KYOTO - Takoyakushi-dori street is the second road to the north of Shijo-dori avenue, the main street stretching from east to west in central Kyoto. Since tako means octopus and Yakushi (Nyorai) refers to the Medicine Buddha, does that mean the name comes from a tale involving an octopus-shaped Buddha? Strange, too, why a landlocked city has anything to do with a sea creature with eight tentacles. What's the story behind the street's name?
Takoyakushi-dori is a 3.5-kilometer street lined with shops, apartment buildings and homes stretching to the west from near a bustling commercial district known as Kawaramachi-dori street.
Nishikikoji-dori street lies to the south of Takoyakushi-dori and is famed for Nishiki Market, or "Kyoto's kitchen," as well as fish retailers and takoyaki octopus dumpling shops.
Back when Kyoto was called Heiankyo - Japan's ancient capital - Takoyakushi-dori was named Shijo-bomon-koji street. The street got its name from an arrangement at that time of streets - there used to be Sanjo-bomon-koji and Gojo-bomon-koji as well.
Hideyoshi's town overhaul
The rather plain name was changed after 16th-century warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi ordered an urban renewal project.
Hideyoshi erected an earthen wall called odoi that surrounded central Kyoto and had temples transferred to the north and east within the area.
The eastern area became a temple town named Teramachi and Teramachi-dori street was also formed around that time, which almost corresponds to Higashikyogoku-oji street in the east end of the ancient capital.
Eifukuji temple, commonly known as Takoyakushi-do, was then moved to an area where Shijo-bomon-koji and the Teramachi-dori intersected.
According to "Kyo-suzume" (Kyoto's sparrow), a topography published in the late 17th century, Takoyakushi-dori street was named after Takoyakushi-do.
Eifukuji temple was once located in the district of Nijomuromachi before the relocation, which still retains its town name of Takoyakushicho. Chief priest Shokei Hoshikawa told a story about the origin of the name, Takoyakushi-do.
In the Kamakura period from the late 12th century to the early 14th century, a priest of the temple named Zenko bought octopus at a market for his sick mother. The townspeople started becoming suspicious of the priest who had bought raw fish, and urged him to open the box he was carrying with him.
Zenko prayed, and the octopus turned into eight volumes of Buddhist sutras. The texts morphed back into an octopus and summoned a bright light after entering a pond in front of the temple's gate. Afterward, his mother was said to be cured.
Yutaro Tone, a late local history researcher, introduced different stories in his book "Tako" (Octopus). A statue of Yakushi was discovered at a merchant house named Tako-ya, and was hence named Takoyakushi.
In another story, a statue of Yakushi was stored near sawa, or mountain stream in Japanese, and the statue was called Takuyakushi at first, as taku corresponds with the kanji character for sawa. Over the years, the name came to be wrongly pronounced as Takoyakushi.
Cooked, not raw
The temple has a tradition of regarding octopus as raw fish - but how did raw octopus become available in ancient Kyoto?
"The octopus would have been dried or salted," said Keiji Hirakawa, author of a book called "Tako to Nihonjin: Toru, Taberu, Matsuru" (Octopus and the Japanese: Catch, eat, worship).
According to Engishiki, a detailed rule book for ceremonies and institutions in the Heian period from the late eighth century to the early 12th century, dried octopus was delivered to the imperial court from the former Sanuki Province, now Kagawa Prefecture, as well as other regions including the Oki Islands in the Sea of Japan.
"Ordinary people started eating octopus at a later time, but octopus processed for preservation had been imported into Kyoto much earlier," Hirakawa said.
Visitors flocked to Takoyakushi-do in the belief that octopus suckers would make calluses, or tako in Japanese, and warts disappear and absorb illnesses.
"I heard that Takoyakushi-dori was once lined with street stalls back in the prewar days," Hoshikawa said.
The street thus served for followers of such beliefs.
Transferred on orders from Hideyoshi, Honnoji temple also is located in the Teramachi area, to which Takoyakushi-do was moved.
In what is known as the Honnoji Incident, 16th-century warlord Oda Nobunaga died after being betrayed by his confidant Akechi Mitsuhide. This event took place near Motohonnojicho, about 1.5 kilometers southwest of the current location. A monument marking the original site of the temple was built to commemorate the incident.
Shinkyogoku-dori street was newly paved in the Meiji era (1868-1912), crossing through the grounds of the temples in Teramachi between Sanjo-dori and Shijo-dori avenues. The land of Takoyakushi-do was also reduced, making the temple face the new street.
Shinkyogoku-dori became an entertainment area for movies and stage performances. Today, the street is dotted with souvenir shops targeting students on school field trips.