Visit to Kyoto – Part 1
Kyoto (京都, Kyōto) is the old capital of Japan from 794 AD to 1868, until the power was transferred to Edo (present day Tokyo) during Imperial Restoration. With a population of close to 1.5 million, it is well known for its picturesque scenery during the cherry blossoms (March) and fall foliage time (November).
With over 1000 years of history, Kyoto is a city rich in tradition, culture, magnificent architecture and beautiful gardens. There are 17 properties in Kyoto that have been designated as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO. Unlike in the Western world, Japanese historical buildings that have been burned down (destroyed or damaged) are rebuilt, some a few times already through the years and centuries.
We traveled by Shinkansen (bullet train) from Shinagawa to Kyoto station, a pleasant 2.5 hours train ride.
After a short visit to the Kyoto Tourist Information Center and lunch in the huge Kyoto Station, we took the subway to visit the Kyoto Imperial Palace, located in Kyoto Gyoen Park (central Kyoto) and the residence of the Imperial Family until the capital was moved to Tokyo in 1869. We were just in time, and lucky enough, to join the afternoon English guided tour (along with 50+ other tourists!) because you usually must apply in advance to receive permission to view the palace.
We took a short taxi ride to our next destination, Nijo-jo Castle, the Kyoto residence of the Tokugawa shoguns, who ruled Japan for the over 200 years from 1603 to 1868. Surrounded by a wide moat, massive stone walls, and heavy gates, the grounds are large and contain several lovely gardens. The palace building itself is imposing yet on close examination, it is seen to be rich in decorative detail.
Inside the palace (where you are not allowed to take pictures and must remove your shoes) are several masterpieces of Japanese art, most notably the painted screens of the main chamber. Palace is also famous for “nightingale floors,” which were designed to squeak and thus alert guards to any intruders. Admission is JPY 600.
The following day, our first destination was Kinkaju-ji Temple, more commonly known as the Golden Pavilion and its famous reflection in the adjoining pond. We took the Kyoto City Bus to reach our destination.
A very popular attraction, it was crowded with tourists and school children. Below are the usual Kodak moment pictures seen in postcards everywhere. Admission is JPY 400.
A short bus ride took us to Ryoan-ji Temple, famous for its mysterious Zen rock garden. Enclosed by an earthen wall, fifteen carefully placed rocks seem to drift in a sea of raked white gravel. A viewing platform right above the garden gives visitors an unimpeded view, although from whatever angle you view the garden, you can never see all fifteen stones. But, it was difficult to meditate with all the other tourists and visitors around you.
You will also find extensive grounds in the area, which includes larger gardens with trees and moss, and the Kyoyo-chi pond. Admission is JPY 500.
Another short bus ride took us to Ninna-ji Temple, originally a summer home for the Imperial Family and was founded as a temple in 886 by the Emperor Uda, who became its first head priest.
It is a large complex with an exquisite five-storey pagoda, a massive main gate, delightful landscape gardens (with ponds, bridges and old stones), raked gravel gardens, teahouses, beautiful halls for prayer and residence and a museum (not worth the extra charge).
Since this was not one of the more famous temples, it was much less crowded so it was relatively quiet, peaceful and relaxing for sure, Ninna-ji was our favorite temple or shrine. Admission is JPY 500.
A vintage train ride took us to the town of Arashiyama in western Kyoto, whose landmark is the wooden (now partially concrete) Togetsukyo Bridge, with forested Mount Arashiyama as backdrop. We ran into maikos walking in the streets, although they were probably not real ones.
A short walk led us to Tenryu-ji Temple, which means “Heavenly Dragon Temple,” and was built after a shogun dreamed of a dragon rising from a nearby river, taken to mean that the spirit of the recently-departed emperor Go-Daigo was uneasy. The temple with its garden was built to appease his spirit.
It is now the headquarters of the Rinzai school of Zen Buddhism.
The Zen garden dates from the 14th Century. A triumph of design, the garden features a large pond which catches the reflection of the maple trees and large rough-cut rocks which surround it. Admission is JPY 500.
An hour long bus ride took us to the Nishiki Fish Market, sometimes known as the kitchen of Kyoto, but most of the stores were closed as it was after 6:00 pm Fortunately, nearby was a huge covered shopping arcade called Shinkyogoku. It spans several long streets filled with shops, pachinkos, restaurants and temples.
Whew, that was certainly a very long day in Kyoto and we are happy (and tired) to return to the comforts of our hotel.
Continued in Part 2 …