Kyoto—a city where each area is colored by unique culture and history. Many guidebooks speak of Kyoto’s charms, but they don’t tell the whole story. It’s the unexpected surprises and discoveries that ensure you will never forget your trip here. Plenty of unknown, hidden spots still await those who venture out to see for themselves.
This time, we’ll be introducing the Higashiyama Shichijo area, 15 minutes on foot east from Kyoto Station and famous for historical buildings such as the Kyoto National Museum and Sanjusangen-do Temple. Peter MacMillan, a poet and translator born in Ireland, will be our guide as he conveys the many local charms of Higashiyama Shichijo from his unique perspective as we walk through this area.
Our tour guide: Peter MacMillan
Peter tells us that he started writing poems partially due to the influence of his mother, who was a writer. He came to Japan yearning for adventure when he was approaching 30 years of age, but at around 45 he worried about whether he should return to his hometown. At that time, he took on a challenge at a friend’s recommendation to translate an approximately 800-year-old book of Japanese poetry, Ogura Hyakunin Isshu (“One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each”). Peter’s translation was well received, with the published book even receiving a prize. He felt like this was an opportunity for him to “help people in other countries understand about Japanese culture by translating waka and haiku poetry to English,” and he put great efforts into translations for texts such as Ise Monogatari (“The Tales of Ise”) and the Manyoshu (“Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves”), Japan’s oldest anthology of waka poems.
Peter says that, “I think waka poetry forms the basis of Japanese culture. For example, read the Manyoshu and you’ll see how the ancient Japanese people’s ways of life and lifestyles respected nature and animals. I think what’s surprising is that there are even some hints there that we can use today to live sustainably.” When I ask what makes him think this, he says the three cats he lives with have taught him about animals’ way of life, mentality and spirit. In recent times, he has learned about different ways of living, such as veganism, that are also conveyed through the poems of the Manyoshu. This made me wonder how someone like him, who can leap from the Manyoshu to spinning new stories with deep insightfulness into everyday life, sees Higashiyama Shichijo.
Characteristics of the Higashiyama Shichijo area
Peter has had ties to Kyoto since long before, having been here countless times. However, he says that he didn’t know this particular area very well until he visited for work in 2019. Peter says that “I think that the stories of a place are the most important thing for sightseeing,” and there are two leaders from the past who have caught his interest. The first is Emperor Go-Shirakawa who built the Sanjusangen-do Temple in 1164 and enthusiastically collected works of poetry from the common people, known as imayo poems. The second is Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a daimyo feudal lord who enjoyed great prosperity until his death in 1598 and has numerous places still associated with him today such as Yogen-in Temple and Toyokuni-jinja Shrine.
The living conditions in this town changed frequently depending on the authority figures of those times. Peter says that because of this, you can feel as if you are traveling back in time and viewing the sights as they were back then by walking through this area. This area that he says is “filled with complex and deep mysteries” is created by the continuously overlapping layers of history formed from Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s times to the present day. Let’s walk together with our guide and see what kind of new stories he has discovered here.
Historical mementos coexist with modern life
Saying that he wanted to find a new story that he could connect to the present rather than heading for Sanjusangen-do Temple again, Peter led me away from the main road and toward Yamatooji-dori Street in a small back alley. As we continued walking along the walls of Sanjusangen-do Temple, the first item that caught Peter’s attention was the tile crest at the top of the wall. “Mitsudomoe marks (a design of three swirls) were also common in ancient Celtic culture in Ireland. Maybe some part of this could even be connected to the Celts, you know? Perhaps this mitsudomoe design had an important meaning to people in the old days,” Peter wonders aloud thoughtfully. And besides that, “the five lines on the wall indicate a monzeki, a temple related to the emperor. It’s so you can see that it’s a temple of a different status.” Smiling, Peter taught me the secret meanings of these unassuming shapes.
The Higashiyama Shichijo area is dotted with historical structures between residential houses. Seeming to be very interested in one home’s lattice-covered and neatly aligned windows, Peter stops walking. Completely drawn in, he takes a photo. While walking through these streets, we encounter women standing and talking. Peter speaks to them in fluent Japanese, asking “Do you go to Sanjusangen-do Temple regularly?” and learns that they love the temple and visit once a year. “Foreigners come here for sightseeing, but it’s interesting how the feeling of Sanjusangen-do Temple as seen from the outside is different from that of someone who lives nearby, isn’t it? The residents here visit the temple to worship, and it’s a part of their everyday lives.” Peter seemed to really have a sense for Kyoto’s atmosphere—even as tourist attractions, these places perfectly integrate into the everyday lives of the people there.
There are scenes you’ll miss out on if you don’t venture out a little
What really brought a sparkle to Peter’s eyes today would have to be this place. Peter’s pace quickened at this mysterious sight deep into the backstreets, a place where artists and artisans gather called Honmachi Escola that features empty houses renovated and reborn as community spaces, residences and ateliers. “I found it! This is an amazing place isn’t it? It’s fun to see the streets gradually growing narrower. It’s a narrow space, but you can feel the depth of it. There’s a little bit of beautiful color in this lived-in atmosphere that makes it feel like you’re on a trip, right?” He chatted cheerfully while stopping at the blooming plum blossoms in the garden and at the sight of small decorative objects.
This area is dotted with small, privately run stores such as copper workshops, shoe stores, produce stores and delivery bento shops. Saying that he’s interested in veganism lately, Peter drops in at a rice shop. He asks the shop owner about how to hull brown rice, eats warabi mochi (a jelly-like confection sprinkled with soybean powder) with great relish at a Japanese sweets shop that has been operating for 48 years, and remarks that “These kinds of town streets are fun, aren’t they?” as he experiences the living history of these small avenues.
*Entering private property without permission is forbidden. We received permission for our visit. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org in advance to make arrangements.
The last place we visit is a temple Peter also loves, Yogen-in Temple. It is said to have been built by Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s wife, Yodo-dono, for her father. Peter has come here many times before, but he carefully pays his respects and then observes the buildings’ shapes intently. We spent about an hour strolling around Sanjusangen-do Temple and the surrounding area. When I asked Peter again how he felt about this area, he answered me with “Unlike the the crowded station areas where there are many large supermarkets and shopping areas Higashiyama lives in a time slip— while visiting the wonderful and important historical temples and shrines one can also chat to the maker of Japanese cakes, the jewelry shop owner, the rice shop owner and get a real sense of the local community today.”
Higashiyama Shichijo is an area with many hidden layers of discoveries to unravel as you walk through it. Why don’t you too try enjoying the charming discoveries of this area?