A trip that was meant to be pleasantly nostalgic resulted in a big shock, but also came with a silver, spicy lining.  

Muko City in Kyoto Prefecture is a small city just to the west of Kyoto City. In 2009, Muko began a revitalization campaign by designating select eateries as part of an area dubbed Gekikara Shotengai, meaning “Super Spicy Shopping Market.” Our Japanese-language reporter with a fondness for wine lucky boxes and spicy food, Haruka Takagi, had visited the area during her student days 10 years ago and had a blast trying some of the spiciest food she had ever tasted. She hadn’t heard much about the area in recent years, though, and recently decided to pay it a visit.

In Haruka’s memory, there was a lively shopping complex called Life City next to the heart of Gekikara Shotengai and not far from Higashi-Muko Station, so that’s where she headed first. The atmosphere of the station felt the same as it did 10 years ago.

That didn’t mean nothing had changed, though. The retro-style cafe next to the station had closed and was replaced by a standing bar called Suiba. She thought a quick drink might actually be nice for people waiting for a train or bus, and the prices were definitely reasonable.

As Haruka headed straight out from the station, she caught sight of an intersection with a steady stream of cars but no traffic signal. There was also a Gyoza no Ohsho location that she recognized from her previous visit but hadn’t eaten at since she had opted for a Gekikara Shotengai spicy restaurant called Minmin instead.

From there she headed west, where Life City and Gekikara Shotengai were waiting for her.

…make that where they should have been waiting for her. She was rattled to her core. All she could find of the Gekikara Shotengai was one sign with the character for kara (辛) or “spicy.” Even more shocking, however, was that the spot where Life City had been was now a lonely-looking abandoned lot.

What the heck was going on here?! She kept walking, lost and befuddled. Where was the market? The banners? The signs proclaiming “Beware of gekikara (ultra spiciness)”?!

Did she make a wrong turn somewhere, or were her memories mistaken? She had come all this way to Muko City to find nothing. It was as if she had been tricked into believing some fake memories she had of this place.

As she kept circling the area between the station and where Life City should have been with an extremely puzzled expression, a male security guard who was directing traffic at the intersection approached her.

Guard: “Excuse me, are you looking for something?”

Haruka: “Isn’t the Gekikara Shotengai supposed to be around here?”

Guard: “Ah, that place. It’s not here anymore.”

Haruka: “Not…here…?!”

Guard: “That’s right. This area has changed a lot. See over there? A huge apartment complex was built and Life City was completely demolished. On the other side [east side] of the tracks there are still a few shops, but for the most part, Gekikara Shotengai no longer exists.”

Haruka thanked him and began to walk away, but the devastation of hearing that the spicy area no longer existed prevented her mouth from forming any other words. She’d figured it might be smaller than it was back in the peak of its popularity…but to learn that it was basically wiped off the map was too shocking. Searching on her phone, she also learned that Life City had closed in 2020 but wasn’t demolished until late 2023–so the structure of it had remained until recently.

While almost all of her motivation had now deflated, she still latched onto the nugget that the man had told her about there still being a few shops on the other side of the train tracks. She decided to pay that side a visit before going home. She trudged along, crossing the tracks, and within two minutes caught sight of something promising on a shopfront.

Yes, it really was there–at the Tonkotsu Himawari (“sunflower”) restaurant, there was a banner for Gekikara Shotengai!!

And that wasn’t all, because she also spotted Kirinen, a famous Chinese-style restaurant that had made countless people cry from its ultra spicy tantanmen and mapo tofu.

Thankfully, there was still spice to be found in this town after all.

While Haruka had been searching in vain earlier, both of the restaurants had finished their lunch service, but that didn’t matter to her at this point. Sure, it would have been nice to eat at one of them, but just being able to finally see the Gekikara Shotengai banners with her own eyes after that rollercoaster ride of emotions made coming all the way to Muko City worth it in the end. She wanted to cry in happiness.

Things took an even better turn as she headed back to Higashi-Muko Station and a familiar character came into view.

It was none other than Kalucky, the mascot character of Gekikara Shotengai with a pepper for a head. His name is a portmanteau of kara, meaning “spicy,” and the English word “lucky.”

A monument of Kalucky with slightly faded colors was still standing, too. He stood proudly as if to tell the world that yes, Muko City is still a city that seeks to champion super spicy things.

At this point Haruka was really was craving something spicy, so she pulled up Google maps and found a miraculous discovery about 15 minutes away by car in Kyoto City’s Fushimi Ward: a famous mapo tofu specialty restaurant called Karaimonya.

There was no way she was going to miss this opportunity so she grabbed a cab and headed over. A bowl of the famous mapo tofu cost 950 yen (US$6.40), plus, for an additional 100 yen, she was able to order it “extra spicy.”

▼ At Karaimonya, you choose your desired spiciness level and whether you’d like rice or noodles.

It turned out to be some of the darkest, most intense-looking mapo tofu sauce she had ever seen.

To sum up her first bite in five words: umami – hotness – depth – fragrance – NUMBNESS.

It was so incredibly spicy that Haruka’s taste buds seemed to be confusing the spice for actual temperature heat. Even while eating it with white rice, her body felt like it was growing warmer and warmer with each bite, with beads of sweat glistening from her pores. Her stomach felt like it was smoldering inside, but she didn’t care because it was just so darn delicious.

Filled with supreme spicy satisfaction, the earlier sadness of the day seemed off in a far, distant place.

While her trip wasn’t anything like the nostalgic walk down memory lane that she had expected, Haruka is still glad that she went. She also says that you should take this experience as a sign to revisit all of those beloved places in your memories while you still can.

Reference: Kyoto Muko City Gekikara Shotengai, Karaimonya, Himawari, Kirinen

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