Cycling around Kyoto for K-On scenery

The greatest anime series ever produced, K-On, is set in a town somewhere in Japan that we never learn the name of. Based on the show, it seems to be a relatively small, peaceful town. Like so many other Japanese students, the light music club’s girls take the Shinkansen bullet train on a school trip to Kyoto to marvel at the old capital’s plentiful sights and atmosphere.

The irony is that in fact, most of the scenery from K-On‘s imaginary town is taken from the streets of that same Kyoto. Some everyday locations are only a relaxing walk away from those that the girls were excited about on the school trip. This makes the whole school trip a somewhat funny concept. When they got lost, might the girls not have accidentally wandered back home?

I lived in Kyoto for a year, which gave me the opportunity for planned and accidental, small and big pilgrimages. For example, I planned my jogs along the river Kamogawa such that I’d go past the stepping stones from the first season’s opening and the riverside stone steps where Yui and Azusa practiced for the neighborhood talent show. Only later did I realize that my usual movie theater and hardware store were also the exact ones shown in K-On.

My bigger pilgrimages were two tours by bicycle. I had my own bike in Kyoto, and since some of the distances between pilgrimage spots were rather long, I decided on nice several-hour bicycle tours. It worked out rather well. In this post, I’ll chronicle the two cycles, and I’ll also include compilations of locations I visited separately.

(Context for cycling in Kyoto: like I said, the cycles were nice, but the only issue is that parking a bicycle is serious business in Japan. You aren’t allowed to leave it just wherever, only on official parking lots, usually paid, or in front of stores/cafés/etc. that you’re visiting, assuming they have the space for that. Leaving your bike on the street randomly can lead to it being picked up by police and to small fines. It required quite the change of mentality from Europe, especially since sometimes finding a spot nearby is a difficult task. For the pilgrimage, this indicated that I sometimes had to plan a place to leave my bike around a cluster of K-On locations, disembark, take my photos and then go back to get my bike in order to go to the next location – or doing lots of abrupt stops on a bike. But as stated, with some distances being rather long, having a bike was much preferred.)

First bicycle tour: school routes and familiar surroundings

On 16 February 2018, I had spent enough time wondering why I hadn’t done a proper K-On Kyoto pilgrimage yet, and headed to the Kitashirakawa area where I’d read some of the most notable spots are. In what would become a (admittedly, two-time) tradition, I had lunch at Kitashirakawa’s McDonald’s branch before starting from there. Incidentally, and predictably, this is the model for the “MAX burger” restaurant seen several times in K-On (no relation to the Swedish burger chain of the same name… unless?).

The building is very recognizable despite some changes to the exterior. In particular, it’s missing the cubic wooden protrusions seen in the anime. It looks like those were intended for holding up the logo and were since removed. Meanwhile, the interior has been pretty much completely renewed.

After eating and spending too much time looking around me like a fool, I went a bit of a way south to take a picture of the approach to the restaurant from the southern direction. This was to recreate a shot from the second season’s first opening animation.

I continued further south for the other spots on this particular street, such as this point where Mugi catches up with Ritsu, Mio and Azusa on the way to the school in the first episode of the second season.

Here are also the steps from the first season’s opening animation – in reality, they are the steps to the main entrance of the Kyoto University of Art and Design (京都造形芸術大学).

Here’s a photo of the actual entrance to the university for good measure.

According to the Japanese community, the location of the Kyoto University of Art and Design in its neighborhood corresponds to where Sakuragaoka High School is imagined to be located in-universe – that is to say, the school routes of the girls, when mapped onto the real streets of Kyoto, seem to be heading there.* This would be the reason why scenery and locations from around here appear most often in K-On: this neighborhood is where everyone is hanging out the most when they’re together. The model for the actual school building is famously located in Toyosato, Shiga Prefecture.

This relates to the next spot I took a look at. Continuing further south, there’s the location of the rental studio the light music club uses in episode 17 of the second season when they can’t use their club room. On the way there, Yui remarks that she’s surprised there was a rental studio this close to the school. Apparentally there really used to be a rental studio at this location, but it’s since been replaced by a fitness studio and the vertical sign is gone as well.

