, then walked through back streets to reach the shrine. The circular flat fare 201 bus will drop you off at the Karasuma Imadegawa subway station as well, and you walk north from there. 楽しんで下さいね! (Enjoy!)


On none of our previous visits to Arashiyama have we gone to look at the World Heritage Site Tenryuji (天龍寺). After we’d watched the 2015 Mifune Matsuri, we decided to rectify this.

First, we made our way from the banks of the River Oi up to the bamboo groves, though. Everyone loves a picture of a bamboo grove, and the groves at Arashiyama are particularly photogenic, so here is a selection from our 2015 trip.


Maybe that’s too many pictures of a bamboo grove in one go, but here’s another one, with the sun flaring off my dirty lens.

On this trip, the bamboo grove was really busy. Probably because there had just been a big festival down by the river, and all the other visitors had the same idea as us of seeking shelter from the hot sun in the groves. As we walked down towards town, we passed the northern entrance to Tenryuji and decided that today was the day we would go in.

Tenryuji is the head temple of the Tenryu-ji branch of Rinzai Zen Buddhism. The temple was established in 1339 as a memorial to the Emperor Go-Daigo, who had died a few years after the civil war between the imperial house and the supporters of the shogun Ashikaga Takauji. It is thought that Ashikaga established the temple to try to appease the spirit of his former nemesis. The temple was created by converting a villa built on the site of Danrin-ji, considered to be the first Zen temple in Japan. The villa had been the childhood home of Go-Daigo.

Most of the original buildings are long gone, destroyed at various points by fire. The most recent fire was in 1864, and most of the buildings on the site now date from the Meiji-era. For us, the buildings weren’t the big draw, though. We were more interested in strolling through the gardens, which are among the oldest of their kind in Japan. The stroll garden behind the main hall was designed in the 14th century by Muso Soseki, and has remained unchanged since. It is the garden, known as Sogenchi, that has the World Heritage Site listing, and it was the first Special Historical Scenic Area named by the Japanese government.

The temple was pretty busy, especially around the main hall. We’d already paid 500円 to go in, and the hall cost an additional 100円, so we gave it a miss. The stroll garden was a delight. We started at the north entrance and walked down through a less structured garden towards the central pond, past a huge carved obelisk and a purification fountain, a hidden stone lantern, and some delicate irises.


The path we followed also took us alongside the Tahoden building, which is built on the site of the place Go-Daigo studied as a young man. It was based on the design of Go-Daigo’s shishinden (ceremonial hall) at his southern court in Yoshino.


The central pond was very picturesque, surrounded by a gravel garden, filled with carp, and fringed with more irises.


Around the back of the pond, a set of stone steps led the way up into the stroll garden.

We followed the path up to a viewing spot that afforded views across the top of the Kuri building (the temple kitchen) towards Kyoto and Daimonji.

I really enjoyed the peace and quiet up there on the hillside, away from the other visitors who were posing in front of the pond and shattering the peace with their shouts to move a little more to the left. I don’t know about it over all. I think I was expecting a little more from something with World Heritage Status. I understand that this status is awarded because of what a place represents, more than what it looks like and what its entertainment value is. Perhaps if I was a Zen Buddhist, I would have got more out of being on the site of the first Zen temple in Japan. The stroll garden was nice enough, but I enjoyed the gardens at Ninomaru Historic Garden more, and they were a fraction of the entry cost.

I think, as well, that by entering through the northern gate and being put off by the crowds, we missed a lot of what is at the front of the site. Certainly, as we walked past it later, the main entrance on the road that runs towards the Togetsukyo bridge, was very impressive and we could see the other buildings in the complex from a distance. Some of the additional buildings are covered by the additional 100円 fee, but the one that sounded the most interesting, the Dharma Hall with its Cloud Dragon painting, would have been another 500円. I know, I know. 1100円 is still less than £6.00, and it is a World Heritage Site. It just didn’t really grab me. Am I a philistine?

You might like it. I’m just saying that I would prioritise other sites in Arashiyama over it. Saga-Toriimoto and Adashino Nembutsu-ji, for example. But that’s just me!

