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9-15 May 2018. From the outside it looks like you’re entering a dark tunnel that goes on forever. Even though it’s a grey day, and the rain is pouring down, it’s still bright enough outside that the glare momentarily prevents you from seeing into the interior.

It’s raining. I mean really really raining,

but I know I’ll go nuts hanging out at the hostel all day so I make my dripping way to Nishiki Market – a narrow street of five covered blocks lined with small businesses. Most are selling food and it’s easy to see why Nishiki is known as the kitchen of Kyoto. On stepping into that tunnel a whole wonderful world is revealed. The light comes from many sources and in many colours, not least of which is the multi-coloured stained glass panels that form the peaked roof.

Nishiki Market began life in the 1300’s as a wholesale fish market. Over the years it morphed into a retail market selling primarily foods, but also various other goods. There are hundreds of shops and restaurants, many of which have been in the same family for generations, and the market is now a long-standing fixture of ordinary life in the city.

It is crowded and busy. There are a few tourists like myself but clearly this is where the people of Kyoto come for food and groceries. I love that. I love that I’m in a place where people go about their ordinary lives in such a different way than I’m used to, and I get to see it. I get to see where we are different, and I get to see where we are the same.

I’m aware of a continuous humming as people chat with each other and place their orders. The hum is regularly interrupted by shopkeepers crying out their wares. By Japanese standards it’s downright noisy.

There is a cornucopia of food, some of which I recognise, most of which I don’t. Like these octopus:

I’ve never seen octopus so small, but still it’s obvious they’re octopus. What I find out later is that the head is stuffed with a quail’s egg in place of its brains. I find this both fascinating and appalling. Apparently they taste pretty good though I’m not brave enough to try one.

If you want to you can buy roast quail, or sparrows on a stick,

which I imagine might be a bit like eating chicken wings. I’m surprised to see them, and yeah, a bit appalled by them too. It reminds me of seeing all the tiny birds for sale at the markets in Laos where food is scarce and because of the war people got used to scavenging in the bush for anything even remotely edible. Perhaps eating sparrows in Japan is a hangover from the very lean years after WWII. I wish I’d tried them.

These people are carefully choosing a particular type of tea from the many available,

and this woman is selling Japanese pepper, which I only know because the sign is in English. The pepper, with its refreshing aroma and spicy taste is commonly used in Japanese cooking thus creating numb tongues all over Japan.

I come to the prawn tower. Prawns are a favourite of mine, and clearly also a favourite of many people in the market that day. I wait my turn and buy a skewer.

Alas they are a little over-cooked so a bit chewy. I’m disappointed.

Moving along I see fish and meat on skewers being attentively and gently roasted over hot coals,

and in other places there is fish ready for purchase.

There are so many varieties of food being cooked that I don’t recognise. What I do recognise is the care with which the cooking is done. And the years of practice and tradition behind each dish, so that the person cooking moves with a kind of flowing grace attending carefully and equally to each small portion.

I find a whole shop of cuteness-overload,

another overflowing with dishes,

and a shop specialising in chopsticks.

Many people in Japan have a personal pair of chopsticks, which come in a wide variety of designs. Sparkling like Christmas ornaments, or decorated with cartoons, floral patterns, tartan, traditional masks, or Hello Kitty. The variety is endless in shapes, colours, and patterns, and choosing chopsticks for oneself or as a gift is serious business. There are four sizes – men’s, women’s, children’s and extra long for serving. You can get your chopsticks engraved with your name, or you can pay $300 for a titanium pair.

Is it jam or pickles?

This I know is pickles.

It’s one of the many baskets of pickles at Uchida Tsukemono where there is a constant crowd of people waiting to buy.

Since most of the food is unrecognisable to me, I randomly choose this, in part because it looks good:

I have no idea what it is. It’s good but not outstandingly delicious. There’s an option to have cheese sauce on it. I wish I’d chosen that. I think it would have made all the difference.

At Nishiki you can buy anything food-related: fresh or dried seafood, tofu, mochi, ice cream, donuts, candied kumquats, cookware, knives, dishes, and sushi. There are also shops that sell wooden sandals, beauty products, umbrellas, or wine, or flowers, and so much more that I can’t identify. I walk from one end to the other taking it all in. It seems so quintessentially Japanese to me – the cleanliness, the soft voices, the sense of purpose, and the attention to detail, not to even mention five blocks filled mostly with food I don’t recognise.

Eventually, when I’ve had my fill, I go back out into the rain and make my soggy way home.


I first become aware of it when I notice a flyer on the notice board in the hostel. I’m attracted to the colourful photograph of a man on horseback dressed in voluminous bright robes. Something like this:

What is this? I look closer and discover there’s to be a festival. I immediately ask the hostel staff about it – what, where, when? I get all the details and on the day make my way to a spot on the parade route.

I ask which side of the street is best and two young women kindly tell me to stay where I am. I find myself a little spot a bit down the street from them. The crowds are starting to gather. A few minutes later they come to find me and tell me that they were wrong and that the parade will be far better viewed on the other side of the street. So kind of them! It would have been very frustrating watching the parade with cars going by in front of me.

I cross the street and find a spot by the curb and wait.

Then it starts: the Aoi Matsuri, one of Kyoto’s three main annual festivals. Aoi is the Japanese word for hollyhock, the leaves of which were believed to protect against natural disasters.

