Nishiki Ichiba (錦市場)—the Kitchen of Kyoto (京の台所 Kyō no daidokoro)—is a marketplace featuring fish and other foodstuffs in a 400 meter covered pedestrian arcade running one block to the north and parallel to Shijō-dōri, between Termachi-dōri and Takakura-dōri, in the city’s primary commercial shopping district. The ends of the east-west running street are within a short walk of either Shijō Station and Karasuma Station, or Kawaramachi Station and Gion-Shijō Station, affording it easy access from the Keihan Main Line, Hankyu Kyoto Line and the municipal subway Karasuma Line.
The longer I’ve been doing these neighborhood explorations, the more I try to find unusual and off the beaten path places to photograph, though there’s no harm in dropping by popular spots from time to time. Like many things in Kyoto, Nishiki Ichiba has an air of refinement that makes it an impressive and attractive point of interest for both locals and tourists, the result of hundreds of years of iterative improvements and evolution in a bounded public space. Aesthetics are carefully managed, from the colorful green, yellow and red translucent roof panels, to the granite pavement, visual textures of the individual shop facades, and attractively displayed products. It’s difficult to take an uninteresting photo at Nishiki. The market, which originated as a wholesale fish market in the early 1300s, is now a highly polished retail showcase for all of Kyoto’s culinary treasure. Beyond fish, one can find and sample everything from simple snacks to local vegetables only grown in the prefecture, specialty pickled and dried foodstuffs, and osōzai (お惣菜)—obanzai (おばんざい) in Kyoto dialect—carefully prepared side dishes of all varieties. Though these days the market does tend to pander just a bit to domestic and foreign tourists, the rich environment and history is not something to dismiss lightly. No matter what your reason for visiting, there is plenty to see and do.
The east end of Nishiki Ichiba opens not into a street but another arcade, the Teramachi Kyōgoku Shōtengai, so you have to walk a bit through the latter to get to this entrance of the market. During daylight hours, one of the first things you notice is the multicolored roof panels, which give the sensation of being inside a pinball machine. The filtered light gives a warm, cheerful glow to the activity below.
At each intersection, the car bearing streets have stops and yield to the people in the arcade. Experienced drivers know to just avoid going through it altogether during busy times of day.
Not everything for sale at Nishiki is edible or related to food preparation. Stalls selling souvenirs and kitsch reflect the reality that not everyone visiting the market is an epicurean.
Shop staff stand out in front, ready to greet customers and answer questions.
Many of the businesses are family affairs, operating continuously in the market through multiple generations.
The tilework facade on this shop is really interesting. It manages to look simultaneously gritty and classy, frozen in time somewhere between the Taishō and Shōwa eras.
I’m out of my area of expertise, but I think this is dried baby eel, maybe fish.
The best shopfronts create an ether that emanates out into the street, drawing onlookers as if it were a live performance.
One grumble I’ve heard from Kyoto locals on a few occasions is that the crowds of gawking tourists, and the businesses that choose to cater directly to them, disrupt the natural flow and original feel of the market. (The iPhone toter in this photo happens to be married to me, so I can make fun of her.) I do feel that Nishiki is more slick and commercial compared with its grittier and more practical Osaka counterpart Kuromon Ichiba. It is definitely at the opposite end of the spectrum from the folksy, tight-knit community feel of the Demachi Masugata Shōtengai further away from the center of town. Nishiki Ichiba may just be a victim of its own success. Its lively environment and proximity to both modern commercial Kyoto and some of the popular tourist sites mean that casual visitors will naturally make their way here. Shifting away from pure foodstuffs to a mix that includes sit down cafes and restaurants is a completely rational business decision. Very similar to the gradual shifts at the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia, constant reassessment and adjustment by the the management cooperative are necessary for the health of the market, even if long time residents don’t always like the changes.
I originally thought the bicycle umbrella mount was just an Osaka thing. I stand corrected.
The wafting aroma of green tea is something unique to Japanese markets. In this case it’s matcha (leaves ground into a powder), which is used extensively in cakes and other desserts. The round steel vessel in the glass case is the mill. Often hōjicha (leaves roasted in a pot over charcoal) has the most pungent effect, lingering in your nose long after you’ve passed.
Every place has tourist traps that increasingly sophisticated travelers endeavor to avoid. But I think Nishiki Ichiba is a good example of why it’s too facile to automatically interpret popular appeal as a scarlet letter. Sometimes the reason casual visitors flock to something is simply that it is a great space. Nishiki will face the challenge of deciding what direction it wants to take as continued pressure on traditional marketplaces from competing businesses and Japan’s demographic shifts require that it continue to adapt. Having existed in some form or another for about 700 years, I’m betting the explicit and tacit knowledge embedded in the market contains a thing or two about how to do that well.