Walking in Kyoto’s Shirakawa community

I like small group walking tours when I tackle big cities.  Not those with 40 plus people following a guide, but a personalised walk with a knowledgeable local. Small group walks can cost up to $A200 each for two hours.  So, planning to visit Japan’s ancient capital Kyoto, I trawled the internet searching for a walk to suit my interests and small budget.

I lucked in big time when I came across the Shirakawa Community Living Company, a little community based company that promotes its neighbourhood in Higashiyama, the eastern part of Kyoto, with very reasonably priced small group guided walks.

This is a tranquil, very picturesque area of Kyoto, with as much history and interest as its neighbouring famous Gion district, a short amble away. But it doesn’t have the Gion tourist crowds. Here you can quietly enjoy good restaurants, cafes, shops and historical sights, and observe the daily life of ordinary families, young couples and university students.

Higashiyama

I emailed the Shirakawa Community Living Company English website, and Kyoko Takase replied, patiently answering all my subsequent email inquiries about the district and the company’s walks.

I’m relentless when I’m researching my travel options, and bombarded her with questions. So I’m sure she breathed a sigh of relief when I finally booked a 1.5 hour walk for myself, hubby and three friends travelling with us.  

The walk is the ‘Kyoto Japanese Life tour, held every week and taking no more than 10 people. It was put together with the Kyoto City Tourism Association, and is held on Friday mornings between 9.30 and 11.  2021 prices are 2,500 yen each (about $A30). Children 6-12 are 2000 yen and the 5 and under are free.

After booking, I realised I’d made a mistake because we wouldn’t be in Kyoto on a Friday. But Kyoko kindly organised the tour on another day for us.  This is not always possible, but it’s worth inquiring about if Friday doesn’t suit you.

The company also offers private walking tours for groups of more than four people. I wanted to see the famous Gion area, but I dislike intensely crowded places. So I asked if a walk could be designed to show us the Gion that tourists don’t always see – and a route that didn’t have us shoulder to shoulder with other visitors. If you know how packed Gion can get with visitors, you’ll know this was a tall order. But I got what I asked for, and was rewarded with a wonderful Gion discovery walk to many hidden sights.

A fire tower in Gion
Will I ever be able to find this exquisite Gion sweets shop again without my guide!

Our leader for both walks was Hiromi Kamii, a qualified Kyoto City endorsed guide who, like Kyoko, speaks excellent English and was very well prepared with an abundance of interesting information for us.  Hiromi has an amazing knowledge of the city.  Her enthusiasm was boundless, and her love of Kyoto was infectious.  Again, my lucky day when we met Hiromi!

Hiromi Kamii – our Kyoto city endorsed guide

With Hiromi, we felt as if a friend was showing us her neighbourhood.  She infused us with her local knowledge as she led us along cobbled streets by the beautiful Shirakawa Canal, crossed by little bridges and lined with willow and cherry trees.  

My favourite was the narrow Ippon stone bridge, the finish line for monks who’ve undertaken a thousand day walk.  I plan a celebration walk across this bridge when Covid 19 stops hindering my plans to return!

Hiromi leads our group across the historic Ippon stone bridge

During our walks, we slipped in and out of back streets and laneways where Hiromi pointed out places of interest we otherwise would have passed, not realising their significance.  Somehow she knew how to avoid those crowds I dislike so much!

Hiromi knew all the picturesque short cuts!

A major highlight of our Japanese Life tour was the famous Chion-in, the impressive head temple of the Jodo Shu sect of Buddhism since 1523.  It received donations from the Tokugawa Shogun during the early Edo period, and was built by the master artisans of the day.  

Chion-in Temple main gate, built in 1619. The largest wooden gate in Japan.
The main hall of Chion-in
Beware of monkeys and wild boars at Chion-in!

We also visited the small tranquil neighbourhood hilltop Awata Shrine where we were treated to a wonderful view across the city to the neighbouring mountains. I’m sure we would never have found it by ourselves. This place isn’t as grand as many of Kyoto’s other shrines and temples, but it is still very special.

Hiromi leads us up to the Awata hilltop shrine
My hubby follows Hiromi’s example in local customs at the Awata shrine

The Shirakawa Community Living Company is based in the small historical Furukawa-cho shopping arcade. What a quaint and friendly place this is! And it’s loaded with history, going back to when it was part of a shopping street in Edo times, frequented by pilgrims visiting local shrines and temples.  The arcade has a retro feel, and that is part of its charm.  Some stores have been in business for over 200 years. My camera loved the one thousand pastel paper lanterns, replenished this year, that hang from the arcade ceilings.

When more modern supermarkets and larger shopping centres began to impact negatively on Furukawa-cho arcade, the local community spirit kicked in with efforts to ensure its future with active promotions, workshops and other activities. That’s where the Shirakawa Community Living Company comes in, and the walks are part of its work.

Hiromi guides us through the Furukawa-cho arcade
The owner of the arcade knife shop
This lovely lady has run her store for many years
Kyoko Takase outside the Shirakawa Community Living Company in the historic Furukawa-cho shopping arcade

Hiromi and Kyoko took us through the arcade after our walking tour, introducing us to the various shop owners.  This was not about encouraging us to buy.  It was simply an opportunity to meet the lovely local people. The Arcade is a place where shop owners and shoppers know each other well, and you see people deep in friendly conversation.  Many of the shop owners actually live above their shops.

Remarkably, visitors can also stay in the arcade.  Oki’s Guesthouse is run by a lovely young couple in a building that was originally a traditional Japanese town house, built in the Taisho Era (1912-1926). You can find their English website http://www.okimachi.com/index_en.html#rooms

Close to the arcade are an array of other wonderful shops, coffee houses and cafes. I was able to buy a batch of small square size materials from authentic old kimonos for less than $A10 from one shop just outside the arcade. A quilting friend has since used them to make me a beautiful Japanese style bed runner!

I’ve remained in regular contact with Kyoko and Hiromi since our visit, and know that the community and the local shop owners have been doing it very tough in these Covid times.  But the company has been busy keeping spirits up by organising events such as craft markets and workshops.

The company also holds classes in various subjects – my husband was  particularly interested in a traditional knife sharpening class with a master craftsman held in the company’s office.   He booked for 2020 – another postponement until we can get back there. 

 By coincidence, the Governor of Kyoto Takatoshi Nishiwaki visited the arcade in March this year, and took the class!  Lucky man!

Governor Takatoshi Nishiwaki takes the Master class in knife sharpening
The Governor of Kyoto Prefecture visits Shirakawa Community Living company and business owners at the
Furukawa-cho shopping arcade
Governor Takatoshi Nishiwaki chats with the arcade chicken shop owner. I hope he tasted the chicken. I did, and it was delicious!

Currently, because of Covid, the walks are suspended.  But they will be underway again as soon as the pandemic situation eases.  You can email the company at Shirakawa.cmo@gmail.com

Or visit the website at  https://shirakawacmo.wixsite.com/home

Their address is  546-1 Furukawacho, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto 

Our hotel handed us this note on our arrival in Kyoto. What a welcome from a little community group!

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