The rental studio is the southernmost point of the Shirakawa Street cluster, so at this point I turned around. Closeby, on the other side of the street, I noticed the Fresco supermarket that appears as a bookstore in the third extra episode of the second season and that I hadn’t snapped a picture of yet.

After this, I continued north, returning to McDonald’s Kitashirakawa where I had parked my bike, and started going further to the north where I hadn’t yet been. Soon after the McDonald’s, there’s the Shirakawa Street–Manshuin Street crossing that features prominently at the end of the first season’s opening.

At the crossing, I turned left and continued westward, soon reaching Eizan Railway’s Ichijōji Station. Its level crossing appears in the first opening of the second season.

A bit of a way to the north along the railroad and then just a little bit to the west, there’s Tojikawara Children’s Park (閉川原児童公園), which is where the neighborhood talent show YuiAzu participate in in episode 9 of the second season takes place.

Straight to the east from there, returning to Shirakawa Street, there’s a certain stone wall.

Looking at the photo and screenshot above, it’s clear it has to be the same one, going off the top part and the electricity lines. This stone wall also appears in Mio’s character introduction in the opening to the first season. There, you see a pretty nondescript wall, but according to official guides to the anime, it’s the same spot. It looks like the wall has been simplified for the anime, though.

Continuing the street a short way to the north, I got to the crossing where Kitayama Street branches off from Shirakawa Street. This is a spot that’s shown several times in the second season (my map names episodes 6, 10, 21 and 24). After club activities, the girls walk together to this spot, where they separate to go the rest of the way back home. Yui, Mugi and Azusa cross the street while Mio and Ritsu stay on the left side (left in the photo, that is).

Note: the station Mugi is consistently shown using is the Eizan Railway’s Shūgakuin Station. Since this shot of the crossing is taken facing the south, when Mugi (together with Yui and Azusa, of course) crosses the street to get to the right side of the screen, that’s the western direction. Shūgakuin Station is to the west of this crossing, so that’s why Mugi has to cross the street here. Blessed be this accuracy.

I myself continued to the north, getting to the Plaza Shūgakuin shopping arcade, which is shown in episode 9 of the second season.

The east entrance isn’t, but this is what it looks like. And no, I’m not going to use that romanization of the name.

The girls visit it briefly, with Yui buying a T-shirt that’s on sale. She proceeds to wear it in the next scenes, which is neat cohesion. As for me, I bought some fruit to snack on later at an old lady’s fruit stands by the entrance. Aside from her, the shopping arcade felt quite empty and devoid of life… sure, there were a few vendors, but in general it was all very quiet.

Next, I went to Shūgakuin Station, which, as stated, is the station Mugi uses to get to the school and is used often as a meeting point. The station also has the ‘railroad crossing, pay attention’ (踏切注意 fumikiri chūi) sign that’s highly notable for featuring at the beginning of the first season’s opening.

Stations on the Eizan Railway (nowadays not independent but owned by Keihan, by the way) are rather low-key, with small platforms that don’t even have ticket gates. Instead, you have to remember to tap your IC card on small card reader terminals on the start and end station platforms. Judging by K-On, they used to have a slightly different form, though.

There’s a little artistic license in the depiction of the trains at this station. In reality, trains arriving on this platform head in the direction of Demachiyanagi Station, which is to the south – from this perspective, away from the camera. Yet, in K-On they are shown to arrive on the platform from the south and leave the platform towards the north (past the camera). In other words, in K-On‘s world this railway has right-hand traffic, while in reality the Eizan Railway has left-hand traffic. Some say it’s for cinematographic reasons, to have Mugi walking from the platform and the train leaving it be parallel to one another.

(This is getting very specific, but according to a Japanese blogger there’s one moment where you can see a train arrive on the platform from the south: the first train of the day in the direction of Demachiyanagi Station first heads a short way south from the train garage next to Shūgakuin Station to get onto the tracks for the actual line, then comes from the south up to the station platform. However, it’s only taking in passengers there, and when leaving it does head south again, so it never drives north from this platform.)

Leaving the station behind, I went west, to Matsugasaki Bridge (松ヶ崎橋), which lies on Yui and Nodoka’s way home from the school and appears in the opening to the first season as well.

