This is the third update of my story – Walking in Kyoto’s Shirakawa community, following visits in 2019 and 2022.
One of the oldest areas of Kyoto that nestles next to the more famous Gion area, it is a great place to visit and stay. I wrote the original article about this delightful area in April 2020, reminiscing about my visit in 2019. A planned May 2020 visit was pandemic cancelled, but I remained in touch with people I had met there. I returned and stayed at a small Inn within its wonderful old shopping arcade street last November 2022. If any of my readers plan to head to Japan, I suggest this is a place not to miss on your itinerary. One of those hidden Kyoto gems!
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, for me, more preferable, but small walk groups can be expensive – up to $A200 each for two hours. So, when I was planning to visit Japan’s ancient capital Kyoto in 2019, I trawled the internet searching for a walk to suit my interests and small budget.
I lucked in big time when I came across the Shirakawa Community Living Company, a little community based company that promotes its neighbourhood in Higashiyama, the eastern part of Kyoto, with very reasonably priced small group professionally guided walks.
This is a tranquil, very picturesque area of Kyoto, about a 20 minute/$A20 taxi ride from the main KYOTO railway station. You can also easily access it by a local train. And you can walk to nearby Gion from there.
This area of Kyoto has as much history and interest as Gion. But it doesn’t have the massive 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 my 2019 walk, and Kyoko Takase replied, patiently answering my seemingly endless subsequent email inquiries. I was venturing into unknown waters, so I did inundate her with my questions.
I’m relentless when researching my travel options. She must have wondered who was this strange Australian woman sending so many emails 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, my sister in law and two other close 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 our walk, so we were the only people taking it – you can’t get more personalised than that! The walks are kept to small numbers anyway, so you will always enjoy a personalised experience.
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 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. She meticulously prepares her walks and gives 110 per cent effort for those lucky enough to engage her as a guide.
My favourite on our walk was the narrow Ippon stone bridge, the finish line for monks who’ve undertaken a thousand day walk. I returned in 2022 for a celebration walk across this bridge. Does the agony of Covid times, keeping us away from Japan for two years, equate to a thousand day walk effort?
During both our 2019 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 been passing by this street 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 quieter area of Kyoto.
The pandemic was 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 in 2021, and took a knife sharpening class! Lucky man! My husband was envious because he had planned to do the class too on a planned 2020 visit – cancelled by covid. He eventually did the class with the local Master Shinya Iwayama last November.
I’d kept in touch with people in the arcade through emails and social media since 2019, and when we finally were able to return we were welcomed like old friends. My admiration for the community spirit and what Aussies call ‘mateship’ in this close Kyoto neighbourhood has grown immensely.
Walking tours of the district have resumed.. They last one and a half hours, and now cost 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 old shopping 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.
When we returned last November, we walked into the arcade’s HiCafe for lunch. We had followed each other’s Instagram throughout the pandemic, and they instantly recognised me when I approached the counter. Their warm welcome made MJ and I feel like we had returned home.
Indeed, the arcade was our home for the next two nights because we stayed there in a tiny traditional Inn run by a lovely couple Oki Taka and Oki Yuka who had studied and met in my hometown in Australia. An amazing coincidence we discovered only after we had booked in.
The Inn was originally a traditional Japanese town house, built in the Taisho Era (1912-1926). During the pandemic, the couple took the opportunity of quiet times to renovate their four traditional Japanese guest rooms to provide each with modern private ensuite facilities. A separate western style shower, a hand basin area, and a modern Japanese loo.They undertook a lot of the work themselves and the result is excellent. They have managed to retain the feel of an old Japanese building, while providing guests with modern facilities. There is a common room where you can do some basic cooking, make yourself a cuppa and meet other guests. If you are happy sleeping Japanese style, Oki’s Inn is a great place to stay at an inexpensive price – currently 11000 yen, around $A125. We loved walking out each morning into the bustle of the shopping arcade to breakfast at local cafes.
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 I mentioned earlier. They regularly post Instagram photographs of their small range of food, including Japanese curries, homemade cakes and scrumptious deserts.
Hand made craft markets are held regularly in the arcade, and in November we lucked in on the arcade’s Lantern Festival, with it filled with craftspeople, local food vendors and musicians.
Another places to visit nearby are the multi storey Kyoto Handicraft centre and the Kyoto Museum of Crafts and Design – both about a 15 minute walk away from the arcade. We went to both in November – excellent! Staff at the Handicraft Centre, where I had previously bought items online during the pandemic, gave us a great welcome – again after recognising us from social media. The Museum was very interesting to visit, and their shop offered quality products, light years from the usual souvenirs.
We also engaged Hiromi again – our superb walks guide from 2019 – to take us on another private walk last November – this time into the hills of Kyoto. Our brief to her was ‘show us an area that most western tourists don’t know about’. She delivered. An amazing day! And I will tell you about it soon in another story for my blog within the next month.
Our first encounter with the Shirakawa community in 2019 has led not only to a second visit and a two night stay in 2022, but friendships that I think will last a long time. This is one of my very special places I will continue to revisit in Japan.