7 Wells of Kyoto
Kyoto's kaiseki chefs, ramen chefs, tofu makers, tea masters, and sake brewers boast of being the country's best thanks to one thing: Kyoto's groundwater.
Hovering around 30mg/litre, the low mineral content in Kyoto's groundwater makes it among the softest in the country (in comparison, Tokyo's groundwater measures about 60mg/L, and Evian bottled water measures over 350mg/L).
The soft water allows for subtle flavours to come through, so food with delicate flavours like tofu, sake, and tea taste better in Kyoto compared to other parts of Japan. Chef Suetomo of Gion Suetomo, a kaiseki restaurant in Gion, for example, dug a well in his property just so that he could make dashi stock with the famed Yasaka-no-mizu (Water of Yasaka).
There are numerous famous wells around Kyoto. Here's a selection of 7. You can drink from 4 of them. The other 3 have histories that may not be palatable.
They can all be visited within a day if you have a bicycle. Don't forget to take along with you some empty bottles to fill up with.
1. The Emperor's Well: Some-i
2. The Well of Cures: Seimei-i
3 & 4. The Wells to Hell and Back: Meido Gayoi-no-ido & Yomi Gaeri-no-ido
5. The Well of Breakups: Kanawa-no-i
6. The Well of Love: Ame-no-Mana-i
7. Ramune Water: Doda-sui
1. The Emperor's Well
Some-i (pronounced so-may-ee), at Nashinoki Shrine, is right beside the Imperial Palace and is the only active well among Kyoto's Three Famed Waters (京の三名水).
According to a study by Professor Mukai of the Kyoto University of Education (see slide 18), the pH at this well is 6.9 (pure water measures pH 7).
Dug to a depth of 20 metres, this well was used to dye kimonos for the Emperor because its softness helped natural dyes soak into cloth. Today, it is popular among coffee and tea enthusiasts, so much so that there's now a limit to how much water one person can draw from this well: 5 litres.
680 Somedonocho, Kamigyo-ku, Kyoto-shi, Kyoto 602-0844
Open 6:00am-5:30pm daily.
2. The Well of Cures
Seimei-i is thought to be able to cure all kinds of diseases because it magically sprung up as commanded by Abe-no-Seimei, an astrologer and geomancer who lived from 921-1005. It is probably the only well in Kyoto with a top that can rotate to face the current year's eho direction (lucky direction). The top is rotated on Risshun (立春), the first day of spring.
Located within the Seimei Shrine, the Seimei-i is the only well among the 6 featured in this article to draw Nishiyama water (the map above shows in green Nishiyama water, in brown Kamogawa water, in green Higashiyama water, and in pink Momoyama water).
〒602-8222 Kyōto-fu, Kyōto-shi, Kamigyō-ku, Seimeichō 806
Webpage (in Japanese): http://www.seimeijinja.jp/sp/guide/seimeii/
Open 9:00am – 8:00pm all year round.
3 & 4. The Wells to Hell and Back
Daichinzan Rokudochinno Temple, a sub-temple of Kennin-ji, is where Kyoto's Rokudo-no-Tsuji (六道の辻, the Crossroads to the Six Realms) is supposed to be. It is said that people who die in Kyoto City come to this crossroad before they get reborn into one of six realms: hell, the realm of the hungry spirits, the beastly realm, the realm of the fighting asura, the realm of the humans, or heaven.
The Meido Gayoi-no-Ido (the Well to Hell) and Yomi Gaeri-no-Ido (the Well to Return from Hell) are both located within Daichinzan Rokudochinno Temple.
The Meido Gayoi-no-Ido became famous when someone saw an apparition of Onono Takamura standing beside it one night. Onono is famous for being a Heian-period scholar who appears as Number 11 in the Hyakunin Isshu (100 Poems by 100 Poets), an anthology of poems all Japanese schoolchildren know. He was the subject of strange rumours even while he was alive. One rumour was that he served as a bureaucrat in the government by day and as a servant of Yama, the Emperor of Hell, by night.
In 2011, another well was discovered nearby. That became Yomi Gaeri-no-Ido, the way back from hell.
For some reason the temple has put in a string of lights to encourage people to look down into it:
If you get the chills, go to Chikaramochi Shokudo Katoshoten across the road for mochi and warm red bean soup.