Around a kilometer (not quite a mile) downstream, or south, from the bridge along Takano River is the riverside spot where Yui and Azusa practiced for the neighborhood talent show in episode 9 of the second season. This was my last spot for the day.

With that, I had been on the road for three hours, which is not too much, but knowing I could continue whenever I decided to call it a day.

Separate visits: Kyoto school trip sights

As mentioned before, in episode 4 of the second season, Yui, Mio, Ritsu and Mugi’s class goes on a class trip to Kyoto. The locations they visit there are mostly well-known tourist spots that I visited throughout the year – most, but not all, I would’ve visited even without the influence of K-On. Since these visits tended to be separate, I’m including the school trip sights in the order they appear in the episode rather than the order I visited them.

First, fresh off the Shinkansen, the class takes a bus to Kinkakuji (金閣寺), the Golden Pavilion. This Buddhist temple, also known by its official name Rokuonji (鹿苑寺), is one of Kyoto’s most famous sights and probably on any top 3 “most famous” list regardless of what the other two are.

Drawing crowds is very time-consuming, so generally in any shot from the anime, you’ll see fewer people than you’d see if you actually went to visit the sights. It’s especially apparent with Kinkakuji, where in reality, the fence has a solid wall of people most of the time, and you often have to wait to get to the front for pictures even if you’re just one person. Some Japanese who have visited the locations years ago would also put this down to the upsurge of international tourism in Japan and especially Kyoto, saying that it wasn’t always like this.

Next, the bus takes the girls to Kitano Tenmangū (北野天満宮), which is a shrine associated with the god of education and where students go to pray for success in their studies. In K-On, the girls are unfamiliar with the place, which was likely picked by their school for the education aspect. In reality as well, this is certainly not one of Kyoto’s most famous sights, and also the one out of the list that I only visited for K-On.

(Incidentally, I visited Kitano Tenmangū and Kinkakuji on the same day, when I went to a few places by bike. First was a museum, then Kitano Tenmangū and finally Kinkakuji.)

Those who read Japanese and have good eyes might notice that the banner points to the fact plum trees were in bloom when I visited. Plum trees bloom 1-2 months before cherry trees (sakura), the blooming “front” advancing from the south of Japan towards the north, and many people go to see them at famous plum blossom spots, while many shrines and temples also capitalize on this. It’s basically a parallel to cherry blossoms, just a bit less famous.

There are several of bull statues on the shrine grounds. As Nodoka explains, touching them is said to make you smart.

After the Tenmangū, the class is finished for the day and goes to their accommodation to sleep.

The next day, the program is free and the light music club girls decide to go to Arashiyama, a picturesque district to the far west of Kyoto which is also very popular with tourists. Arashiyama is especially famous for its bamboo grove, which is however not featured in the episode. Togetsukyō (渡月橋), the district’s most prominent bridge, is.

Instead of Arashiyama’s more famous sights, Yui and Ritsu want to go to Arashiyama Monkey Park instantly when they see a sign pointing there. Not judging, since it’s a really fun place to go to, especially for kids but also for those who are eternal kids like me (half joking). Note that it’s on top of a little mountain, and the way up isn’t a walk in the park, but it’s worth it.

There are monkeys just wandering around at the top. Photo from 11 February 2018.

You also get a good view of Kyoto – as Yui says: “Amazing! Is this all Kyoto?”

There’s a little shed building in the opposite direction from the city view. There, you can purchase peanuts that you get to feed to monkeys climbing around the outside of the building, including on the window grills.

Basically also my reaction after the monkey took the peanut from my hand.

The monkey park was the final attraction the girls visited. Afterwards, it was just buying souvenirs and getting lost. I don’t have photos from those locations.

Second bicycle tour: Yui’s school route, marathon and more

Despite having been to several K-On spots separately, I noticed in August that there were still quite a few locations that I hadn’t yet been to. Thus, towards the end of my year in Japan, on 29 August 2018, I undertook another bicycle tour. Keeping to the flimsily established tradition, I started by having lunch at Kitashirakawa McDonald’s. Next, I went on to Shūgakuin Station since I wanted to see the place one more time. After taking a few new pictures of these locations, I continued on to new ones.

