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Wednesday, March 01, 2006

The Red-Lighting of Kyoto's Kiyamachi

木屋町の赤線化

Downtown Kyoto is blessed with two lovely streets, one the alley cum geisha district called Pontocho, the other a wider actual street called Kiyamachi. The former is narrow and lovely, too small for automobile traffic and filled with tea houses and bars and restaurants that back onto the Kamo River. The latter, which runs parallel and adjacent to Pontocho, is an actual street with one-way traffic and weeping cherries that droop gracefully over the Takase River: an old canal that was used to carry goods from Kyoto to Osaka.

Pink Salon in KyotoAlong with Shirakawa Dori, in Gion, Kiyamachi is one of the few streets in Kyoto that could be called beautiful. And until very recently it was an elegant place to go both day and night.

In the past couple of years, however, fashion health spas and soaplands, pink salons and all-you-can-cum-in-thirty-minutes blow-job factories have spilled out of the narrow alleys that run between Kiyamachi and Kawaramachi Street - and have taken over many of what used to be bars and restaurants on Kiyamachi itself. At least seven sex establishments now dot the east side of the street south of Shijo all the way up several hundred meters north of the Kiyamachi-Shijo intersection.

In the past, the walk from elegant tree-lined Kiyamachi to the main shopping drag Kawaramachi Street to go, say, to the Maruzen book store - now closed, reborn as a game center (symptomatic of the decline of Kawaramachi into a playground for fourteen-year-olds) - was an exercise in pretending not to notice. On this 2-3 minute stretch, you had to to face a gauntlet of mini-sex establishments that were, however, confined to these small alleys. The middle-aged touts in white shirts and neckties standing in front of each brothel would, depending on the state of the economy, ignore the foreign male (economy is good) or invite him in (economy is bad). Eyes straight ahead, you pushed through until the light of Kawaramachi returned.

Now those touts have come on to Kiyamachi, and the crowd on the street is predominantly male and, at night, drunk. In the past, during the day women shopped on the street knowing full well that a stone's throw away were the Yakuza-run sex parlors - but just out of sight. Now the street during the day is empty. At night it is a parade of men in twos or threes - and the occasional loner.

It almost makes one long for the days of a proper red light district.

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