Meido Gayoi-no-Ido 冥土通いの井戸 and Yomi Gaeri-no-Ido 黄泉がえりの井戸
595 Komatsucho, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto-shi, Kyoto 605-0811
〒605-0811 Kyoto Prefecture, Kyoto, 東山区 大和大路通四条下る四丁目小松町595
Website (in Japanese): http://www.rokudou.jp
Adults ¥500, High school students ¥300, Elementary school students: ¥200
Open 9:00am – 4:00pm selected times of the year (check the website for dates; Japanese only)
5. The Well of Breakups
If you thought Kyoto couldn't have wells with a creepier history than the wells to hell and back, welcome to Kanawa-no-i, a well with the darkest story in the city. Women can force a breakup by drinking from a bottle and then pouring the rest of it into the dried-up Kanawa-no-i. In the photo above you see someone having done just that—the plastic bottle is half empty.
Kanawa-no-i is also the only well among the 7 to feature in a Noh play. It's titled Kanawa, for obvious reasons. In the play, a wife spurned and divorced by her ex-husband prays nightly for revenge at the Kibune Shrine in the northern hills of the city.
One night the gods grant her wish by dressing her in red, attaching burning torches to her feet, and placing a metal ring (a kanawa) on her head before turning her into a demonness. She directs her anger at her ex-husband, resulting in nightmares and severe headaches for him. Seeking a cure, he goes to Abe-no-Seimei (yes, the Abe-no-Seimei of Well No. 2).
Abe-no-Seimei makes straw dolls as effigies for her anger. When she eventually tires from diverting her anger at the straw effigies, he invokes the powers of the gods, buddhas, moon, sun, Big Dipper, and other celestial elements to stop her in her tracks. She then makes an escape to the shrine where the Kanawa-no-i now stands and disappears down it.
One episode of a NHK-produced drama, The Kyotoites' Secret Amusements, features the demonness. Watch from 50:35-59:11, as Yuji, a worker for well maintenance company Kanbayashi Sakusen Kōgyō KK comes under her influence after digging at the well opposite the Kanawa-no-i on Doyōnoushinohi (土用の丑の日), a period of 18 days before the first days of spring, summer, autumn and winter.
251-1 Kajiyachō (Sakaimachidōri), Shimogyo-ku, Kyoto-shi, Kyoto 600-8079
〒600-8079 京都市下京区鍛冶屋町堺町通松原下る西側 命婦稲荷社・鉄輪社・鉄輪井
Open 24 hours year-round.
Kanawa-no-i is down a long alleyway with a brown aluminum sliding gate in front of it. Slide it open to enter.
6. The Well of Love
Ame-no-Mana-i, located within Ichi-hime Shrine, is said to be able to grant a single wish if you pray at the shrine, put up an ema (wooden votive), then drink the water.
The red papier-mâché dolls are placed above the well by women turning 33, because a woman's 33rd year is believed to be a year of change and difficulty. The dolls, left for a year above the well, are believed to absorb good energy for the person who left it there.
Legend has it that the guardian god of Ichi-hime Shrine, Ame-no-Yashio (天之八塩) made the well spring, so baby crown princes were always bathed in the water of the Ame-no-Mana-i when they are delivered. Watch from 59:13-1:01:53 to see a portrayal of the god in The Kyotoites' Secret Amusements.
At a depth of 100 metres, Ame-no-Mana-i is one of the deepest in the city. Its clear, refreshing water, is often used for tea ceremonies and Ikebana flower arrangement.
Ichi-hime Shrine, 584 Motoshiogamacho, Shimogyo-ku, Kyoto-shi, Kyoto 600-8119
〒600-8119 京都市下京区河原町五条下ル一筋目西入ル 市比賣神社
Open 9am-4:30pm daily.
7. Ramune Water
Doda-sui, like Well No. 1, is famous among coffee and tea enthusiasts. Many drive here with large tanks to collect its sweet water. It's right in front of Doda Kaikan, which is near the Ritz Carlton Kyoto.
The Doda Kaikan is the former site of the Seimikyoku, a chemical research instituted in 1873 to improve the ceramics, fabrics, and dyeing industries of Kyoto. Scientists here were part of the development of Teppo-sui, a soft drink better known as Ramune.
542 Hokodencho, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto-shi, Kyoto 604-0902
Open 24 hours year-round.
Additional research: Yasuhiro Shiwaku.