Kyōto Sanjōkai Shōtengai (京都三条会商店街) appears to be a public space in transition. On my visit, it has a noticeably desolate air about it, but later reading seems to hint that a new generation is slowly returning to the large, covered shopping street, in an effort to halt its decline and breathe new life into the neglected arcade. Records show an organization of merchants locating in this area as early as 1914, so the shōtengai is completing its first 100 years of history. The current business association that manages the space was established in 1963. At some point the health of the street declined, by some accounts reaching a low point about 10 years ago. However, reports from local bloggers indicate that change is afoot. There is a sense that Sanjō, as it’s called for short, need not slip further into disrepair and irrelevance, a fate common to many shōtengai across Japan. Special promotional events and festivals held a few times a year have sparked hope that it could once again be a flourishing hub of community life. Independent shop owners have moved into and resurrected some of the vacant spaces in hope of meeting these expectations. They have their work cut out for them, as it is no small ship to be turned around. At 800 meters, it is the same size as the Musashikoyama Palm Shōtengai, the longest covered arcade in Tokyo. In this review, I’ll try my best to be frank about the problems I observed, while not disparaging the efforts of those trying hard to overcome them.
With regard to transit access, Sanjōkai is spoiled for choice, with a few minutes’ walk to four different rail stations. To the north are Nijō Station on the JR West Sagano Line and Kyoto Municipal Subway Tōzai Line, and Nijōjō-mae Station, also on the Tōzai Line. To the south are Ōmiya Station on the Hankyū Kyoto Main Line, and the Shijō-Ōmiya stop on the Arashiyama Main Line, the tram operated by the Keifuku Electric Railroad.
I’m not in a hurry, so I take the long way walking across town from Sanjō Station at the Kamo River, headed west along Sanjō-dōri.
The east end of Sanjōkai begins at arterial road Horikawa-dōri. Before I cross, I watch a small van turn into the arcade and proceed through. I don’t think much of it, as it’s common for delivery vehicles to enter even pedestrian shōtengai. I miss an important clue, the purple box with white arrow indicating a one-way through traffic route.
There are two things I notice right at the entrance. Cyclists make no attempt to dismount, nor even slow down. It isn’t until later when, looking down at the ground, I notice the symbols indicating the entire center of the lane is a bike path. The second thing is the shutters. It is 11:30am on a Sunday with beautiful weather, yet around two-thirds of the shutters are down, the arcade is quiet, and very few people are here. The usual caveat applies: Not being local, I may have just arrived at an off-time for this particular place, and I would need to make a few return trips at different times of day and on different days to really understand its rhythm. That said, Sanjōkai’s tagline translates to something like “A public shopping district open everyday” (365日晴れの街). I would never begrudge an independent vendor their once-a-week holiday for inventory and rest (common in Japan), but it seems like midday on a weekend is not a great time to have an entire shōtengai in sleep mode.
An attractive, tiered produce display chews on the street. Generally, this is a good thing. However, because of the bicycle traffic, in this case the display forces pedestrians into a potentially dangerous situation.
I had planned to eat lunch while here. Unfortunately, what might have been great local cheap eats were almost all shuttered.
An art gallery is an uncommon and wonderful thing to have in a shōtengai, but I find this facade perplexing. One would think there could be ways to control interior environmental factors without completely walling off the structure from the lane.
With few pedestrians in the arcade, vehicles exercise little caution in crossing through from side streets.
I don’t want Sanjōkai to come off as completely gloomy, as there are definitely many warm exchanges to be found at the businesses that are open.
I usually interpret shutters with fresh coats of paint or creative designs as an indication that a business is closed at the time, but not permanently. Though, I’d prefer seeing them in the early morning during prep hours, or late at night after closing.
This Chinese restaurant makes great use of large windows and a food prep area located in the front to draw attention.
Warm light, good smells and a smile emanate from a bakery.
When cyclists whiz by and almost take out my camera, I reassess the environment and finally understand that they are just making use of the right-of-way granted to them, treating the arcade like an express highway.
Cozy looking cafe. Though, on the second floor is one of many examples of air conditioning heat exchangers located inside the arcade. This becomes problematic in warm months, when the units raise the temperature in the shōtengai.
There are a handful of good reasons for breaking the continuity of a covered shōtengai in the middle of a block, such as exits to parks, schools, etc. But for the most part, maintaining the envelope of the space is important to preserve the sense-of-place and limit temperature fluctuations (especially in winter). Not only does this lot break the arcade, it appears to be a private residence or office complex, not keeping at all with the spirit of a shopping street.
A car comes from behind me so quickly that, by the time I fire the shutter, it has already passed me by a good distance. Bicycles veer into the pedestrian shoulders to avoid it. This is the first and only experience I’ve had of a shōtengai where pedestrians are not the highest, but lowest priority traffic. Truly strange.
This pizza shop looks as if it may be utilizing the frame and roof tiles of what was once a machiya, Kyoto’s traditional wooden townhouses. Unfortunately, it has also situated two heat exchangers facing the arcade.
This is interesting. This small shrine, called Matatabi-sha (又旅社) or Gokū-sha (御供社), is affiliated with the famous Yasaka Jinja (八坂神社) in Gion, across town. The shrine’s torii is inside the arcade.
Here, the arcade is broken by a single family home, set back to allow a parking space.
A private home with covered parking space is adjacent to the shrine.
Cold and formal facade set back from the lane is completely out-of-place with the prevailing aesthetic.
