Kyoto offers travelers of Japan an interesting alternative to Tokyo. This beautiful city is a blend of the modern and the ancient, with many reminders of this city’s past, and its place as the cultural heart of the country. The main residence of the Japanese Emperor was in Kyoto from the eighth century until the nineteenth, when it moved to the current capital, Tokyo. There is plenty to see here since, unlike other cities, Kyoto sustained no damage during the Second World War.
Kyoto is a true experience of unique history and culture. In order to see everything, you will need to allow plenty of time to visit as many of its’ attractions as you can. If you are only able to visit for a short period of time, decide which places you want to visit most, rather than trying to rush around them all.
There are many temples in Kyoto that offer a glimpse of the varied nature of Japanese culture. They are also historically and architecturally interesting. You will find that many of the attractions recommended to Kyoto tourists will be temples of some sort.
The two prominent religions in Japan are Buddhism and Shinto; each having their own temples. The most impressive Buddhist temple in Kyoto is the Golden Pavilion Kinkakuji, and is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the city. The two highest floors are encased in gold leaf, which is reflected in the pond below, connecting the heavens above with the earth below. The importance of this temple to Buddhists comes from the shrine within it, containing relics from the life of the Buddha.
The nearby Silver Pavilion, or Ginkakuji, was intended to be a complement to the Golden Temple, with a contrasting covering of silver leaf, but this plan was never carried through. The Silver Temple is therefore much plainer than its neighbor, although it does have its own simpler charm. There are two peaceful gardens here; one with a pond surrounded by a rockery, where you are supposed to move around and experience the changes in perspective that ensue; and another where sand has been sculpted into meditative patterns, creating a very calm atmosphere. Both are perfect antidotes to the stresses of travel and jet lag.
Another Buddhist temple, definitely worth a visit, is the Pure Water (Kiyomizudera) Temple. This world-famous temple is recognized by UNESCO for its unique value, and has been named as a site of world heritage. It has stood since the eighth century when it was founded by one of the oldest Buddhist sects in Japan. It looks over the city of Kyoto from a nearby hill, surrounded by woodland. The view of Kyoto from the temple’s terrace is breath taking! There is also a beautiful fresh spring here from which the waters are believed to have healing powers.
There are two Zen temples that make an interesting addition to the main Buddhist ones. The Heavenly Dragon (Tenryuji) Temple was once the residence of an Emperor. When Go Daigo died, his home was made into this temple in remembrance of him. The name was chosen when a priest who was dozing nearby dreamed that a dragon appeared from out of the river. When he woke, he concluded this was a sign that the Emperor’s spirit had not found peace in death, and that the temple should be placed there in order to appease the uneasy spirit. The current building was only built about a century ago, after the eighth in a series of unfortunate fires, had damaged the various incarnations of the temple. However, the gardens date from the fourteenth century, and offer a peaceful space for a quiet walk.
The second temple, and a world heritage site, is called the Peaceful Dragon Temple (Ryoanji). The Zen garden here is best example of its kind that you will see. There are carefully placed rocks and furrows of sand that have been raked into precise patterns, creating a haven of calm within the simple walls of clay.
The Shinto religion is more unique to Japan’s culture than Buddhist, although the temples here do give an impression of a Buddhism molded to Japanese minds. Two of the local Shinto temples provide interesting excursions in Kyoto. The first is the Fushimi Inari, dedicated to the rice god. If you do visit, keep a look out for the many ornaments in the form of foxes. These were traditionally the animal messengers of Inari. The shrine is beautiful and peaceful; particularly in the evening light. The most stunning feature of this temple are the various spectacular gates or tori around it.
Even more examples of these gates are found at the second local Shinto temple. Heian Jungu is a nineteenth century temple that is dedicated to two Japanese Emperors, Kammu and Komei. It was built to commemorate eleven hundred years since the founding of the city. At the end of each October, the Jidai Matsuri festival is held here. Thousands of people parade and celebrate the day when Kyoto was made the capital of Japan, despite the fact that it no longer holds this honor.
There are also some interesting places to visit if you are less keen on temples. The Imperial Palace is a spectacular complex of buildings with many beautiful gardens and interesting architectural features. The current palace was constructed in the eighteenth century, as similar to Tenryuji, it too has suffered from a number of fires. Numerous Emperors have also chosen to be crowned here at the Palace.
The district of Gion is one of the most famous features of Kyoto. An exciting day can be spent wandering its charming streets, trying to spot a geisha or maiko in traditional dress. Geisha are trained entertainers, and not as is often believed, prostitutes. The area has been well preserved so many of the buildings date from the Middle Ages and there is a unique atmosphere appealing to most tourists.
Kyoto is also a busy modern city, and offers excellent shopping among other things. This gives those of you less interested in historical sights an opportunity to spend time seeking out the latest fashion and technology.