The Wards of Kyoto (Part 1 of 4)
Kyoto is a city famous for its temples, palaces, foliage and history, as well as its significant and unique impact on Japanese culture. The first episode of this series, The History of Kyoto, discussed Kyoto’s past and cultural heritage, as well as some of its geographic characteristics. During the next four episodes, we will explore its geography even more closely, focusing on each of Kyoto’s specific wards, one by one.
Kyoto, like many other cities in Japan, is comprised of different wards- similar to parishes, or city zones. There are eleven wards in Kyoto. The city is built on a grid, and is therefore quite easy to navigate, and with a multitude of subway systems, train lines and bus routes (PDF) to choose from, every place in Kyoto is highly accessible. It is my hope that this series of episodes will give those who plan to travel or live in Kyoto a greater awareness for the specific character of each of these wards. Of course, it is by no means nowhere near a complete guide to everything in Kyoto, and is merely meant as a means to understand the character of the city through regional focuses.
Kamigyou-ku, the first ward we will discuss, is situated in the center of Kyoto. Traditionally, it was actually the northern-most point of the old capital. In those days, its neighborhoods were reserved for only royalty and the upper class. It is one of the few wards that has its own mascot: Kamigyuu-kun, a bull in Heian costume. It is, as well, the headquarters of both the Omotesenke and Urasenke tea ceremony schools. Within Kyoto, it has the highest ratio of traditional Machiya houses that are still in use today, but, its greatest attraction, of course, is the Kyoto Imperial Palace. There are also a host of traditional museums and temples within its borders as well- most notably, the grand shrine of Kitano Tenman-gu, which hosts an impressive plum festival every February and an enormous flea market on the 25th of every month. Nearer to Horikawa-dori is Seimei Shrine, which is over 1,000 years old and is rumored to have both magical water and a bridge which connects to the spiritual world. There is also the Nishijin Textile Center, Rakuware Museum, and Chado Research Center, among a host of other small galleries and museums.
Nakagyou-ku is another one of Kyoto’s lively, central wards. It is one of the great centers of tourism, shopping and entertainment in Kyoto, encompassing all of the Kawaramachi area, as well as the Nijo Palace district to the east. Kawaramachi is a well-known shopping district within Kyoto, with subway and street level boutiques, retail outlets and traditional craft stores. All three of Kyoto’s major festivals take place here: the Aoi Matsuri, Gion Matsuri and Jidai Matsuri. There are also many places of interest, including the Museum of Kyoto, Honnoji Temple, Nijo Palace and Nijo Temple, as well as the Kaleidoscope and International Manga museum. The Kamogawa Odori is also held in this ward at the Ponto-cho Kaburencho Theatre. Ponto-cho is in its own right a famous area, were glimpses of geisha can be caught as they make their way to by-appointment only teahouses in the early evening.
Shimogyou-ku is the first stop for any visitor to Kyoto, as it houses Kyoto Station, built in 1997 and designed by Hiroshi Hara. It is a gorgeous piece of modern architecture, and houses one of the largest shopping malls in Kyoto, Isetan. On the 9th floor of this mall, you can find the Kyoto Prefectural International Center, which offers inexpensive cultural classes. Across the street from the station is Kyoto Tower, which can be seen from all corners of the city. About 15 minutes eastward is the recently opened Kyoto Aquarium, which features river exhibits and dolphin shows, as well as Umekoji Park, a popular destination for families. The largest temples in this ward are Nishihonganji and Higashihonganji. Nishihonganji houses the estate where Sen no Rikyu, the father of Japanese tea ceremony, committed seppuku, as well as Kara-mon, a national treasure, while Higashi-hongani, which was erected to rival Nishihongani by Ieyasu Tokugawa covers an even larger area, despite similar architecture. There is even a train museum, Umekoji Steam Locomotive Preservation Hall and Museum, where rides in real steam engines are still offered. The ward extends further north, all the way to Shijo Dori, a metropolis of fashion and trendy young people
Next up, Fushimi, Minami-ku and Yamashina. See you in Part 2!