東寺 Traders of the Temple

The end of the month in Kyoto is the time of markets. The time to spend a little of your time strolling the grounds of a temple surveying the beautiful clothes on hangers, the less beautiful clothes in heaps on the floor, the food stalls, the neatly organised tables of antiques and what looks like the contents of an old man’s garage strewn over a blanket. Temple markets are not an event to be missed – cheap deals, cheap food, and rare finds make this a great immersion exercise in Japanese culture and language (or sign language if you don’t speak Japanese).

Today I will cover Toji, the most famous of the temple markets in Kyoto. I also visited Kitano Tenmangu market, but I will save that for tomorrow. Toji market, known to Japanese as Kobo-san, is a market focussing on clothes and antiques that covers most of Toji’s grounds. I have covered Toji before (here) so I will not go into the history of the temple itself, but I will talk about the market.

Kobo-san is the name rather than ‘Toji-market’ because it is dedicated to the great monk Kukai, founder of Toji and one of the great teachers in Japanese Buddhism. Kukai’s posthumous name is Kobo-daishi 弘法大師 which literally means ‘the great master that spread Buddhist teaching’. As Daishi 大師 just means ‘great teacher’, his name is shortened to Kobo and the suffix san is added.

Kukai’s death was on the 21st of the month, so the market is held every month in his honour. The market is apparently particularly good in December, but sadly I was unable to go to that one. It’s really impressive whenever you go to be honest. There is even a smaller market every Sunday, so if your time in Kyoto is limited, if you visit on a Sunday you can still get a taste of Kobo-san.

I strolled through the market, trying to surreptitiously take pictures of the stalls. I’m sure they don’t really mind, but I’d prefer not to test that theory. I bought several things at the market; I’ve realised recently that despite living in Japan for 9 months I have little to show for it in terms of souvenirs. I bought: some pretty hand-made hairpins, a short kimono-style jacket/ cardigan (for wearing in my room, not out), an indian flute (maybe to get some petty revenge against my neighbour that is apparently learning keyboard, maybe because I miss playing music) and a beautiful scroll of Mr Tiger. The scroll is rolled up now so please excuse the mobile phone photo instead of one from my nice camera.

I also had a couple of snacks. In my mind the quintessential street food in Kyoto (or Kansai in general) is tako-yaki. Though the name たこ焼き tako-yaki, just means ‘fried octopus’ it is actually pieces of octopus placed in a batter mix and cooked in round frying plates (see below) and then sprinkled with sauce, dry seaweed flakes and mayonnaise. They are absolutely delicious but always as hot as lava. Every, Single, Time, I eat tako-yaki, I burn my tongue. This is a test of patience that I fail. I know I’m going to fail. I know only the last ball is going to actually taste of anything but pain and a sense of forced stoicism as I try to make it look like I am enjoying the ball instead of experiencing the fires of hell in my mouth. But always, I cannot wait. I feel like this says a lot about my patience levels. I also feel that it is the peer pressure from the little old ladies that buy the tako-yaki and immediately chow down, apparently immune to the lava. Maybe they are veterans and no longer feel the pain, maybe they too are experiencing the internal struggle. All I know is that last ball of tako-yaki is so delicious that it’s all worth it. Really tasty, try it. Just try to wait for it to cool down, if you can.

The other snack I had was just disappointment, a tale of desperation and unrealistic expectations. I was really thirsty, and it turns out that flea markets are one of the only places in Japan where there are no vending machines. I walked past a crushed ice stand, so I went for it, forgetting that this is not the same as shaved ice, but actual large-ish pieces of ice with a ‘strawberry’ syrup dumped over the top. The syrup tastes of vanilla and chemicals, it doesn’t matter which of the 6 flavours you choose, they all taste of disappointment. Also they give you a straw but nothing comes through because it’s just ice and you have to wait for it to melt. I ended up throwing it away after walking around for ages trying to find a bin (another thing that Japan apparently hasn’t heard of). Would not recommend.

Kobo-san is a great place to buy your souvenirs in a more interactive (and cheap) environment. There are big piles of kimono and yukata on the floor (on blankets) that you can pick up and try on. These floor-kimono are typically only around 1000円 (£5 ish) which is really really cheap. Sadly this means most are ill-fitting or not that nice or a bit stained, but there are real catches in there if you take the time to rifle through. If you really want to find something special, it’s best to go early in the morning, but you can still do pretty well in the afternoon. I wouldn’t go any later than 3 if you want to really shop though.

Kobo-san is one of those experiences that both Kyoto-dwellers and those visiting can really enjoy. I would recommend it to anyone in Kyoto and I will probably be going back next month. Tomorrow hopefully I will cover Kobo-san’s rival, the market at Kitano Tenmangu, Tenjin-san. Also this is my 75th blog post! Maybe I’ll make it to 100 before I leave Japan!

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