Teramachi-dōri (寺町通) is a north-south running street that cuts through the heart of Kyoto’s downtown commercial district. Its name, meaning “temple town”, refers to the dense concentration of temples on its east side, the result of significant reorganization of the city by daimyo Toyotomi Hideyoshi during the Azuchi-Momoyama period (1573-1603). As modern Kyoto grew up around them, the temples gradually faded into the background, though many still exist and can be accessed via the cluster of covered pedestrian arcades on and adjacent to Teramachi-dōri, as well as the open street to the north and south. In this post I did not go for a deep dive with regard to temples as it’s not my area of focus, but it is impressive just how many there are, hidden almost in plain sight just beyond the shopfronts.
There are two reasons why I wanted to take a look at these particular arcades. One is that, while there is a good amount of existing English material about them on the web, it is almost exclusively filtered through the lenses of tourists. I wanted to add the urbanism angle for some diversity. The second reason is personal. On my first stay in Japan I lived in Tokyo for a few months as an exchange student in graduate school. It seems impossible that I could have managed to not walk through a single covered shōtengai while I stayed there, but searching through my memory and photo archive pulls up a big blank. At the time, urban design as a discipline hadn’t even begun to enter my field of vision, so I wasn’t deliberately looking for these kind of spaces. Because just about all of my experiences were completely new to me, and most of my attention was focused on studies, it’s possible that those I saw have blended into a composite sense of Tokyo’s urban fabric from that initial time period. Before I returned to the US, I ventured out for a week around Kansai after I had finished my last exam. Maybe it was the absence of academic obligations, maybe it was the slower, gentler pace of life in the west, but for whatever reason it was here in Kyoto, on Teramachi-dōri, where I first recognized the covered shōtengai as an urban form.
Teramachi Kyōgoku Shōtengai
The south entrance to Teramachi Kyōgoku Shōtengai (寺町京極商店街) opens onto Shijō-dōri, where it joins the covered sidewalk arcades that lead into the Shijō-Kawaramachi intersection at the epicenter of the shopping district.
Many consider this one to be comparatively more refined among the cluster of arcades, featuring a sunny vaulted roof and a mix of mid-market retail and dining. Probably due to the bright red block romanized “Teramachi” on the entrances, it’s often just called Teramachi Shōtengai.
This arcade intersects with Nishiki Ichiba, which runs perpendicular westward. The entrance to Nishiki is about 180 meters north of Sanjō-dōri.
Sandwich boards are out in full force.
Teramachi Kyōgoku Shōtengai and Shin Kyōgoku Shōtengai run parallel to each other and are connected by side streets every 100-200 meters. The through streets are normal width, but the remainder are small alleys like this.
Merchandise comes out into the street.
Some shops take advantage of the alleys to extend the display space.
Not cheap, though consistent with much of the fare in this part of town.
This is a great little alley with boutiques and restaurants crammed in one on top of the other.
North of Nishiki Ichiba, streets running west from the arcade lead into mixed commercial-residential neighborhoods that are characteristic of much of the central part of the city. The Shijō-Kawaramachi intersection and the area around Kyoto Station are two of the few places that are exclusively commercial.
Through the alley and tucked under Shin Kyōgoku Shōtengai is the entrance to Takuyakushi-dō (蛸薬師堂)—formally Eifuku-ji (永福寺) or Myōshin-ji (妙心寺).
You may have left Dōtonbori, but the Kani Doraku giant crab will still find you. It always does.
The anchor tenant at the north end of the arcade is the honten of Mishima-tei (三嶋亭), a famous sukiyaki restaurant operating out of this building since 1873.
Official website: http://www.kyoto-teramachi.or.jp
Sanjō-dōri intersects the cluster at a crossroads between the arcades. To the west is an open commercial street.
To the east is the Sanjō Meitengai Shōtengai (三条名店街商店街). Though it is its own separate section with a dedicated management cooperative, its small size compared with the other arcades make it feel more like a spur connecting them together and providing an exit to Kawaramachi-dōri. Design and aesthetics wise, it is very similar to the Shin Kyōgoku Shōtengai.
Official site: http://www.kyoto-sanjo.or.jp
Teramachi Senmontenkai Shōtengai
Teramachi Senmontenkai Shōtengai (寺町専門店会商店街) is the most subdued of this cluster. The mix leans toward bookstores, traditional crafts, boutique clothing and art galleries.
If you walk past quickly you might miss Yata-dera (矢田寺), tucked just inside the entrance to the arcade.
An open air shōtengai begins on the opposite side of Oike-dōri.
Official website: http://www.teramachi-senmontenkai.jp/
Shin Kyōgoku Shōtengai
A quick jaunt through the end of Sanjō Meitengai Shōtengai brings you to the north entrance of Shin Kyōgoku Shōtengai (新京極商店街).
This arcade has the somewhat ignominious distinction of being ground zero for tacky souvenirs in Kyoto. Tourism is a very large and important industry for the city, and all of this stuff had to go somewhere. Nonetheless, it’s still an interesting space and is often one of the last places you can go for concentrated people watching as the city begins to close up for the night. Considering that a late night stroll that ended up winding down this arcade had such a memorable role in the the birth of my urban exploration bug, I’m willing to cut it some slack.
The presence of the interstitial spaces between Shin Kyōgoku and Teramachi Kyōgoku becomes more obvious at night.
This photo looks like a really bad Photoshop job, but I swear it was more or less like this straight out of the camera. The rainclouds stop right at the edge of the arcade roof so the remaining sunlight looks like a bad sharpening halo. Once you get over the strange lighting, note the really great interstitial space, lined all around with small vendors and food stands.
Probably the most well known of all the temples woven into the arcades is Nishiki Tenmangū (錦天満宮), about 130 meters from the south end of Shin Kyōgoku Shōtengai.
Official website: http://www.shinkyogoku.or.jp
It was fun to come back and retrace this walk after almost six years since that first experience. I must have spent much of the first encounter looking up as, while the arcade roof designs were all familiar, at ground level it felt like remapping everything again. Now I’m more accustomed to looking around walls and corners for extra spaces, taking stock of the tenant mix, and observing how people interact with the space. The focused analysis, while not quite the magical experience of stumbling in by accident and letting everything wash over me, brings new and interesting details to light. Even if an “I Heart Kyoto” t-shirt isn’t something you’re in the market for, a stroll through the arcades is a memorable keepsake in its own way.