I’m celebrating the news that independent travellers from Australia can finally return to JAPAN from OCTOBER 11 visa free – which means travellers can plan and book their own JAPAN journeys without a travel agent or the need to travel in a tour group. For more than two years now, independent travellers have been unable to holiday in Japan under strict Covid border restrictions. For me, this news means I can resurrect my covid cancelled 2020 itinerary for a Japanese autumn visit this year.
One place I will revisit will be Kyoto’s Shirakawa community. I wrote the original article about this delightful area in April last year, and I’ve now updated it with fresh information to republish. If any of my readers also plan to head to Japan, I suggest this is a place not to miss on your itinerary.
I like small group walking tours when I tackle big cities. I’m adverse to those walks with 40 plus people struggling to hear their guide. A personalised walk with a knowledgeable local is much preferable, but they can be expensive – up to $A200 each for two hours. So, when I was planning to visit Japan’s ancient capital Kyoto in 2019, 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, about a 20 minute taxi ride from the main KYOTO railway station. It has 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, museums, a famous temple, and you can observe the daily life of ordinary families, young couples and university students.
I emailed the Shirakawa Community Living Company English website when searching the Internet for a walk, and Kyoko Takase replied, patiently answering my seemingly endless subsequent email inquiries.
I’m relentless when researching my travel options, and I bombarded her with questions. She must have wondered who was this strange Australian woman with so many queries. I’m sure she breathed a sigh of relief when I finally booked a 1.5 hour scheduled Friday community walk for myself, hubby and three friends travelling with us. 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. On a spring day in May, 2019, no one else booked the walk, we were the only people taking it – you can’t get more personalised than that!
I also wanted to see the famous Gion area, but I dislike intensely crowded places and all the publicised walks there were very expensive unless you were happy to be part of a massive group. So I checked back with Kyoko again to see if she knew of a guide who might take us to Gion for a reasonable price. My brief was for a walk 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 that revealed many hidden sights and some wonderful stories about the area.
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. Our lucky day when we met Hiromi!
We felt as if a friend was showing us her neighbourhood. Hiromi 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 to return with a celebration walk across this bridge very soon! Does the agony of Covid times equate to a thousand day walk?
During both 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. And somehow she knew how to avoid those crowds I dislike so much!
A major highlight of our Shirakawa community walk was the famous Chion-in, the impressive head temple of the Jodo Shu sect of Buddhism. It received strong support from the Tokugawa Shogun during the early Edo period, and was constructed by the master artisans of the day.
We also visited the small tranquil neighbourhood hilltop Awata Shrine where we were treated to an expansive view across Kyoto 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.
The Shirakawa Community Living Company is based in the small historical Furukawa-cho shopping arcade, famous for the 1000 pastel paper lanterns that hang from its ceiling. It is an instagram hot spot, and also popular for magazine and film shoots.
The arcade was established in 1950 with about 50 stores lined up along a 250 stretch of an ancient roadway leading from the centre of Kyoto. The history of the road goes back to the 1600’s, and some current businesses there have been operating for more than 200 years. The arcade was covered with a roof in the early 1970’s.
Chion-in Temple is an easy 10-minute walk away. So pilgrims have probably be passing by for a very long time! The arcade has a retro feel, and that is part of its charm.
When more modern supermarkets and larger shopping centres began to impact negatively on the 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 visitor walks are part of its work to promote this area of Kyoto.
The pandemic has been challenging for the locals. With tourism and shopping dropping away during the pandemic, the walks were suspended. In the face of the Covid crisis, the community banded together even more to support and promote businesses in the Shirakawa area by organising special events and holding community classes in the arcade.
The Governor of Kyoto,Takatoshi Nishiwaki, visited the arcade last year, and took a knife sharpening class! Lucky man! My husband is envious, and wants to do the class too!
I’ve kept in touch with people in the arcade through emails and social media for the last three years, and my admiration for the community spirit in this small Kyoto neighbourhood has grown immensely.
One of the walking tours of the district resumed this month (September 2022). It lasts one and a half hours, and costs 3000 yen an adult – just over $30 Australian. Children, six to 12, cost 2000 yen. The tour takes no more than 12 people – so again – this is not one of massive walking tours where you are at risk of losing sight of the leader!
You can email the company for up to date information at firstname.lastname@example.org
When I did my 2019 community walk, Hiromi and Kyoko took us through the arcade 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. They all were very welcoming. The arcade is a place where shop owners and local shoppers know each other well, and you see many people deep in friendly conversation. Many of the shop owners actually live above their shops.
Near the arcade is the Shirakawa River, one of Kyoto’s main rivers flowing from the famous Heian Shrine to northern Gion. It is a very pretty river, ambling past many restaurants, cafes, clothing shops and bakeries. I was able to buy a batch of small square size materials from authentic old kimonos for less than $A10 from a shop just outside the arcade. A quilting friend has since used them to make me a beautiful Japanese style bed runner!
Remarkably, visitors can also stay overnight in the shopping arcade and it is something I plan to do at Oki’s Inn, run by a lovely young couple, Oki Taka and Oki Yuka, both very active community members. They lived in Australia for a while, and have a website in English.
Their Guesthouse is in an arcade building that was originally a traditional Japanese town house, built in the Taisho Era (1912-1926). During the pandemic, the couple have taken the opportunity of quiet times to renovate their four traditional Japanese guest rooms to provide each with modern ensuite facilities. So, I’m looking forward to staying in the arcade within the next few months – a change from the usual hotel accommodation. Hopefully I’ll gain more of a glimpse of what it’s like to be part of a local Kyoto community, even just for a few nights.
Currently, there are about 40 shops in the arcade, including some new ones that have opened since I was there in 2019. A coffee float – we know it in Australia as a ‘spider’ – is on offer at the arcade’s popular HiCafe, that regularly posts Instagram photographs of its scrumptious range of food, including scrumptious cakes and deserts, on Instagram. I will definitely be calling in there! Probably more than once!
I also hope to time our visit so that I can visit a hand made craft market that is held regularly in the arcade. Another place on my agenda is the multi storey Kyoto Handicraft centre and the Kyoto Museum of Crafts and Design – both about a 15 minute walk away from the arcade.
Most importantly, we feel that when we return later this year, we will be catching up with friends we’ve made there. And maybe making a few more new ones. It’s that sort of place.
Time Out Tokyo currently has an article on the new border rules, and further information is expected from the Japanese Government in the next few weeks.