Names in this site follow the Japanese custom of family name first.

October 5, 2011

Kyoto Walks: Shomendori Street

Shomendori Street took its name because it ran "in front of" ("facing") Hokoji, a once famous temple housing the Great Buddha of Kyoto. Shomendori started out with a very wide section right at this landmark temple (still existing in front of the torii gate of the Toyokuni Shrine) and then continued as a normal lane east over the Kamo River to connect with the two Honganji temples. In other words, Shomendori runs on an east-west axis from Yamato-oji Street to JR Tambaguchi Station and is 4.3 km long.

1. Temple Bell of Hokoji
Hokoji once was one of the greatest temples of Japan and its lands covered much of what are now the Toyokuni Shrine and the Kyoto National Museum. Today, Hokoji is not much more than a dusty parking lot with a huge temple bell. The original temple set up in 1586 housed a Great Buddha statue that was even larger than the Great Buddha of Nara. It was the same type of Buddha: Rushana, or the Cosmic Buddha. The hall was on the same scale as Todaiji. But as Hideyoshi was in a hurry to finish the temple, a lacquered wooden statue was installed rather than a bronze one. One thousand priests of (almost) all sects Japan knew took part in the dedication ceremonies. Hokoji was the apex of Hideyoshi's hubris.

Unhappily, not long after completion, in 1596, Hokoji (and most of Kyoto) was destroyed by a gigantic earthquake. Hideyoshi died two years later. In 1602, rebuilding began under Hideyoshi's son, Hideyori, but the project was ill-fated and it took until 1612 before the new Hokoji could be re-dedicated, on a somewhat smaller scale, and again with a large wooden Rushana. To this second incarnation a huge temple bell was added, 4.4 meters high and 2.8 meters in diameter. According to tradition, the inscription on the bell contained an insulting reference to the Tokugawa family, which Ieyasu used in 1615 as a pretext to start the siege of Osaka Castle, where the Toyotomi's lived, and destroy his foes once and for all. The bell survives, but the inscription has been erased.

Hokoji didn't fare much better than its sponsors. Another earthquake wrecked the temple in 1662; what was rebuilt of it, was lost to a fire in 1798. A crude wooden statue was inaugurated in 1843, and again lost in a fire in 1973. The small hall next to parking lot shows some pieces of the hand of this wooden statue, still surprising in size, for a small fee.

Besides the temple bell, another relic of the earlier temple are the huge stones along Yamato-oji Street, donated by various daimyo, reminding us of Osaka Castle. These formed the foundation of Hokoji. The temple gate stood more or less in the spot of the present torii of the Toyokuni Shrine, opening up towards Shomendori.

[Temple bell of Hokoji]

2. Toyokuni Shrine
When Tokugawa Ieyasu decided he wanted to be honored as a god after his death, he was following the example of his predecessor, Toyotomi Hideyoshi. When Hideyoshi felt death was approaching in 1598, he had a lavish mausoleum / shrine built where he was posthumously worshiped as a kami. There are still genre screens left showing a late 16th c. Bon dance with a large multitude of people in front of the mausoleum. But Hideyoshi was too popular among the people of Kyoto to Ieyasu's taste so after he came to power, and had destroyed the Toyotomi family, he had the Toyokuni Shrine razed to the ground. It stood farther east from the present shrine, at the foot of the Eastern Hills (at the present location stood the Hokoji Temple). The Toyokuni Jinja as it is now, was only rebuilt in 1880 by the Meiji government. The great Karamon Gate (shown below) was brought from Konchi-in, a subtemple of Nanzenji sponsored by the Tokugawa - a sort of belated revenge by the Toyotomi. The shrine's treasure house contains memorabilia of Hideyoshi and his times and is worth a look.

[Toyokuni Jinja]

3. Mimizuka, "Grave of Ears"
Toyotomi Hideyoshi undertook two military campaigns in the Korean Peninsula, in 1592 and 1597, with the ultimate view of conquering China, an effort which was unsuccessful due to stiff resistance from the combined forces of Korea and China. As war trophies ears and noses were brought back in barrels of brine instead of the usual heads (which were considered too cumbersome) and these were interred in a small grass knoll crowned by a stone stupa in front of Hideyoshi's "own" temple, Hokoji. Did Hideyoshi really think the Buddha would be happy with this gruesome donation? The number of collected body parts reputedly ran into the tens of thousands. Today, Mimizuka stands immediately next to a children's playground. When Korean embassies visited Kyoto during the Edo-period, they always made a point of worshiping at this mound.


