Kyoto: the flea market at Toji temple
If you go to Japan, try to be in the old capital on the 21st of the month. Quick guide to the Kobo-san monthly market at Toji (and some notes on why I love Japan winter)
I make my way through the crowd. I feel lost, but at the same time I am sure I have already seen the pagoda in front of me. The monk singing and collecting alms looks familiar too. But I feel confused as I am flipping through the images in my memory to retrace my steps, because I want to find that old sake set that I had noticed hours ago amid junk and ordinary kitchenware. And I should know well this market, by now. I have been here in January every year since 2011.
The market is held in Kyoto on the 21st of each month, in memory of Kobo Daishi, who brought to Japan Shingon Buddhism. And I like to come to Japan in winter, especially in January. I love to see snow on the temples – though is quite rare – and the cloudless blue skies typical of this season in Japan. I love to warm myself up with a bowl of ramen or dipping into the hot waters of an onsen. So I ended up coming every january to my beloved Kyoto, to attend the first market of the year and one of the most important too. But I invariably get lost in the maze of stalls and temples.
Bargain-hunting at Kobo-san
I am here, lost in a crowded asian market because I have tried to put into practice what I have learned over these years. The Kobo-san flea market at Toji temple is one of the few places in Japan where you can bargain over the goods on sale, and when the sun begins to set and the stalls are beginning to pack up what they have on sale, prices fall dramatically. Some sellers will even recognize you as the guy who asked about an expensive piece earlier, and will stop you, offering big discounts, up to fifty percent. This way in the past I have bought a beautiful Meiji period hand-painted tokkuri (a sake bottle). But getting lost is easy, here, and it’s difficult to retrace your steps.
The crowd can be huge and the market area is enormous. And when the stalls begin to remove tables and pack their stuff the landscape changes and all becomes even more confusing. This time I can’t find what I am looking for, but I’m still going home with bags full of prints, books, cups, chopsticks, a haori (a jacket that goes over a kimono), and more. Here you can find everything, from the sellers of expensive antiques and beautiful second-hand kimonos, to ceramics and simple kitchenware for everyday use. It’s a great place to buy souvenirs, but also valuable pieces.
Flea market and street food paradise
At Kobo-san flea market the fun doesn’t end with the bargaining: there are stalls offering every kind of Japanese street food, from taiyaki (fish-shaped cookies filled with sweet azuki paste) to takoyaki (ball-shaped snacks made of dough, with a tiny piece of octopus inside). And then there is one of my favourite Japanese dishes, Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki: it’s a sort of savory pancake topped with meat, dried fish, cabbage, sitting on top of a layer of fried yakisoba noodles. Queues are long around lunchtime, but the variety of stalls is so big that you can always find something quickly. if you are in a hurry. But I like queues here.
I love watching the cooks while waiting, their quick, yet extremely accurate gestures. And then the people around me: foreigners, some more confused than others (few tourists, many residents ), together with families, seniors, group of students. People are looking for different things at the flea market, but okonomiyaki can bring everybody together. Needless to say, everything is quite cheap.
How to visit the Kobo-san flea market
The Buddhist temple Toji (it means Eastern temple) was founded in 796. It is south of Kyoto station. You can get there walking in less than half an hour (but the area is ugly, with large roads and rows of uninteresting buildings) or by bus: usually those going to the temple have a sign indicating Toji as it’s the terminus of several routes.
The temple is hard to miss: on market days you can see many people going to Toji, the area is large and surrounded by an imposing wall. The temple’s tall pagoda can also be seen from a distance. At 54 metres it’s actually the tallest in Japan. It was rebuilt in the Edo period by Tokugawa Iemitsu (1600).
Kobosan market: when to go
The Kobo-san flea market is held on the 21st of each month in Kyoto, from early morning until about an hour before sunset. In winter it closes earlier, around 4 pm. Arrive early because a visit this market needs time: the area is huge and walking in the crowd can be very slow. In case of rain, the market can close much earlier
Other flea markets in Kyoto
The Kobo-Ichi or Kobo-san flea market held on the 21st of each month in Kyoto it’s not the only one of its kind. It’s one of the best, but there are others. Here is a short list with the main markets. They all open early in the morning and start closing down around 4pm (slightly later during the summer). Each one is slightly different, but they are all great for shopping and tasting street food!
- On the 15th of each month – the Tezukuri-ichi market is held at Chionji temple (close to Demachiyanagi station)
- The 21st of each month – the Kobo Ichi or Kobo san market at Toji temple, the one this post is about (20′ on foot from Kyoto station or by bus)
- On the 25th of every month go to Kitano Tenmangu-ji – the market is called Tenjin-San (Tengu mae stop; bus 50 or 101)
- Every fourth sunday of the month – at Kamigamo jinja (bus 4 or 46: Kamigamo-jinja-mae stop)
Kobo-san and othe flea markets: useful links
- Toji flea marke – Deep Kyoto
- Toji monthly marke – Japan Visitor – Japan Visitor
- Monthly Kobo-san or Kobo-ichi – The Kyoto project
- Kitano Tenmanguji flea market – Adventurous Fanette (in inglese)
- 4 fabulous markets – Fast Japan (in inglese)
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All the texts are by Patrick Stephen Colgan. All pictures by me, when not otherwise specified, are licensed under the Creative Commons licence by-nc-sa. For commercial uses please contact me. This post has been translated from my italian blog, Orizzonti.