The most striking thing about Kyoto's shopping streets is what's not there. International superbrands have homogenised most of the world's cities, but along the most commercial shopping drag in Kyoto, Shijo Dori, you'll find just a handful of famous names. The street's most eye-popping piece of modern architecture belongs not to Tiffany or Gucci, but to the venerable Fukujuen, which has been a supplier of green tea since 1790.
Distinctive local stores continue to hold their own here. Although you could purchase brand-name trainers in the Puma store, you could equally walk a couple of blocks to Sou-Sou for a pair of split-toe athletic shoes; the result of a collaboration between a kimono designer and Le Coq Sportif.
Shops such as Oku, Sfera Archive and Kyoto Design House sell items that have been staples of Kyoto life for centuries, but bring them right up to date with the latest techniques and contemporary materials. Omo offers kimonos, perhaps teamed with a sash made from English upholstery. Once a traditional wallpaper manufacturer, Karacho applies its expertise in woodblock printing to decorating lampshades, greetings cards and business cards, among other products. If you didn't know that the bag-maker Ihee belonged to a 400-year-old cotton trader, you might assume this modest chain was one of the city's freshest faces. Kyoto doesn't cling to its heritage – it draws on its rich legacy to inspire new creations. The hottest stores are the ones that blend the old and the new seamlessly.
That's not why the tourists come, though. The draw for most visitors is the shinise – family-run specialist shops with a century or more of history. As the imperial seat, Kyoto lured the nation's top craftsmen, some of whose stores have survived into the modern era. The romantic idea of a Kyoto shop has an elderly proprietress brushing a broom across the pavement in front. A split curtain separates the outside world from her tubs of miso or displays of ornaments. The store doesn't have a website, and never will. It has survived for a century on word of mouth and passing trade.
Such stores continue to trade all over the city, and the passage of time has whittled them down to the finest examples. Shinzaburo Hanpu, Kashogama and Funahashiya don't all look like the classic machiya shinise, but they are examples of how techniques passed down through generations keep pace with modern tastes.
Where to shop
Traditionally, shopping in Kyoto was divided by blocks. The city planners borrowed the idea of a grid system from the Tang dynasty Chinese capital, and the old city centre, now known as the Downtown and Gosho districts, still has this layout. Traditionally, each block in the grid had its own industry. There was a block for comb-makers, a block for fanmakers and a block for tofu shops.
Today, it’s still possible to glimpse the old set-up as you wander around central Kyoto, but streets have a more distinctive character than blocks these days. Shinmonzen Dori in Gion is lined with antique stores, Gokomachi is the street for fashion, Ninenzaka and Sannenzaka in Gion offer a picturesque jumble of ancient stores, teashops and souvenir hawkers, and Shijo Dori provides department stores and big-brand shopping, although it also boasts an array of smaller and more interesting stores.
Best of all, Nishiki-koji Dori is home to six blocks of the market nicknamed ‘Kyoto’s kitchen’. Nishiki-koji market is a sensory overload, a riot of colours, aromas and jostling shoppers. Back in the 16th century, fishmongers supplying the Imperial Palace discovered that Nishiki-koji Dori was the perfect place to make a pit-stop. It’s en route to the palace, close to residential blocks for easy side-custom, and sits directly above a source of pure water (many restaurants on the street still have their own wells tapping directly into the water table). In 1770, the market expanded to accommodate vegetables, and these days it sells the gamut of Kyoto ingredients, from green tea to dried yuba (soy milk skin).
A major temple and shrine each host the two largest flea markets. The first market, called Kobo-san after Kobo Daishi, founder of the Shingon sect of Buddhism, is held at Toji on the 21st of each month. The second, Tenjin-san, is held four days later at Kitano Tenmangu shrine . Both offer everything from snacks to kimono to bonsai trees, and draw sizeable crowds. A smaller, but no less charming flea market takes place on the 15th of each month at a small temple in Northern Higashiyama (Chion-ji, www.tedukuri-ichi.com). Tezukuri-ichi (‘handmade fair’) is for local artists and craftspeople to sell their creations.