Local karaage specialist Chibikara closed its shop in the Demachi Masugata Shōtengai last spring, but this branch at Sanjōkai is still keeping happy customers sated.
Yes, it’s Sunday. Where are the people?
Sanjō Ōmiya Park (三条大宮公園)
Nice colors and art on the sandwich board in front of this coffee shop. Some online commenters have noted that a general lack of third places for casual meetings, such as cafes, has been one of the big drawbacks of Sanjōkai. Emergence of shops like this has been one of several green shoots to recently sprout.
Natural Cycle looks like a neat, quirky shop, though someone changed the “14:00” on the front sign to “2:00”, but left “20:00”, which is confusing. It still opens at 2:00pm, not 2:00am.
A gallery with works for sale manages the balance between control and openness.
There is plenty of Chinese food at Sanjōkai, though not what I am in the mood for.
Le Plus is a 100 yen shop chain found around Kyoto. It’s actually a great match for local shōtengai like this, as it tends to stock somewhat higher quality and more practical items, compared with large, well-known chain Daiso.
Seiyu is a supermarket chain affiliated with Wal-Mart. Historically, shōtengai have seen supermarkets as foes, in many cases contributing to the decline of local shopping streets after the 1960s. Increasingly, I am seeing examples of how the two can partner for mutual benefit. As a shōtengai typically aspires to be a one-stop shop, a supermarket that is context sensitive and integrated in the arcade does much more to meet that end than it does drawing customers away to another site. It would be nice if this Seiyu could extend the canopy over the bicycle parking, though.
I get it, okay? This lane is not for me.
Bicycles parked in the shoulder are usually a sign of a healthy arcade. Here, however, they are blocking the pedestrian route.
Shutters in all directions. Many of these look as if they have not been opened in quite some time.
I could go for some tenpura, if only it were open.
This tonkotsu ramen shop seems to be doing a brisk business. I tend to approach ramen a bit like I do pizza. It’s ubiquitous and cheap, but I generally do research and get recommendations before I go, as choosing a shop at random can be hit-or-miss.
This coffee shop’s off-day is Wednesday. I have trouble reading the hand-brushed script on the easel, but presumably it explains what fate has befallen it and why it is not open.
This tea shop has an attractive, street-facing display, but there is a missed opportunity here.
The hōjicha roaster, with its chimney removed, appears to be for show only, at this time. Tea shops often keep a small batch of green tea roasting during business hours. The aroma from the chimney wafts into the arcade. The unique and almost intoxicating smell alerts passers-by to the shop’s presence, often before they can even see it.
Next to the tea shop, a private home with two car garage
I’m generally encouraged to see indicators of cycling’s continued importance as a mobility choice in Japan. After all of the near misses today, however, I may be feeling just a little hostile.
A private home with garage and two heat exchangers in the arcade
Covered bicycle parking
—closed Sunday and Monday.
I like how this small supermarket created a display space in front of its doors by setting the front wall back from the lane enough to make room and extending the arcade roof, without distorting the arcade envelope to a noticeable degree.
A coffee house, and it’s actually open.
A very large break in the arcade envelope
The butcher that anchors the west end of Sanjōkai is host to the only crowd I see on this visit. Most of the people are waiting outside in the sun for takeaway boxes of prepared food.
Having missed that traffic sign at the other entrance, I had assumed the vehicles passing through were just being anti-social. Watching from this exit for a few minutes, seeing all of the through traffic, including taxis, clues me in that the practice is a norm here.
My return journey is a brisk walk back the way I came.
As someone who is predisposed to want public spaces like shōtengai to do well, I tend to give most the benefit of the doubt. Even Sanjōkai could potentially become a great place again, but I did not come away with a positive impression from this particular visit. As a pedestrian, the prevailing traffic norms make me feel unsafe and out-of-place. Shops new and old rely on footfall. They aren’t going to get that so long as a walk through the arcade feels like a defensive skills test.
Cyclists at full speed weave around pedestrians.
Bicycles are parked on the side, fully blocking the pedestrian shoulders, as here—
—and here. I don’t dare walk around them casually. The oncoming cyclist immersed in his smartphone would take me out without even realizing what was going on.
As I approach the east end again, a vehicle zips across the intersection. The speed is high enough that I assume it intends to turn onto Horikawa-dōri, but it continues straight into the arcade.
In many open-air shōtengai on traffic bearing streets, the presence of shops and pedestrians acts as a traffic calming measure, alerting drivers to the need to proceed with caution. In some cases, this type of shōtengai may have foot traffic so dense that it becomes de facto pedestrian. The opposite occurs at Sanjōkai. A covered arcade ought to be the ultimate traffic calming measure, suggesting extreme caution. Indeed, many are not even accessible to vehicles. But here, the traffic signs and bike lane symbols seem to be interpreted by drivers and cyclists as license to more or less disregard the presence of pedestrians. This is a major problem that will need to be addressed if the arcade is to have any hope of a comeback.
Beyond the traffic issues, it is encouraging to see signs of engagement from the community, often peaking around the several annual festivals and special night markets. A good next step would be for some of these interested individuals to work together with shōtengai management to take an honest assessment of its state and create a vision of what they would like it to become. In a post-growth economy, vacancies can take time to fill, so patience is needed. However, shutters that are frequently down because shops are short-staffed or owners are aloof, create the impression that the arcade is more desolate than it really is. Coordinating opening times and getting shop owners to agree to norms is one of the more important roles of a shōtengai business association. Sanjōkai needs to get to work.
Official website: http://www.sanjokai.kyoto.jp/