Mifune Matsuri/三船祭

Whenever we head to Japan, we always check to see whether there will be any festivals on local to where we’re staying. In 2015, we discovered that we would be in Kyoto at the right time to see the Mifune Matsuri in Arashiyama. We love Arashiyama and have visited it a couple of times.

We caught the train from Kyoto station to Saga-Arashiyama on the JR line. The train was already at the platform when we reached Kyoto station, and was pretty crowded. We’d read that somewhere in the region of 100,000 people visit Arashiyama to watch the festival each year, so we were expecting the train to be full. We managed to get seats, then more people piled on until it was standing room only. It turned out that we were on a local train and not everyone was heading out to the festival.

We arrived at Saga station around lunch time. It was pretty quiet. We guessed that most people must already be at Kurumazaki shrine, getting ready for the procession to the Togetsukyo bridge. As we walked down into town, we passed a sign for a vegan café called Prunus.

It was lunchtime, we were hungry, and an opportunity to eat healthily instead of scavenging for onigiri in a combini had presented itself to us. So we climbed the stairs to the empty café. We sat at a table in the window and ordered from the extensive menu. Gradually the café began to fill up with customers, and I started to worry that we had missed the festival. We shared a plate of vegan gyoza and a salad, both of which were delicious. The salad was particularly good. I could almost feel the nutrients adding benefit to my body! I don’t know if there was an offer on, but we also got a free slice of savoury pound cake. Savoury cake, you might ask, what the heck is that about? It was surprisingly delicious.

We paid up and headed back out into the sunshine. The route into town still seemed quiet to me, further adding to my worries that we’d missed the show. It was around 1 p.m., and the procession from the shrine should have reached the river. Fortunately, when we got to Togetsukyo bridge, we found plenty of people lining the banks of the river, and plenty more rowing around in small blue boats. Huge boats were ferrying camera crews up and down the river as well, and covered boats were carrying groups of tourists along the river.


We crossed the bridge and wandered up the river bank. The narrow path was pressed with people, but we found a spot beneath some trees that gave us a good view across the river to the landing stage where the festival boats were gathering. Some kind of ceremony seemed to be happening in an area alongside the landing stage, and costumed people were starting to get into the boats.


We watched and waited for around half an hour, and then the action started. Boats started to leave the landing stage and were propelled up river by oarsmen in the prows. We could hear ghostly court music in the distance, and then the first of the festival boats started to move back down river along our bank towards us.

First a group of women in Heian-era court dress.


Then a wide open bird-prowed barge with women dancers in priestly dress.


The women performed a fan dance, accompanied by flautists and drummers.


A dragon-prowed barge followed on their heels, containing warrior-like young women who danced forcefully with extravagant arm gestures.


It was a serious business.

The Heian Court ladies returned and began the tradition of floating colourful fans on the surface of the river.

People who had hired the blue rowing boats jostled for position, as close to the barge as they could safely get, ready to swoop in as the barge moved off to claim a memento of the day.


Somehow, as we’d been focusing on the fan activity, another open barge of men in colourful costume had made its way past us and was crossing in front of the bridge down river from us.

With that, the festival seemed to be over, and people started to make their way off the river bank and back over the bridge into town.

As we crossed the bridge, we could see that there was still some activity up near the landing stage, so we headed up along the opposite bank of the river to stand behind the landing stage with other, more elegant hangers on.

We were rewarded with a clearer view of the Heian Court ladies, still floating their fans on the river, and smiling graciously at the spectators.


Further up the bank was a man with a set of carp streamers (koinobori/鯉幟), enjoying the spectacle as much as we were.


A few moments later, the barge that we had missed on the other side of the river made its way towards us. Two young men in bright orange costumes were performing an elegant dance.