4. Kanshundo
Kanshundo is a shop selling traditional Japanese sweets on Shomedori, in front of Hokoji and Toyokuni Jinja. It was originally set up to cater to pilgrims visiting Hokoji temple. The shop itself has now moved to the southern corner of Shomendori and Kawabatadori. A restaurant set up with the same purpose is Doraku, now 370 years old.

[Kanshundo Higashimise]

5. Shomenbashi
Hokoji was so popular in the Edo-period, that a bridge was built over the Kamo River here, called Shomen Bridge.

[Kamo River seen from Shomenbashi]

6. Nintendo
Just across the bridge stands the former headquarters of the Nintendo company, when Nintendo was solely a hanafuda (Japanese-style playing cards) company. Nintendo was established here at Shomendori Ohashi in 1889.

[Nintendo former headquarters]

7. Kikokutei Garden (Shosei-en)
Shomendori next abuts on the Kikokutei Garden and you have to go around the garden with its stately walls to find the street again. The gate to the garden is in the eastern wall. Kikotei Garden was donated to the Higashi Honganji temple by the Tokugawa shogunate in 1631. It is a large pond garden, said to be designed with the help of Ishikawa Jozan, a samurai scholar who is well-known for Shisendo (and its garden).

Kikokutei is named after the hedge that once surrounded it and is supposed to go all the way back to a garden laid out here by a 9th c. Minister, Minamoto no Toru. The buildings in the garden - the villas of the Higashi Honganji abbots - are all modern replica's as the originals were lost in a large fire in 1864. At that time, the garden was also severely damaged. The picture below shows the central pond, Ingetsuchi, with Tonoshima, a nine-storied stone pagoda an a tiny island believed to be the tomb of Minamoto no Toru. Kikokutei used to be free, but unfortunately now a 500 yen "donation" has been instituted (a bit severe, as it is not one of Kyoto's really famous gardens).

[Wall of Kikokutei]

8. Buddhist shops on Shomendori
The area between Kikokutei and Higashi Honganji as well as the area between Higashi and Nishi Honganji were temple towns administered by the Hongaji authorities. Today, both on Shomendori Kami Juzuyamachi-dori north of it, one still finds many shops selling Buddhist implements, such as home altars, statues, prayer beads, bells and cushions for bells, glittering ornaments, priestly vestments, etc. Near Higashi Honganji also is a specialist Buddhist bookshop.

[Buddhist shop on Shomendori]

9. Higashi Honganji
See my separate post about Higashi Honganji.

10. Buddhist shops between the two Honganji temples
More home altars and other paraphernalia... Note that these differ depending on the Buddhist denomination. In this area you will find only shops catering to Jodo Shin Buddhism.

11. Dendoin
Dendoin was designed in 1912 by famous architect Ito Chuta. It belongs to Nishi Honganji and originally housed an insurance company related to the sect. Now it is a free exhibition space of the temple. Note the mosque-like roof and the mythical animals, as well as the unusual masonry, a true mixture of Western and various Eastern elements.


12. Gate to Buddhist shops opposite Nishi Honganji 
This imposing gate leading into Shomendori faces Horikawa Avenue. On Horikawa Avenue, you will find several traditional shops, such as a large tsukemono (pickles) shop - a favorite item to take home from Kyoto or give as a present - and Kungyokudo, a traditional incense shop (now in a modern building). Besides various types of incense, it sells scented sachets, candles and kunko, fragrant incense pellets.

[Gate to Shomendori with Buddhist shops seen from Nishi Honganji]

13. Nishi Honganji
See my separate post about Nishi Honganji.
How to find the starting point of this walk: take a bus to the Kyoto National Museum or Sanjusangendo and walk north up Yamato-Oji Street (running along the western perimeter of the museum grounds). You can also take a Keihan train to Shichijo Station.
When you finish the walk at Nishi Honganji, it is only a 10 min walk back to Kyoto Station.