Kyoto’s Shirakawa, or ‘white river’, was so named due to fine-grained white sand that, in the past, was carried downstream from the mountains. A lovely section of the Shirakawa, which is now just a shallow stream, connects the Heian Shrine with Gion Higashi – where it runs into the Kamo River. There are cafes, restaurants, and a short covered shopping arcade along the way.
There are no major temples along the route and the walk is only a couple of kilometers long. However, you can usually stroll in peace and there are a number of lovely cafes along the way where you can sit outside – away from the tourist crowds.
Start with a visit to the Heian Jingu and its garden, Shin-en. Entrance to the shrine is free, but the garden costs 600 yen and is especially beautiful in spring and fall.
Walk directly out of the shrine and straight toward the giant red torii gate. To your right, beside Okazaki Park, is the Rohm Theatre Kyoto, an annex of the Kyocera Museum of Art, and the Rohm Theatre Park Plaza. A restaurant here, the Kyoto Modern Terrace, has one of the city’s nicest open-air seating areas.
Further down the street are two of Kyoto’s top museums – The Kyocera Museum of Art, which showcases the work of local artists, and the National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto. Pass the museums and the giant torii, cross over the canal and Niomon-dori, then turn right.
The start of the Shirakawa will be on your left. There are two cafes, both with tables outdoors, on each side of the stream, and a short stretch of cherry trees that bloom in late March or early April.
Another favorite cafe of mine, Jibohsha, is housed in a beautiful historic structure, but it is much more enjoyable to sit outside in their lovely garden.
Continue along the Shirakawa until the street ends. Turn right, then make an immediate left. If you haven’t eaten lunch yet, there are three restaurants here. Shirakawa Kyotomi serves tempura and eel. Sanmikouan is run by Ozoyo, a shop specializing in chirimen sansho (condiments made of tiny dried fish and Japanese spices). They’ve opened a cafe in a 100+ year-old building that offers soba noodle dishes and Japanese desserts. Sanmikouan also has a wonderful stream-side outdoor dining area. Next door, Masutomi, also serves soba. Across the street is a shop, Utsuwa Akando, that sells beautiful modern and antique Japanese pottery to tourists, collectors, and local restaurants
Soon, you’ll reach Higashiyama Station and San-jo. Cross this busy street. The Shirakawa on the other side is lined with lovely weeping willow trees. Start walking along the stream. Soon, on the left side, is Tan, a restaurant that serves a special Japanese breakfast, lunch, and/or dinner of dishes made with organic vegetables and rice.
Narrow stone bridges cross the Shirakawa from time to time along this stretch of the Shirakawa. At the last narrow bridge, go to the right, away from the water. This short, curved alley leads to the one end of the Furukawa Shotengai. This traditional covered shopping arcade mainly serves locals and tourists that are staying in nearby guesthouses. Many restaurants along the arcade have translated their menus into English. Furukawa Shuzo, the Shirakawa Community Living Company, creates activities and tours, in English and Japanese, for visitors. Stop by their office, or a Kyoto tourist information office, for details.
Walk down and back through the arcade. Just outside the spot where you entered it, stop in at Rakuzen, a shop that sells a good selection of Kyoto souvenirs. Back at the Shirakawa, go right. On the corner is Kissho Karyo Kyoto, a cafe that is famous among young Japanese for its Japan-inspired ice cream parfaits and desserts. Beside the cafe is another nice souvenir shop, Yaya. On your left is the outer gate of Chion-in, a large temple that is the headquarters of the Jodo-shu sect of Buddhism.
Cross Higashi Oji-dori, one of Kyoto’s main thoroughfares, and continue straight into Gion Higashi, one of Kyoto’s five Geisha districts. At the end of the street, turn left onto famous Hanamikoji-dori. The Nasuari Jizo, discovered during a water construction project in 1954, will be on your left. Cross the Shirakawa and walk to the next traffic light, and turn right.
When people refer to Kyoto’s Shirakawa, this is the section they are talking about. The street is paved with cobblestones, traditional wooden structures line both sides, and the Shirakawa itself has lovely cherry trees and azeleas along its bank. High-end restaurants and private establishments where Geisha entertain (ochaya & ryotei) make up most of the businesses here. However, a Hard Rock Cafe has moved into one of the traditional buildings. And, there is also a wonderful store called ‘Pass the Baton‘.
The concept of this store is to ‘connect two lives by passing the baton from one person to another’. They sell used items, but include a photograph of the previous owner and a personal story about the item itself. Buyers are also welcome to write a note to the previous owners.