Suminokura Ryōi (角倉 了以) was a preeminent Kyoto-based merchant and shipper active during the rule of both Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu in the late 16th and early 17th century. His most enduring mark on the city was the creation of several canals as part of broader river navigation improvement efforts to facilitate shipping in and out of Kyoto. One of the canals, the Takase River (高瀬川 Takasegawa), though no longer used for transport, remains as the backdrop for residential and commercial neighborhoods spanning the 15 kilometers from its head at Nijō-dōri to where it exits into the Uji River (宇治川) at Chūshojima. The Uji River completes the route southwest to Osaka, changing name to the Yodo River (淀川) en route. The Takasegawa draws water from the Kamo River, to which it runs parallel on the west side from Nijō-dōri to Jūjō-dōri. At Jūjō it crosses the Kamo River and resumes on the east side direct south, separating from the larger river. My neighborhood walk covered a portion of the Takasegawa, beginning at about Shiokōji-dōri and heading north until just before Sanjō-dōri.
From its construction in 1611 up until 1920, purpose-built flat bottomed and high sided boats called Takasebune (高瀬舟) were used to transport lumber, sake and other cargo down the shallow canal. This was also the manner by which criminals sentenced to exile were ferried out of the city. A short story by Mori Ōgai (森 鷗外), titled Takasebune after the boats, details an exchange between an unusually sanguine convict known only as Kisuke (喜助), and his official escort Haneda Shōbei (羽田庄兵衛). Though Mori published the story in 1916, context indicates the fictional events would have occurred during the Kansei era, around the end of the 1700s. As the two float silently past the homes lining the canal in the last light of the evening, Kisuke describes the life of hardship he had faced together with his brother, working multiple jobs but just barely scraping by. The brother became too sick to work and Kisuke supported the both of them for some time, but came home one day to encounter his brother in a failed suicide attempt. The brother, in abject misery and pain, pleads with Kisuke to finish him off. Kisuke is conflicted and panicked, but ultimately cannot bear the sight of his brother’s suffering and complies. Despite his explanation in the court, it is decided that Kisuke’s role in his brother’s death constitutes a crime and he is sentenced to exile. Per the standard terms of this sentencing, he is provided a sizable sum of money with which he endeavors to begin a new life, released from the pain and pressure of the one he is leaving. Throughout the trip, Shōbei becomes more and more sympathetic to the plight of his charge. Though he sees his assigned duty through to completion, he is left heavily conflicted about the interpretation of the matters and justice of the sentencing. This work of historical fiction is cited as an important commentary on Japanese attitudes toward self-sacrifice, self-destruction and euthanasia.
It’s a bit anti-climactic to follow such a heavy story with what now feels like a pretty uneventful slide show, but I wanted to share Takasebune here not just because of its deep relationship with the location, but also because storytelling is such a powerful device for communication and engagement. Every culture has stories, either written or oral, and it is unlikely that there are many matters for which someone, somewhere hasn’t set to prose for the purpose of preservation in our collective memory. Not to anyone’s astonishment, the stories about places are the ones I enjoy the most.
Getting into our walk, here we can see tree growth on both sides of this section of the canal is quite mature, often creating a canopy covering the waterway and the narrow streets on either side.
Life on Kiyamachi-dōri is quiet and serene in this part of town. It’s almost hard to believe this becomes the scene of salarymen and tourist hijinks after it crosses over Shijō-dōri.
Miniature shrines appear every so often.
Steel, stone and wood bridges of all sizes have been laid across the canal to connect the neighborhoods on either side. Some take the name of the through road in which they are a link, while many have no name.
As if the tree line wasn’t enough, many homes engage in tactical urbanism through copious street side planter gardens.
Most of the businesses in this part of Kiyamachi-dōri are small ryokan (traditional inns) run out of family homes.
Barber shop ahead. There are no concentrated commercial districts or streets directly adjacent to the canal. Businesses blend with the residential properties.
Not sure I want to try my luck with this bridge. At least if I fell in I would just need to stand up and walk out.
This is more my speed.
Not feeling too hot about this bridge, either.
In parts of the canal one wall is higher than the other, but not enough to dissuade ad hoc bridge builders.
Between Gojō-dōri and Shijō-dōri, cafes and other familiar institutions of the modern city make use of the scenic view overlooking the Takasegawa.
This is still far enough away from downtown to not have to worry about having your bicycle impounded for leaving it in an unauthorized space. Most riders just park them right outside the shopfront.
This cluster of bars and restaurants is your warning shot that you are about to re-enter Shijō-Kawaramachi, Kyoto’s primary commercial district.
Though things get a bit rowdy after the sun sets, this section of Kiyamachi-dōri is almost a ghost town during the daytime.
I called it a day a little short of reaching Sanjō-dōri, on account of having walked all the way from Kyoto Station and being two hours overdue for lunch. If you continue up to the headwaters at Nijō-dōri, you can see a few of the Takasebune that have been preserved and moored in the canal. This is also where Kisuke and Shōbei would have begun their journey to Osaka after the tolling of the evening bell. Kyoto is a great place for these long walks. Canals, purpose-built walking paths, and other historic urban forms all serve as anchors from which to plan a stroll, and almost every one has some sort of story associated with it. While I am doing a lot of active observation on these long walks, I also tend to mull over many things on my mind, not too unlike the passengers on one-way trips down the Takasegawa, arriving at the end feeling like I’m just a little different than when I started, so sometimes the story is my own.