Kyoto: Temples and Castles and Gardens…Oh My!

The first and last time we were in Kyoto was special. Warm April days and evenings during Sakura (Cherry Blossom) celebrations, where Japanese humbly invite Westerners to join their celebratory picnics (with sushi and sake) as a favor to them–so they can practice their English. This, combined with the majesty of the temples, the serenity of the gardens and the ancient charm of the Gion district (and watching Geishas walking narrow alleyways to the appointments) created an unforgettable experience.

This time we went in a colder month..January. Although the weather wasn’t ideal, it was enough to confirm our initial impression that Kyoto is one of our favorite cities—although it would have been even more of a favorite during the warmer and absolutely gorgeous cherry blossom timeSmile.

Our first afternoon focused on our favorite neighborhood—Gion—where we visited the Yasaka-jinja Shrine. One enters the shrine property through a 30-foot tall granite torii gate that is adorned in blazing orange. As we were there during the first week of the new year, it was packed with thousands of people who traditionally start the New Year by visiting this guardian shrine. We were caught in the slow moving parade of people that began about a mile from the shrine and continued all the way through it. Once inside, we shuffled through the crowds of people buying offerings and mementos and standing in line at one of hundreds of food stands. We chose to not enter the shrine itself as it required a contribution of at least $50 per person but we were still able to walk around the grounds.


To skirt some of the crowds, we left the temple and took a somewhat roundabout, but incredibly scenic route to another very popular Gion destination–the Kiyomizu-dera Temple. The route included:

  • Maruyama-koen Park, a scenic, normally tranquil garden (although not during the new year holiday) around a pond and through cheery trees that, in another three months, will be among the hottest spots in all of Kansai Province; past and through a number of
  • Smaller temples and historic sites including Higashi Itami Mausoleum, Entokuin Temple, Kodaiji Temple and Ryozen Kannon; and along the few kimometer long
  • Sannen-zaka & Ninnen-zaka Walk, a lovely and typically relaxing (although not with the day’s crowds), winding stroll through through lovely, traditional Edo-era wooden homes and shops and along Teapot Lane (originally known for its many pottery shops) but today filled with a broad range of food shops, art galleries, souvenir shops and restaurants. This lane leads right to gate of the neighborhood’s largest temple and one of the city’s most famous landmarks.
  • Kiyomizu-dera Temple, which was initially established in 798, but reconstructed in 1633. This dramatic temple, built atop a foundation of massive wooden pilings is perched over the side of a hill, providing a view over the city and, in spring cherry blossom season and autumn leaf turning time, some of the most spectacular views in the area. (But they still aren’t half bad in the middle of winter.) Entry to the temple is itself dramatic, up the stairs from Teapot Lane to a view through the colorful front gate (guarded by two 12-foot tall deva kings), to the huge, dramatically sited main hall and up another hill to a popular Shinto Shrine. Since we lingered on the deck to watch the sunset we had to rush through the temples other features, such as its hilltop pagoda and a waterfall from which people dip very long-handled cups to get a sip of the supposedly curative waters.



Traveling the Path of Philosophy

The Path of Philosophy is named for the contemplative strolls it engenders along a scenic, traffic-free lane that runs along side a tranquil canal. The trail, which runs between two of Kyoto’s most renowned temples, Ginkakuji and Nanzenji, also runs past and allows visits to many others. We began at the northern end of the path, and worked our way down. The path is lined with pretty homes, from understated Edo-period residences to large architect-designed contemporary estates (most fitting into the neighborhood, a few not). Interspersed among the residences are galleries, upscale cafés and teahouse with a beautifully landscaped garden.


Stops along the Path included:

Ginkakuji Temple, better known as the Silver Pavillion, was designed by a 15th century shogun as his retirement home. When he died, it was converted into a temple. The complex, which was named after the silver coating that was intended but never applied, are certainly lovely and contain some lovely paintings. The gardens, however, steal the show. Hidden from the entry gate by a tall row of hedges, they emerge as a magical vision. Everywhere you turn and from every angle you look, the trees, grasses, rock gardens, raked sand, pond and buildings come together into a harmonious vision. We can only imagine what it looks like when the cheery trees are in bloom. This is one of the most beautiful oriental gardens we have ever seen.


Honen-in Temple is a pretty, tranquil temple, set backed behind a bamboo forest, with raked sand gardens.

Eikando Temple, initially build in 855,consists of a number of halls, each connected with covered wooden walkways. Many of the halls feature lovely paintings and one, in particular, has a lovely gold-covered altar. The gardens are modest relative to those of other large temples, but complement the buildings. The most famous icon in the temple is the unusual Buddha Glancing Backward, around which several legends (one of which involves the statue climbing down of its pedestal to join the priest after which the temple is named, in a dance).


Nanzenji Temple, a large temple,with extensive gardens that is entered through a massive multi-story gate. It, like Ginkakuji, was initially created as a retirement palace for a emperor (this one from the 13th-century). The emperor, after becoming a monk, donated the villa as a Zen Temple. The main hall, originally designed as the living quarters, contains a number of paper-screened rooms with painted screens and a tea room (entry into which is subject to a separate charge) that has a lovely view of a small waterfall. Speaking of waterfalls, there is supposed to be a pretty, large waterfall in the woods, behind the aqueduct (yes, a real Roman-like brick aqueduct), which, despite numerous attempts, and questions to staff, we were unable to find. We did, however, find the small, but lovely Zen garden behind the main hall.


We also visited TenJuan, one of Nanjengi’s sub-temples, especially for its large rock garden. The garden, constructed around two small ponds, each with artfully designed and landscaped peninsulas.

Although the Path of Philosophy formally ended at Namgenji Temple, we were not yet done. We had one more temple visit left in us.

