北野天満宮 Market of the Master of Disaster

There is a saying in Kyoto: “Fair weather at kobo-san, rainy weather at Tenjin-san“, however I was lucky enough to get sunny weather for both. This saying is intended to illustrate how changeable the weather in Kyoto is, though coming from England where we can get hail, sun and rain in a short period, Kyoto weather seems fairly normal to me. As it was so nice, I took the time to check out Tenjin-san market, which falls on the 25th, four days after Kobo-san market at Toji temple (see here).

Tenjin-san is a flea market held at Kitano Tenmangu shrine, a really beautiful old shrine located just North West of Gosho, the Imperial Palace Park. The flea market held there on the 25th of each month is very similar to Kobo-san of Toji temple, though I noticed that there are a lot more food stalls at Tenjin-san.  This is also a great place to find cheap clothes, I think the goods at Tenjin-san are slightly cheaper than at Kobo-san, though perhaps of lower quality – if you are looking for a rare find Kobo-san is probably your best bet, but if you want a cheap kimono, yukata, hapi coat or other Japanese garment, Tenjin-san is where to go. The market spills out of the main shrine tori gate and into the street – it’s pretty big, though I don’t know if is as big as Kobo-san.

As I had just been to Kobo-san I did not feel the need to buy much. I got the customary lava filled tako-yaki (this time with the wiggly flakes on top) and a nice niku man 肉まん. Nikuman are something I will definitely miss about Japan (I’m thinking of learning a recipe for making them at home), they are large steamed buns filled with pork; filling and delicious, they are a staple of any convenience store’s hot-fridge. The one I got was from a street stall, making it even more delicious than the Family Mart buns.

Kitano-tenmangu 北野天満宮 is a shrine dedicated to the god of learning, Tenjin. Unlike many gods, Tenjin was actually a real person, known in life as Sugawara no Michizane. Michizane (845 – 943) was a bureaucrat of the Heian court, accomplished in Chinese Poetry as well as Japanese waka poems. Though initially a junior ranking bureaucrat, he ascended due to his hard work, and some fortunate timing.

At this point in history, the Imperial family was pushing back against the steadily increasing power of the Fujiwara family over the court. Emperor Uda had reached majority and no longer needed a Fujiwara regent. To push back against the Fujiwara family, instead of appointing Fujiwara nobles he appointed other bureaucrats to serve the court, one of which was Michizane, who became Ambassador to China, along with a host of other titles. An interesting aside: Michizane couldn’t speak Chinese, only read and write it, so he encouraged the Emperor to scrap the Ambassadorial positions to China in order to save face (he said that Japan should withdraw due to the decline of the Tang dynasty), which did lead to the scrapping of the position. Amazing how one man’s embarrassment at being unable to speak Chinese affected the whole country’s official stance towards China. Also amazing how this guy became the god of students, a true hero to those who spend their lives trying to get out of doing homework.

When Emperor Uda abdicated in favour of his son, in 837, Michizane’s position became vulnerable. No longer under the protection of Emperor Uda (who had praised him as a mentor in his resignation testament), Michizane was demoted to a position in a distant province and died away from the city, effectively in exile. After his death there were numerous disasters in the country, including: drought, plague, deaths of Imperial family members, lightning repeatedly striking the audience hall of the Imperial Palace, and flooding in Kyoto. Clearly Michizane’s spirit was angered at his unjust treatment, and to appease him Kitano Tenmangu was constructed in 947. When the disasters did not abate he was deified as Tenjin 天神 (heavenly god) in 986.

Tenjin is very popular with students due to his status as an academic during his life, and Kitano Tenmangu’s Ema 絵馬 (prayer tablets) are full of wishes to 合格, pass exams. If you look at the pictures below you will see this phrase repeated constantly. There are rows upon rows of places to hang these Ema as students visit for entrance exams, finals, midterms and any other academic trouble. For just 300円 you can improve your chances of passing without actually studying! Who wouldn’t give it a try?

The grounds of Kitano Tenmangu are said to be beautiful in February (I’m kicking myself for not going at that time), when all the plum blossoms were in bloom. Plum blossom was the favourite of Michizane, so all shrines dedicated to Tenjin, usually called ‘something Tenmagu’, have plum blossoms planted in the grounds. Before leaving for his exile, Michizane wrote this poem:


kochi fukaba
nioi okose yo
ume no hana

 aruji nashi tote
haru o wasuru na

When the east wind blows,
flourish in full bloom,
plum blossoms!
Even though you lose your master
don’t  forget spring.

Kitano Tenmangu is a great temple to visit regardless of whether or not it’s the 25th of the month, though the market is a great experience. It strikes me how different shrines can be; Ise Jingu is beautiful in its total commitment to minimalist simplicity, while Kitano Tenmangu is an example of a majestic and ornate old temple. If you have spent this post wondering “why are there so many cows?“, see this post to be enlightened.

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!