In the distance I can see it coming: the retinue that has been sent on an errand from the Imperial Palace first to the Shimogamo Shrine and then to the Kamigamo Shrine to make various rituals to appease the deities.

The origin of the festival dates back some 1500 years to a time when disastrous weather ruined the crops and epidemics spread throughout the country. The cause was believed to be divine punishment. Thus was begun the annual ritual at the shrines to pacify the Kamo gods. At the shrines the deities are honoured and entreaties made for their continued support. Some three hundred years after its beginnings, during the Heian period, the emperor began to include a lavish, but solemn parade from the palace to both of the shrines, with all the nobles and important dignitaries of the time in attendance.

Slowly the parade draws towards me. There are men on horseback,

each representing a participant of the original retinue – the Chief of Police, the Judicial Chief, or delegates from local government. Everyone in the parade, dressed in traditional Heian period clothing, is a local person playing the role of one of the original Imperial retinue.

Overseen by the Ritual Dedication Officer, many people carry gifts and ritual offerings that will later be given to the gods.

Sacred horses are led through the parade and supervised by the Equine Official with his bow and sheaf of arrows proudly displayed.

Now at last I can see the first of the ox carts coming. I make a quick dash to the middle of the road to get a shot of it head on, then dash back to the curb. Someone shouts at me You’re not allowed to go on the road! I shrug and say I know. Next thing there’s a policemen or some crowd control person right next to me (how he got so quickly through the crowd all around me I don’t know). He admonishes me in Japanese. I look suitably contrite and he leaves. Suddenly all the people nearest me are laughing. I laugh too. It’s not the only time in Japan that I find people are amused by someone who dares to break the rules.

The ox carts were used to carry the Imperial Envoy.

In the parade there are Officers of the Imperial Guard hand-picked to perform song and dance routines as part of the rituals at the shrines for the gods, and others chosen to play music. Another carries the Imperial Edict.

And in the middle of the parade, in the place of highest honour, rides the Imperial Messenger chosen to read the Imperial Edict at the shrine altars.

Scattered throughout the parade are large flower umbrellas.

Behind the men come the women of the court: noble women, ladies-in-waiting, and priestesses. Servants hold umbrellas to shade them and to signify their rank.

and finally comes the crowning glory of the parade – the Imperial Princess, serving as a ceremonial priestess. These days she is played by an unmarried woman chosen from Kyoto’s elite families, and dressed like all the others in the traditional style of the Heian court. For her it means a twelve-layered kimono.

She is followed by her ladies-in-waiting, sacred maidens,

and musicians.

At the rear of the parade is a second oxcart.

Two oxcarts, four cows, thirty-six horses, and six hundred people walk slowly by. Except for the distinctive rumble of the wheels of the ox carts, and the sound of the occasional car going by on the far side of the street, it is silent; a slow silent reverential march. It’s a parade of sacred ceremony, of pageantry and solemnity, of an Imperial Retinue to the gods so grand that surely the gods must listen and grant their wishes. What a wonderful thing it is that this tradition is kept alive.

From the notes I made on the day:
The parade finished in plenty of time for me to get to the Geiko (Geisha) show at Pontocho Theatre. The first half was almost like a pantomime and wonderfully entertaining even though I had no idea what they were singing or saying. The costumes were beautiful but no photography was allowed. There were many very slick and clever changes of scene, and overall it was a very professional production. The second half consisted of several individual dances by Geiko and group numbers by the Maiko (apprentice Geiko). The individual dances were just far too slow and subtle for me but I loved the rest of it, and was very glad I went.

The plan then was to get the subway to a street about half way between the two shrines where the parade was going and watch it again. I wish I’d stuck to the plan. According to the schedule the parade was to arrive at the first shrine at 11.40 and leave at 2.10. I misremembered and thought it would leave at 2.40 so decided I had time to go to the first shrine and get some shots of the crowds and the atmosphere and maybe see some of the ceremony in the shrine. Of course by the time I got there it had left for the next shrine so I set out to follow it walking very fast for a long time.

It was good to see how well I could do and how I could deal with the pain that arose – not taking it too seriously, but at the same time paying attention to how I was walking, how I was using the muscles, concentrating on engaging the glutes more, and then the pain subsided. I’m starting to get really fit. I spent a long time walking along a main road in the heat. Not fun but at least I was getting a good workout. I came to a river with broad grassy banks and many people relaxing in the shade of trees, or fishing in the river. I could have slowed down, joined them, relaxed for a bit, but no I had to catch the parade. At least now it was a shady side street, and suddenly I could see the end of the parade in the distance. It spurred me on a bit but finally common sense prevailed. How much did I really want to see a parade I’d already seen? My plan, had I stuck to it, was to try to see something of the ceremonies at either of the shrines, but it was too late for that. Hot and tired, I probably walked six or more kilometres and now I had to figure out a way to get home. I didn’t know where I was, so I couldn’t put a destination into the phone and I didn’t know the name of the nearest train station. I suppose I could have put in the name of the hostel but I didn’t think of that. Anyway I had a paper map and figured it out from that. It was more walking to the nearest train station, but I eventually made it home and collapsed in a hot sweaty exhausted heap.

Next post: A day at Arashiyama

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2019.