Kyoto: Confusing crossroads have dangerous consequences

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A car goes through an irregular crossroad, which means driving into oncoming traffic, in Nakagyo Ward, Kyoto.

KYOTO — Although Japan’s old capital Kyoto is known for streets laid out like a chessboard, you can find several anomalies where the crossroads are slightly misaligned.

They are all located on narrow streets — and are unique to Kyoto — but the trouble for drivers is that most of them intersect with one-way streets. If you proceed by turning onto the cross street before ultimately turning again to continue forward, you will drive into oncoming traffic for a few meters.

Drivers often wonder if they are allowed to go against the one-way street for a little bit or if they must take a detour to avoid violating traffic laws.

Just 1.6 meters

Driving north on Takakura street in Nakagyo Ward, Kyoto, you will see a residence in front of you on Rokkaku street. If you want to go further north on Takakura street, you need to go about 1.6 meters west on Rokkaku street. But the latter is a one-way street heading west to east. While it is a short distance, you would have to drive into oncoming traffic.

These irregular crossroads are found in at least 10 locations in central Kyoto. Some car navigation systems even indicate that there is no issue driving against traffic when taking the abnormal route.

The Kyoto prefectural police began receiving inquiries around the spring this year, when the pandemic subsided. School excursion students and taxi-touring tourists began visiting Kyoto in greater numbers and found these perplexing crossroads.

Nobility shaped the streets

How did such crossroads come about in Kyoto?

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The central area of Kyoto City was the site of the ancient Japanese capital, Heiankyo, which was established at the end of the eighth century. In those days, streets were laid out in a north-south and east-west grid pattern. Later, however, the width of streets and certain locations began to shift slightly from block to block.

According to Toshiaki Maruyama, a professor at Biwako-Gakuin University and an expert on the Kyoto cityscape, this is because the nobles in Kyoto occupied the streets to set up bleachers to watch festival processions, and residences were extended toward the street.

In addition, it is believed that a major reconstruction of Kyoto in the late 16th century also had an impact. Toyotomi Hideyoshi, then ruler of Japan, ordered a project to build nine new north-south roads through the area, but as temples and residents along the streets were trying to secure their property, some streets became slightly misaligned.

After the 17th century, the Tokugawa shogunate regime ordered that the walls of houses should be made uniform, which stopped the increase of such irregular crossroads.

Accidents occur

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In May and June, the police conducted on-site inspections at 10 locations. For only one of them, a crossroad where Kamanza street and Nijo street intersect in Nakagyo Ward, they concluded that it is a true intersection as the road has not shifted too far.

But they concluded the rest were not proper intersections. At these nine locations, if you continue along the road against oncoming traffic, even for a couple of meters, you may be charged with a traffic violation for driving the wrong way on a one-way road.

These crossroads are certainly dangerous. According to the prefectural police, at the irregular crossroad of Takakura and Rokkaku streets, there have been three serious accidents in the past 10 years. If it is necessary for drivers to take a detour, it is important to make it known through banners and road markings.

In April this year, a taxi company in Kyoto issued an internal notice to drivers to take a detour instead of driving into oncoming traffic. A 60-year-old driver said, “I am concerned that customers might criticize me for taking the long way around.”

Keisuke Imao, a map researcher familiar with Kyoto’s downtown areas, emphasized that these irregular crossroads were created as a product of people’s lives.

“I hope that drivers will follow the rules of the road and enjoy a leisurely tour of the city without being impatient,” he said.