Only 2,5 hours from Tokyo by bullet train Shinkansen, lies the ancient imperial city of Kyoto. Kyoto (meaning the capital) was the capital of Japan for almost 1000 years. Over the years, the city was badly affected by prolonged wars between various samurai clans, but miraculously escaped American bombs during World War II thanks to its beauty.
Today, Kyoto is one of the most well-preserved cities in Japan, despite earthquakes, fires and wars. Here you will find peaceful stone gardens, swaying bamboo forests and more than a thousand Buddhist and Shinto temples. In 1994, many of Kyoto's buildings were added to the UNESCO World Heritage List, but despite this, the number of foreign visitors is still a minority of the tourists who pass through the city each year. The vast majority rush through the temples in order to visit as many places as possible during their visit and end up in temple blindness where all the temples are mixed up beyond recognition. Rather stop at a few temples and soak up the atmosphere than try to experience it all. All temples have their own personality, history and soul.
Once in Kyoto, you are greeted by the glass-clad ultra-modern train station before plunging into the cement and glass of central Kyoto. Subways are available all over the city, but most attractions are far from the stations. However, the bus network is well developed and goes almost all the way to the temple gates. It's easy to make mistakes when riding a bus, but the bus drivers are used to helping confused tourists.
Despite all possible means of transportation, you will need to walk quite a bit in Kyoto to experience the city. Be prepared that all distances are longer in reality than on your map - the streets are poorly named and the maps only show the major streets. What looks like a short five block walk, might as well turn out to be 15 blocks before you arrive. Maybe you'll be lucky enough to come across one during your hike Maiko – a would-be geisha – before she quickly disappears into an alley. Because in Kyoto, the old Japanese culture still lives in the midst of the bustle of the modern city.
Kyoto is at its most beautiful to visit in spring and autumn. The weather is at its most stable during these periods and spring offers cherry blossoms and autumn an explosion of autumn leaves. Summer is humid, rainy and gray and winter can be really cold. Try to avoid traveling to Kyoto during "Golden Week" (end of April/beginning of May), when many shops close up to ten days and trains/flights/hotels are fully booked months in advance.
In Kyoto there are no less than 17 world heritage sites among all the thousands of temples. Just visiting the world heritage sites takes several weeks, but if you do a little reading before you come to Kyoto, you can more easily pick the sights you are interested in.
Ginkaku-ji, the Silver Pavilion
A beautifully situated temple from 1474, with a small pond in front. The garden around the temple is landscaped with rock formations, gnarled trees and beautiful lanterns. There is nothing of silver here but the basic idea was that, like the Golden Pavilion, the facade would be covered in precious metal. However, a protracted war that broke out a couple of years earlier meant that they could not afford it.
Yasaka-jinja and Gion
Yasaka-jinja or Gion Temple, is a Shinto temple from the year 665 in the middle of the Gion district. Gion is famous for its geishas and maikos, and if you want to catch a quick glimpse of a gesiha, this is the place to go. Yasaka-jinja is full of life and once a year hosts one of Japan's biggest festivals – the Gion Matsuri. Around the temple hang paper lanterns with the names of the temple's sponsors and during the evenings the lights are lit and make the temple one of the nicest in Kyoto.
Path of Philosophy (Tetsugaku no michi)
In eastern Kyoto there is a lovely walking trail that stretches from temple to temple along a small canal lined with cherry trees. The trail is called for The Path of Philosophy and is most popular during April when the entire stretch is covered in pink cherry blossoms. The road starts at Ginkaku-ji Temple and ends near Nanzen-ji Temple and after the road you go through residential areas and nice little restaurants. We found a fantastic Okonomiyaki restaurant after the road, where you prepared your own Japanese "pancake pizza" on a large hot plate in the middle of the table - a bit clever, but fantastically good.
nanzen-ji roughly means "southern Zen temple" and is one of Kyoto's five major Zen temples. The temple was built in 1264 as a residence for Emperor Kameyama, but after his death became a temple. The temple and its gardens are calming and relaxing and many people sit down on the tatami mats on the temple floor and enjoy the beautiful garden. In addition to a lush green garden, the temple also has a stone garden and beautiful painted sliding doors - fusuma.
Up in the hills of eastern Kyoto, is a popular temple from the year 798. The temple was named after the waterfall that flows through the temple and from the veranda you can see clear days over all of Kyoto. The Japanese expression "jump from Kiyomizu" comes from the Edo period, when a surviving jumper would have a wish granted. Over 200 people have jumped the 13 meters and 85% have survived.
Nijo-jo Castle was built in 1603 as a residence for Tokugawa Ieyasu. The castle contains stunning murals and sliding doors and it was here that the last shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, restored the emperor to the throne in 1867. Cherry and plum trees flourish in the stone garden and the richly decorated roofs have details of gold. There is a good guided tour that takes you around the ground floor of the palace. An interesting detail is the "larch floor". The floor in the corridors around the throne room creaks slightly (much like a lark's drill in the sky), which makes it impossible to sneak up without someone noticing. Perfect alarm for paranoid emperors with a fear of assassins. If you look closely, you can see discreet, almost invisible doors in some walls. Behind these are small rooms where bodyguards sat with their weapons ready to strike.
The temple from 1605 is best known for its two beautiful teahouses – Kasa-tei and Shigure-tei – which are designed by the master of tea ceremonies – Sen-no-Rikyu. The surroundings are very beautiful and the stone park is well worth a visit.
Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Pavilion
The pavilion was originally built in the 14th century but burned to the ground in 1950 when a mentally disturbed monk set fire to it. The temple got its name because it is completely covered in gold leaf and the temple perfectly glows in the sun. This is by far the most popular temple in Kyoto, although it didn't impress me that much. I'd rather look at the old historical temples than spend time on a 1956 reconstruction.
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