Going shopping in Japan is a great experience. You don’t need to be a foodie to enjoy the exquisite presentation of the food court at The Cube in Kyoto’s station, nor do you have to be a techie to appreciate the wares offered in the city’s big electronic stores.
When it comes to Japanese shopping experiences, the market held on the 21st day of each month in the grounds of Kyoto’s Toji Temple, tops my list.
It’s an opportunity to enjoy popular Japanese cuisine and to see one of the country’s most historic temples at its liveliest and most colourful.
Kyoto’s UNESCO World Heritage Site
If your visit coincides with the 21st you’ll have a chance to see Shinto priests conducting ceremonies and locals involved in rituals. All of these are a bonus. The Toji Temple is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and widely regarded one of Kyoto’s “must see” sights.
The Toji Temple’s five storey pagoda is the by far the most famous of Kyoto’s many landmarks.
Over the years, the pagoda has provided unfortunate proof that lightening can indeed strike the twice, or even more. Electrical storms destroyed four predecessors of the current pagoda, which dates from 1644.
An iconic Japanese pagoda
Located south-east of the city’s modern railway station-cum-shopping centre, the 187 ft (57 metre) high pagoda is great orientation point. You can guide yourself towards the bustling market by looking for its sloping roofs.
The market was established in remembrance of the Buddhist priest, Kukai, who founded the temple in 796. Kukai was a key figure in the foundation of the esoteric Shingon school of Buddhism. He died on the 21st of March 835 and, after his death, was honoured with the title Kobo Daishi.
This explains why the market is held on the 21st of each month and also why locals refer to it as Kobo-san rather than the official name, Mieuiku.
Local shoppers and food
It’s fascinating to see how ancient traditions are kept alive on market days. Kobo-san is by no means a tourist market, though plenty of foreigners are drawn here. It’s also a place where locals hunt for bargains.
Used kimonos, freshly bean curd sweets, old machine tools and tempting foods from the countryside are among the wares that attract attention from Japanese visitors. Many halt to pray before the wooden statues housed in the Kodo, or lecture hall, while others light incense sticks at the shrines set up around the Mieido, the founder’s hall, where Kukai once lived.
I found that pausing to take a look at the shrines was a great way of breaking up the shopping, as more than a thousand stalls are erected on market days.
Antique items and Japanese cuisine
After a couple of hours examining beautiful antique items such as an dragon-decorated lacquer pillow boxes and ceramic tea sets made by local craftspeople, I found myself floundering.
A grilled parsnip, served on a stick, proved the perfect remedy for my market fatigue.
Some people call Kobo-san a flea market, but that doesn’t convey that a good number of the stalls sell new goods, including shoes, hats, fans and handcrafted ceramics.
Antiques hunters can have a field day here, as will anyone on the lookout for silk kimonos at knockdown prices.
I found countless items that would have made for great souvenirs from Japan. Images of geisha smiled up from a collection of black and white photographic prints dating from the 1920s.
On the set of Roshomon
Still very much a part of Kyoto’s heritage, I was later thrilled to see trainee geisha, known as maiko, in the Ponto-cho quarter of the city.
Calligraphy scrolls, film posters and even samurai swords were among the items which caught my eye on the market stalls. I couldn’t help wondering how the concierge might have reacted had I walked back into my hotel with a katana.
Like many film lovers, I’ve been intrigued by the samurai code of bushido ever since I started watching movies directed by Akira Kirosawa. Scenes from his 1950 film Roshomon were shot in the temple’s grounds.
Buddhism and snapping bargains
The ancient settings – with their high, tile-roofed halls and decorative gardens – are a fitting backdrop for browsing tables packed with antiques. Porcelain figures vied for my attention alongside brass Buddhas.
When it comes to picking up bargains, one school of thought says you should arrive early. The stalls are set up from 7.00am and that’s when rare pieces can be snapped up.
Buying after 3.00pm is also a popular strategy, as stall holders become keen to get rid of their remaining stock.
If you’re heading to Japan, I heartily recommend that your visit to Kyoto coincides with the 21st day of the month.
For tourism and travel information visit the Japan National Tourism Organization website.
For Kyoto specific tourism information, take a look at the Kyoto Travel website.