Friday, June 4, 2010

To-ji Markets - Kyoto

21st October, 2006 - Our first morning in Kyōto... and there's no time like the present to jump feet first into the human jungle. Just the other side of Kyōto Station is Tō-ji. The importance of the this temple is both it’s age (being the oldest religious complex constructed in ancient Kyōto proper), but also the first seat of the Shingon Buddhist sect in Kyōto. More than anything else however, it's well known for it's huge pagoda that sits like a light-house besides the metallic and glass outcrop that is Kyōto Station. Today is not about history however, it's about people. I'll re-visit Tō-ji in a later post.

The 21st of each month is the date of the largest flea market in Kyōto, known as Mieiku or more commonly Kōdō market. The date reflects the death of the founder Kūkai, who supposedly died on the March 21st. Not sure if that's a good reason for a market, but it doesn't seem to hold back the locals.

The market is sprawling - it sets up early and continues on well into the afternoon. In many ways it's a typical flea market. A lot of junk, an abundance of oddities, a vast array of foods, a huge amount of older (and even sometimes antique) traditional goods, and just an amazing assortment of "what the...!" moments. More than anything, there's a lot of people. Seriously - this is a thriving business - and it's hard to believe that this is such a respected temple. Having said that flea-markets in temples are not exclusive to Tō-ji, as there's another famous market in nearby Kitano Tenmangu on the 25th of each month.

Of the 1,500 different traders, there are those whose families have reportedly  traded at the market for many centuries. And looking at some of the bric-a-brac here, some of the goods look like they've been sitting here for about as long! There's definitely bargains to be had - however it's hard to be a discerning buyer unless you really have done your homework.

There are lots of different things to eat, try, buy and experience in every sense of the word. Here we're buying personalised his and her chopsticks, which are engraved with our names and embossed with gold leaf. A small sort-of cliche reminder of the market, but one which we use even now, over three years later.

To-ji markets is a busy place... and it's hard to find a quiet corner. Seemingly right in the centre of the noise and bustle of the market, Kūkai himself watches. I'm not sure if he's keeping an eye on the traders or the customers - but there's a small patch of reverence (and quiet) about him at least. The statue of Kūkai (Kōbō-daishi) dates from 1390 AD.
Kūkai (774 – 835 AD), also known as Kōbō-daishi, headed the temple from 809 to 823 AD, and was instrumental in bringing the Shingon sect to the common people. He was appointed by Emperor Saga, Kammu’s successor. Among other achievements, Kūkai also instigated one of the first dictionaries, made medicines available to the poor, and introduced a wide range of new agricultural skills. The temple also contains the two oldest mandalas in Japan, and three dimensional mandalas created by Kūkai himself. Not a bad effort by all accounts.

Of course it couldn't be a visit to Tō-ji without an obligatory snap of the pagoda. There is little sense of the profound on market day - and indeed the pagoda acts mostly as a guide-post to finding the market from the Station. I would definitely recommend coming here if you're in Kyōto on the 21st... but I'd also suggest that you keep your expectations of finding the perfect buy to a minimum. Let luck guide your feet, and the weight of your wallet guide your purchases.

After finishing up in Tō-ji, we headed back to Kyōto Station, with one objective....

The romance train to Arashiyama.  But that will have to wait.

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  1. beautiful sights captured well in your photographs!

  2. Thnx... but to be honest, all of these are P&S shots. But some turned out ok.

  3. The market looks bustling!

    BTW, what are you chopsticks made from? I've been using my pair since I was a child (probably more than 20 years ago). I think they're made from elephant bone, which is why they've lasted all these years. Is it tradition too for Japanese people to use the same pair of chopsticks for many years?

  4. Hehehe.... elephant bone... you better watch out for the PC police! ?;^) Actually, they're wooden chopsticks... sorry, can't tell you what type of wood.

    As for the Japanese using chopsticks... I think that this is just a practical thing. Some chopsticks are cheap-as-chips and are used for only a short time. However, there's a lot of chopsticks that have important meaning and they tend to keep them. Depends on the family.

    Our chopsticks were nice memories for us, and we'll keep using them till they've lived a full and happy life. I don't think we'll using them in another 14 years however (I'm impressed with yours being in use for 20 years... now that has sentimental value!).

    My wife T-chan says that she fully expects to keep our son's first chopsticks - but not for using (just memory).

  5. LOL. I'm sure elephant bone was legal 20 years ago. Now I have no idea where to go to find a replacement. Mine has teeth marks all over it from when I was a kid. Not sure if that's considered sentimental value though, hehehe. However for your son I would think it would be much more meaningful.