Thus, before the new spots, here some additional photos of Shūgakuin Station with comparisons:

On the way to Matsugasaki Bridge, there’s the Japanese sweets shop Sōkyūdō (双鳩堂), in front of which Mugi turns the tables on Ritsu, surprising her when Ritsu has been planning to surprise Mugi in episode 14 of the second season. I missed this spot on the last bicycle pilgrimage, so I took a photo of it this time.

Additionally, going to Matsugasaki Bridge and looking back, you can see the view seen in the first opening of the second season.

Crossing Matsugasaki Bridge, I finally got to what was uncharted territory for me, at least K-On pilgrimage-wise. Very close to the bridge, there’s a cute café called Retro Beaver (レトロビーバー) that appears in the anime as Little Beaver (リトルビーバー). It’s on Yui’s school route, so she runs past it in e.g. the very first episode.

Next to Retro Beaver is a building that represents hardships… when trying to protect her precious Giita from the rain in season 2, episode 6, Yui got water splashed on her by some children and a dog, and finally fell onto the wet ground in front of this building.

Here’s also the spot where a Yui’s home street branches off from the major Kitayama Street.

Yui’s home is located on the street that branches off to the right here. It’s on the pilgrimage map I used, but without pictures and with a notice that it’s a normal private house, so having proper manners is paramount. In the end, I took a look but didn’t even take a photo, instead taking in some streetscape closeby that appears in episode 7 of the first season.

Next, I headed north to Myōenji (妙円寺), also known as the Matsugasaki Daikokuten (松ヶ崎大黒天), the Buddhist temple where Azusa and Ui pray for Yui, Mio, Ritsu and Mugi to be accepted to their chosen university together in episode 22 of the second season.

Having visited the temple, I got on my bike again and cycled a long way west, almost to Kyoto Subway’s Kitayama Station, where I turned right, towards the north. From my understanding, the marathon route that all Sakuragaoka High School students run in episode 15 of the second season goes through shopping streets closer to the school location first, before turning north here to head into the quieter northern parts of… well, in the real world Kyoto, but in the 2D world wherever it is K-On is set in. The shopping street backgrounds appear to be generic or perhaps simply difficult to make out, and as a result they’re not marked on the pilgrimage map I was using.

In any case, from here on out, I followed the marathon route, albeit on a bicycle. The first location was near the pond Midorogaike (深泥池): the spot where Mio, who was a bit ahead of Yui, Ritsu and Mugi at first, waits for them in order for all four to run together.

A rather long way further north, there’s Heartbreak Hill, as it’s nicknamed in K-On. It might not come across in the photos, but this is really a rather steep hill and cycling it up was tough.

As you can see, after Heartbreak Hill there’s a small path with greenery. After this, there’s more even ground and normal streets again. Just like it was in the anime.

After Yui gets lost, the other three try to find her… in the (admittedly rather big) forest that begins here on top of the stone wall.

Another long-ish way to the northeast, there’s Hataeda-iwashimizu Park (幡枝石清水公園), which serves as a checkpoint on the marathon route in the episode. Sawa-chan is stationed there, and once Yui gets lost, Jun runs ahead there to get the message to her.

A bit further ahead, there’s the northernmost background from the marathon track: a bridge crossing a small river. There, Mio, Ritsu and Mugi call for Yui in vain, and once they are passed by some occult club members, they begin considering whether Yui might have been abducted by aliens.

It’s rather curious that the last location we see on the marathon track is here, considering the goal is on the school’s sports field and this place is quite far away from the Kyoto University of Art and Design, the in-universe location of the school. When Sawa-chan describes the route to Yui in her car, she says that after the park checkpoint comes the last spurt to the goal. According to Google Maps, the shortest way from Hataeda-iwashimizu Park to the University is 5.1 km (3.2 miles), which would take around 40 minutes at an average jogging pace. That’s quite a “last spurt.” Especially considering how early in the episode, Azusa said the total length of the “marathon” would be four or five kilometers…

As for me, I didn’t head back to the Kitashirakawa area, but rather backtracked the marathon route to the Kitayama Street crossing and picked up a final marathon episode spot. This was just a bit further west from where I had initially turned north onto the track.