The whole thing was a wonderful spectacle. The festival itself has an interesting story. Some websites describe it as a re-enactment of an Imperial boating party that happened on the Oi river in the Heian period, but an article on the Matsuri Times website remembers that there is a spiritual element to the festival as well. The soul of the 12th century scholar Kiyohara Yorinari is enshrined at Kurumazaki-jinja and every May is taken out in a mikoshi shrine to tour the neighbourhood. The mikoshi is transferred to a boat which then sits in the middle of the river, while the other boats travel around it, carrying the performers who pay their respects to the soul of Kiyohara Yorinori through song, poetry and dance. Mifune refers to the three main boats that feature in the festival (the Gozabune carrying the mikoshi, the dragon-prowed Ryutosen and the bird-prowed Gekisusen), but it also refers to the three performance arts of music, poetry and dance. I wish I had known this before we went, because I would have looked harder for the Gozabune. It must have been further up the river from where we were standing.

We spent the rest of the afternoon in Arashiyama, making a return visit to the bamboo groves, and popping in to look at Tenryu-ji, of which more later.

I always enjoy visiting Arashiyama, but seeing the Mifune Matsuri made our 2015 visit even more special. One of the better festivals we’ve visited in the Kyoto area.

Aizen Kobo/愛染工房

While we were in Kyoto in May 2015, we decided to go for a wander around the Nishijin textile area in the west of the city, using the Old Kyoto book as a guide. It was a bit of a grey old day, and a tad drizzly and humid, not really conducive to wandering. We took the chikatetsu (地下鉄) from Kyoto station up to Imadegawa, and tried to orientate ourselves using the map in the book. It isn’t a particularly accurate map, so it was good that we had pocket wifi and access to Google maps to help us on our way.

We saw some interesting buildings and street art along the way.

Our main target, though, was the workshop of Utsuki Kenichi (宇津木健一), a master craftsman in the art of indigo dyeing. The workshop is called Aizen Kobo (愛染工房), and is located in the heart of the old textile district. We found the narrow street without too much trouble and paused to take a photograph of the front of the workshop. The building is over 130 years old and has always been a textile manufacturing workshop. I first found out about it through photographs posted on Flickr by Rosewoman.

According to the Old Kyoto book, it didn’t seem as though we needed to make an appointment, but when we rang the bell we were asked to wait a couple of minutes.

While we waited, I read up again on the history of the workshop. I was interested to visit because I’m from a textile manufacturing town in the north west of England, and the machinery, and to some extent the cotton and calico printed goods, produced by my home town are among the items that affected the history of the owners of Aizen Kobo. I was interested to find out more, if I could, about the change from the family’s original trade to its current one.

The Utsuki family were originally obi weavers, masters of the tsuzure-ori handweaving technique that produces intricate brocade patterns laced with gold and silver, typically used for the finest Kyoto-style obi. Mechanisation of the weaving process through use of jacquard looms meant that demand for the handwoven obi declined, and the Utsuki family had to decide what to do with their business.

Head of the family in the 1920s was Utsuki Shozo. He was friends with the leader of the Mingei movement, the potter Kawai Kanjiro. The Mingei movement celebrated traditional crafts, and Kawai persuaded Utsuki to take up indigo dyeing (aizome/藍染). Kawai was certain that the taste for Western mass-produced textiles would fade and Japanese consumers would one day begin to appreciate again the beauty and quality of fabrics dyed with natural indigo dye. Utsuki Shozo was persuaded, and changed his obi business into a workshop for producing woven cotton and linen and natural indigo dye.

A very elegant woman opened the door to the shop to us and invited us in, apologising profusely for keeping us waiting. She was Utsuki Hisako (宇津木寿子 – the kanji for Hisako isn’t quite the same as is on her business card, すみません), the wife of Utsuki Kenichi. We started to look around the shop, and she asked us some questions about where we were from and where we were staying in Kyoto. We confused her slightly by describing the apartment we were staying in, in Higashiyama. It transpired that she was expecting a group of people staying at the Hotel Granvia, and had thought we were them.

Undaunted, she began to explain the layout of the building to us, and introduced various fabrics, products and yarns on display in the shop. After I explained that I work in a museum that includes exhibits about the textile industry, she invited us through to the inner showroom and small museum.

