Temples, shrines, mountains and machiya dominate most marketing collateral and media coverage concerning Kyoto. However, as The Eternal City morphed from Heian-kyō to its contemporary form, it retained its role as a center of commerce and now cradles a modern urban core in the Yamashiro Basin. There are two primary urban nodes. The ultra-modern, recent iteration of Kyoto Station is the face of one. Shijō Kawaramachi (四条河原町), a large intersection at the center of the downtown commercial shopping district, is the other. Below the intersection, Kawaramachi Station handles over 14 million passengers a year as the terminus of the Hankyu Kyoto Line, connecting the center of Kyoto with its Osaka counterpart Umeda. The station also connects all of the underground depachika (department store food halls) and basement shopping levels of the large buildings that occupy the four corners. Above ground, the stores look out over the intersection of Shijō-dōri and Kawaramachi-dōri, both of which feature wide, covered shōtengai (managed shopping district cooperatives) that extend north and west on either side of the streets. This post only covers above ground phenomena, but I’ve made a note to schedule time for an underground exploration the next time I’m back.
Like the nearby shōtengai on Teramachi-dōri, these covered arcades along the main streets were a significant part in my urbanism awakening. One cold February night, I thawed myself in a coffee shop a little further down the street from where I’m standing in this shot, watching the evening strollers go by. It would be a few more years before I would seriously think over the planning and business considerations that create places like this, but that night is one of my first conscious memories of actively scrutinizing public space.
A new aspect I noticed on this return was that, because these awnings cover the entire sidewalk, overcast skies and intermittent drizzle don’t clamp down foot traffic to the degree they would in a city like New York.
Small streets lead east from Kawaramachi-dōri over to the nightlife district on Kiyamachi-dōri.
On the west side, pedestrian streets and plazas lead into a mishmash of retail and what remains of the temple district between Kawaramachi-dōri and Teramachi-dōri.
Though these are arterial roads, crossings and signals both mid-block and at the major intersections facilitate pedestrian movement between the four quadrants.
For cheaper eats and (slightly) less touristy fare, head into one of the side streets.
Here I’ve crossed from the east to the west side and am heading back north on Kawaramachi-dōri.
The sign indicates that this shōtengai is currently pedestrian only.
Official website: http://www.kyoto-kawaramachi.or.jp
Each day, nighttime brings on a pretty remarkable transformation. Predictably, foot traffic increases as people get off work and head out to shop or meet others for dinner. But the scalloped sidewalk arcade covers play a number of important functions that I only really appreciated on this return visit. The covers are lit down their full lengths on both Shijō-dōri and Kawaramachi-dōri, bouncing warm, indirect light onto the sidewalk and street. I always got the sensation of being at an event or gathering while in this part of town. Looking down the street from Shijō Bridge, I realized that the profile of the lit covers looks a lot like the temporary vendors setup along the sandō (参道), the approach to a Shinto shrine, during festivals. The shape of the covers also acts like a parabolic sound reflector, bouncing the sound of voices and shuffling feet back into the street, shortening the perceived distance between the two sides. The whole package acts as a traffic calming measure, making it clear to drivers that this is a heavily pedestrian dominated space.
While not quite Shibuya crossing, the large intersection at Shijō Kawaramachi is the place to go when you want to feel like you’re in the middle of everything. Images from this location represent what many think of as modern Kyoto.
Warm light spills out from the entrance to Teramachi Kyōgoku Shōtengai.
Happy photographic accident
We need tunes.
Teramachi Kyōgoku Shōtengai
The Kyoto branch of the Marui department store occupies what was for many years the Hankyu department store above the rail terminal, the iconic image of Shijō Kawaramachi. The store was part of part of the keiretsu Hankyu Hanshin Toho Group, which also includes the Hankyu Railway. This cross-ownership is one of the two main business structures that contribute to the development of Japan’s ubiquitous rail integrated development (shell parent companies with subsidiaries in many industries is the other). While the convoluted structure allows these kinds of groups to combine rail with commercial and residential properties in interesting ways, there is debate as to whether the competency and focus of groups like this is spread too thin to have long term sustainability. I have an MBA and the ownership structure for Hankyu Hanshin Toho gives even me a headache. Marui, which is an independent retail operator, seems to be taking quite nicely to its new digs.
Official website: http://www.kyoto-shijo.or.jp
With this, my swing through public space in Osaka and Kyoto last fall comes to the end of the road. I enjoyed the time there, but what has been really great are the conversations these posts have started with Kansai folks over Twitter. It is heartening to see that, far from being unengaged, non-experts are perfectly capable and interested in conversations about urban design if you provide the right vocabulary and images as a starting point. People are naturally proud of the places where they grew up, and particularly light up when you distill out the features that distinguish familiar neighborhoods and stomping grounds. I can’t wait to go back, and next time I’ll have to make sure to budget enough time for both the walks and the meetings over beers afterward.