This is the main store of a Kyoto restaurant chain with a long history, Tōyōtei (東洋亭). Tōyōtei serves Western food, but also makes lots of cakes, which is what probably drew Yui’s attention, at least before she noticed there’s also a cute child in there.

After Tōyōtei (where I unfortunately, due to wanting to cover a couple more places, didn’t stop for cake), I headed to Imamiya Shrine (今宮神社), a long way west and then to the south. This is the shrine where Yui, Mio, Ritsu and Mugi do their first shrine visit of the year in episode 7 of the first season.

I got back on my bike and headed to two last stops. Both are locations that definitely appear in K-On but where my photos mostly add context; I don’t have comparison photos for these. First, I cycled directly south to Funaokayama Park (船岡山公園), where the light music club watched the year’s first sunrise in the second extra episode of the first season (episode 14, “Live House!”).

Screenshot from S1E14.

The park isn’t really shown in the episode beyond the girls looking over the cityscape, so since my map said it’s here, I assume this location was also specifically named in an official guide. In any case, here are some photos from the park to get a feeling of what it’s like there:

Finally, I took a look at Cafe Sarasa, located near the park. This is where Mio, Yui and Nodoka go in episode 11 of the first season, when Mio has just had a fight with Ritsu and wants to spend time with other people.

Cafe Sarasa’s entrance.

Apparently this café used to be a public bathhouse, but was converted to a café. That’s actually a rather interesting background, so I regret not visiting there. Especially since the inside was prominently shown in episode 11, while the entrance never was.

Inside the café. Screenshot from S1E11.

So, a tip from me for visitors to Kyoto: look up Cafe Sarasa (or Sarasa Nishijin, in hiragana/kanji: さらさ西陣) to enjoy tea in that room. Or coffee, if you prefer that. Although, wouldn’t tea be more appropriate for a K-On pilgrimage?

Bonus: a couple more locations that I visited separately

There are two more locations that I visited outside of my main pilgrimage tours and that don’t fit into the school trip category either, so I’ll include them here.

First is the Kyoto Prefectural Library (京都府立図書館). This simply happened to be on the way home from Keage Incline (if you’re ever in Kyoto around cherry blossom season, look it up).

In episode 27 of the second season (extra episode 3), the girls meet up in the park next to the library to train self-defense for their planned trip abroad.

Much later, when I visited Nanzenji (南禅寺), one of Kyoto’s nicest temples, another time, I made sure to also have a look at the aqueducts that I hadn’t paid attention to the first time. In my defense, the first time I visited, it was my very first day in Kyoto. The aqueducts appear in the first season’s opening.

With that, I’m finished for this article. I’ll have you know, writing and preparing this report, I got some rather strong nostalgia for both Kyoto and K-On. And it hasn’t even been that long since my last rewatch. If simply skipping across episodes for the right screenshot moments gets you emotional… what a great show this is.

Resources

  • Michael Vito’s English-language pilgrimage report on locations along the Eizan Railway tracks is, again, what first made me aware of how many K-On spots Kyoto has. However, as its title says, it covers only that cluster.
  • MikeHattsu, another English-language pilgrimage blogger, has a lot of small reports on different K-On locations in Kyoto. Listing here.
  • Custom Google Maps map (in Japanese, but with pictures) for K-On locations. This is the one I used. I can’t find where it was first published or who made it…

Notable K-On locations in Kyoto that are not covered in this report are the spots in the city center cluster. These are places that were mostly too familiar for me, causing me to neglect to take photos of them. Remember, in a Kyoto context, the city center is the Kawaramachi area (around Hankyu’s Kawaramachi Station), not where Kyoto Station is located.

The model for the Sakuragaoka High School building is in Toyosato, a tiny town in Shiga Prefecture. The way there by train from Kyoto takes around 1.5 hours, so a visit there can well be combined with a Kyoto visit. I might publish a photo report from there in the future; meanwhile, there’s been a lot written even in English on that particular location, and there are videos too, so you’re bound to find something on search engines if you’re interested.


*Source for this is the circle nmoufuton’s doujinshi “けいおん!YOUはどこが好き?2,” page 33.

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