A shrewd saleswoman, Mrs Utsuki quickly assessed that I was too large for the dainty Japanese sized women’s clothes in the showroom, and instead persuaded my husband to try on a traditional indigo dyed jacket (a samu-e jacket of the kind worn by Zen priests, which the workshop is most famous for). Her flattering words of how tall he was and how “not too fat” he was did the trick! She explained how durable the fabric is, and how the jackets and their accompanying trousers improve with age and become family heirlooms, passed down through the generations. She also explained that indigo dye helps to ward off mosquitoes. My husband wasn’t swayed. I don’t think he could envisage himself walking around Manchester in a traditional Japanese jacket, and we don’t have many mosquitoes round our way.

The women’s clothes are very contemporary, and it’s a very good job that I am both too tall and too wide to fit into Japanese clothing, or I would possibly have bankrupted myself over one of the dresses in particular, or a blouse similar to the one worn by Mrs Utsuki. I later read that Mrs Utsuki designs the female clothing range. A talented lady indeed.

I took a look at some of the indigo and madder dyed silk scarves on display. I wanted to buy something traditional on this trip, as I had with my Japanese umbrella on a previous visit, and I had my ‘treat money’ with me. I picked up an indigo dyed one that cost 12,000円, and Mrs Utsuki started to tie it around my neck. She leaned back and assessed it, and then picked up the scarf dyed with madder. “This will suit you better,” she said, and started to tie it in a bow for me. As she tied it, she explained how natural dyes give a better colour than modern chemical dyes, and that madder was used to dye the clothes worn by Japanese princesses. After a little primping, she leaned back again. “Charming!” she decreed. That was me decided, and I said I would buy it. At that point, the door chimes sounded, and Mrs Utsuki headed off to see who had entered the shop. My husband hurriedly removed the samu-e jacket. The price tag said 50,000円. That’s around £275.

On Mrs Utsuki’s return, we went into the museum room, and were treated to a history of the workshop and how it got its name. Starting with the same history that I had read in the book, Mrs Utsuki narrated the change from obi weaving to indigo dyeing and the influence of the Mingei movement on her husband’s father. Then she pointed at a framed calligraphy sign. “This is the name of the shop,” she told us. “Aizen Kobo. Have you heard of the writer Jun’ichiro Tanizaki?” I said that I had, and we had a short digression about how wonderful a book The Makioka Sisters is. “Jun’ichiro Tanizaki gave the name Aizen Kobo to Utsuki Shozo,” Mrs Utsuki told us. “He named the workshop, and this was painted by Kawai Kanjiro, the potter.”

Remembering that I worked in a museum, Mrs Utsuki told us with much pride about how her husband’s work is included in the collection at the British Museum in London, and how an exhibition had been held at the V&A museum celebrating the work of Aizen Kobo. She is a wonderful ambassador for the history of the shop.

The door chimes earlier had heralded the return of Mr Utsuki, and we headed back into the shop. Mrs Utsuki packaged up my scarf, and very kindly slipped in a couple of articles about the workshop and her husband’s work. Just before we left, I asked whether it would be okay to take their photograph. They posed beautifully for me, but as I clicked the shutter I realised that I hadn’t changed the settings from outside, so the shutter closed very slowly. The photograph is consequently a little blurry, but I was too shy to ask them to pose for another.

I love this picture. I love how they are both wearing something made in the workshop – Mr Utsuki is in a samu-e and Mrs Utsuki is wearing one of her blouses, dyed madder. My scarf is the same colour as this blouse, and I recently wore it for the first time on a trip to Paris, where it helped me to feel more chic than I actually am!

As we left, Mrs Utsuki presented me with her card, and asked how long we would be staying in Kyoto and to please call her if we wanted to return.

After leaving Aizen Kobo, we wandered around Nishijin some more, hoping to hear the sound of looms clacking, and trying to find a yuba shop I had read about, but it was closed. We also passed the Nishijin Lifestyle Museum, a museum in an old kimono maker’s house, but decided not to go in because it seemed to mainly be about trying kimono on. Maybe next time.

Aizen Kobo was a highlight of our visit, though, and I’m really pleased that we visited. I’m also really pleased with my Aizen Kobo scarf (not tied as elegantly as Mrs Utsuki did it, sadly!).

Aizen Kobo scarf