Ryōma-dōri Shōtengai (竜馬通り商店街) is a 130 meter open air pedestrian shopping street in Fushimi Ward, Kyoto. Originally, my walk plan for this area of the city just included Fushimi Ōtesuji Shōtengai and Nayamachi Shōtengai, the two covered shopping streets around Fushimi-Momoyama Station. When I emerged from the end of Nayamachi I saw this photogenic street continuing further south for a bit, and decided to go for a look. There is a noticeable presence of souvenirs and camera toting tourists, but I wasn’t aware of the significance of the location under after I had returned home and dug into the details of the area. On the surface, the street gives the impression of having been in operation for a very long time, and it has, but its appearance is the result of very recent changes at the end of a long transformation.
The origin of the shopping street stretches back approximately 410 years, just after the completion of Fushimi Castle, and the establishment of the red-light district in nearby Chūshojima. The street emerged as a collection of shops selling kimono and supplies for the sex work industry. Shop density increased, creating an early form of the shōtengai. Minamihama Shōeikai (南浜商栄会), the first promotion association, formed in 1952 and established the modern shōtengai, though the group dissolved in 1962. As in cities across Japan, the 1960s saw a rapid increase in competition from supermarkets that took business from the shōtengai. In 1974, the street organized again and entered into a federation with nearby shopping streets, taking on the new name Minami Nayamachi Shōtengai (南納屋町商店会). Organizers ultimately decided to take the street in a more specialized direction, capitalizing on its close proximity to Terada-ya, the site of an attempted assassination of influential samurai Ryōma Sakamoto in 1866 by the Bakufu government. Ryōma advocated a break from feudalism and shift to a more modern form of democratic government in line with major foreign powers at the time, a sentiment not shared by the ruling powers at home. The shopping street promotion association reformed as the the Ryōma-dōri Shōtengai Shinkō-kumiai (竜馬通り商店街振興組合), holding its first meeting in 1993 November and formally incorporating in 1994 January. From this point forward, the shōtengai followed a business plan targeted squarely at tourism traffic, which included stone pavement, electric street lighting styled like gas lamps, renovation of store fronts in machiya style, public art works and general imbuing of the Ryōma theme in everything from visuals to tenant mix.
Visually, the street is stunning. It’s a mishmash of old and new architecture, tucked into a quiet side street that’s not too wide and not too tall.
Awnings and street side displays create a welcoming corridor.
Anchoring the north end, tea seller Yasumoto Chaho is probably the most authentically old business on the street, existing in this location since 1871, though I’m unsure if the structure is original or part of the the renovation.
Uji tea is for sale among other items in Yasumoto’s eye catching display.
It is a little after 3:00 pm on a Sunday, and while some shops are on their break day and a few of those open are beginning to pack up, there is still a fair amount of activity on the street.
Get your selfie stick ready so you can take your picture in front of Ryōma Sushi. I’m picking on this shop because it’s the first one I come across, but the Ryōma theme gets a little tired once you realize it’s in every other storefront.
“Catch up to and overtake Nayamachi” was once a slogan shared around the shopping street before its current incarnation.
Cafe Tsukinotoki serves dishes made with local vegetables and sake kasu, a pickling agent that is a byproduct of sake production, a specialty of the Fushimi area. I think this is a good example of a unique and local offering that doesn’t just pander to tourism.
Hashi and other wooden nicknacks conveniently sized for suitcase packing
This is a coffee shop, but the noren hanging in front are actually samples of Ryōma themed goods for sale inside.
My own preference for authentic places over those created explicitly for tourism aside, this is a strikingly beautiful street. If you didn’t know the history of the place, you might think this was the main street of an old machiya town that gradually converted to a modern shōtengai over time. The warm, late afternoon sun and clear Kyoto air show it off at its best.
The street hasn’t completely turned over to kitsch, either. Grocers and sellers of quotidian needs still do healthy business amid the souvenirs.
Ryōma sports his Smith & Wesson revolver on a shutter painting that was part of Fushimi + Art Festival, organized by seven shōtengai from around Fushimi-Momoyama and Chūshojima to revitalize the neighborhood shopping streets through public art works created by participants from the Kyoto University of Art and Design.
Get your wallet out for some Ryōma-zuke—actually nukazuke, vegetables pickled in rice bran, said to be a favorite of the samurai.
Had I known where I was, I could have turned west (left) at this intersection and walked a few steps to Terada-ya.
Hori River, a small canal that is a tributary to the Uji River
A reality of Kyoto is that tourism is a significant component of its economy. The choice by Ryōma-dōri Shōtengai to commit to this route is completely rational, and they have done a wonderful job creating an inviting space for visitors. If I had created an imaginary prototype street that combined the most interesting urban forms of traditional Kyoto with the activities of a modern shōtengai, it would probably look a lot like this. But turning to tourism is generally an end game for shōtengai. It may ensure future business for the street or arcade, but at the expense of the historical, local customer base. Shōtengai that want to continue to evolve as relevant providers of daily needs and authentic civic space will need to follow a different path.
Official website: http://ryoma-dori.com/