Chion-in Temple is huge. Everything about it is big, from the massive entry gate (the largest in Japan) to the temple itself. The first hall you reach is rather modest, with a lovely golden altar. The main hall is a different story. It is monstrous, although not particularly interesting, except for its huge, beautiful gold altar. The two buildings, which are now connected by a temporary hall, are normally linked with a still partially accessible corridor with "nightingale floors"–floors that are designed to squeak (supposedly sounding like the bird), presumably to notify monks of visitors). Behind the main temple is a giant, 74-ton bell (the largest in Japan), multi-level graveyards filled with stone and markers that commemorate deceased members of the temple, and a modest garden.



Exploring Northwestern Kyoto

We began our abbreviate tour of this section of the city at the famed Kinkaku-Ji Temple, or Golden Temple, another place designed by an emperor as a retirement villa (this one at the end of the 14th century) and later converted into a temple. While most of the major temples have been destroyed and reconstructed sometime in their long lives, this temple’s death and rebirth were very recent (1950 and 1955, respectively). The reconstruction followed the original design except for one detail; the gold foil covering was extended to two of the palace’s three floors, each of which was built in a different architectural style (from bottom to top: palace-, samurai house- and Zen temple-style). The pavilion is particularly striking for its setting behind a pond. Although temple is indeed beautiful, you can’t get close to it. A pretty teahouse is on the grounds, but the only real reason to visit is for a view–over the pond, of the temple itself.


Ryoan-ji Temple, founded in 1450, is known primarily for its austere, dry landscape Zen garden designed around 15 rocks organized in a sea of white grave. The simple rock grade is viewed as the manifestation of classic Zen design, representing a sense of infinite space. The temple, rebuilt in 1499, has open rooms with subtle screen paintings. The grounds is entered via pond with an arched bridge and garden that reminded both of us (without prodding from the other) of one of our favorite sites in Mount Desert Island Maine.


Toji-in Temple, recommended by our concierge for its especially nice garden. It certainly has that–especially the west pond, where the arrangement and color (even in winter) of the shrubs and the trees and the teahouse is beautiful. This little visited temple, built by a 14th-century shogun as his family temple, has, as all ancient temples, been destroyed by fire and rebuilt. Toji-in, however, is much more than a pretty garden. It is also a relatively intimate space, due partially to its tiny crowds. You can actually walk through the primary room of the main hall and see some of the screen paintings close up. The Reikodon hall is dedicated primarily to the shogun’s favored bodhisattva, who’s image is attended by an Indian monk and a number of Ashikaga clan shoguns. An absolutely worthwhile stop if you are at Ryoan-ji.


Central Kyoto Temples, Castles and Palaces

While most of the primary sites are out of the central city, a few of the premier locations are near the city center. Among the most impressive that we visited were:

Kyoto Imperial Castle and Park. The palace, originally built in 794 and most recently reconstructed (after numerous fires) in 1855, was the Kyoto home of the emperor. Although no longer the home to the emperor (which is now in Tokyo), the complex does continue to play a few ceremonial roles. It is, for the most part, however, symbolic. This the 100,000 square meter palace is divided into two sections: the northern section is residential and the southern ceremonial.

The complex is entered through one of six gates–who enters which gate determined by status (such as one for the emperor, one for the empress, one for nobles and so forth). Even the waiting rooms are separated and decorated in accordance to the visitor’s status. The tour, which was exclusively of the ceremonial section, focused extensively on the Shishinden (the most important ceremonial building and the traditional location of the Imperial thrones), the Otsunegoten (the largest building in the complex (in which the emperor live for almost three centuries before the building of the residential section) and the Kogosho (where the Emperor the Shogun or other important lords).

The compound also has two lovely gardens that are build around ponds: the large Oikeniwa Garden (with its arched bridge) and the smaller Gonaitei (which was the Emperor’s private garden when he lived in this complex).


Nijo-jo Castle, originally built in 1603 as the Kyoto residence of the first Tokugawa shogun, and expanded in 1626 by the third shogun. This place was amazing! The size, the beautiful inner gate, the huge Ninomaru Palace with its incredible screen paintings and carved transoms in every room from the reception and audience rooms and especially the shogun’s own office and living quarters. And behind the palace is the pond, lined with lovely rocks, placed in unpredictably lovely angles. Then there were the moat and granite walls surrounding the Honmaru Palace. It was fascinating, especially after reading one of our favorite novels (James Clavell’s Shogun) to see the majesty of one of the residences occupied by the line of Tokugawa shoguns–the dynasty that restored unity to a country racked by civil war and after a 264-year reign, returned sovereignty to the imperial family. Amazing, awesome.



South Kyoto Temples and Shrines

Nishi Hongan-ji Temple, originally built in 1591 and integrating many Chinese influences, is one of the bet representations of a Buddhist temple in Kyoto. This Buddhist temple contains five buildings with lovely architecture, carvings and ornamental details (especially its chandeliers and sconces). The temple’s main Kara-mon gate, meanwhile, is a masterpiece in its own fight with incredible, vividly painted wood carvings. A lovely stop, close to Kyoto Station.

To-ji Temple, located a bit further south, is notable primarily for its Lecture Hall, with 21 images of the Esoteric Buddha, and for its 190-foot-tall, five-story pagoda, which is the tallest in Japan.

Fushimi-Inari Shrine, a shrine after our own hearts–dedicated to Inari, the god of rice and sake! While the shrine consists of a number of buildings, its big draw is the thousands of vermillion-colored Torii Gates and dozens of stone foxes that span the property. Gates everywhere, pretty much wall-to-wall along the trail up the 233-meter mountain. The gates are donated by patrons–at a price. You chose the size gate you want and can afford, from $7.50 for a roughly 9-inch gate that you can carry up the hill and place on an icon, to about $13,500 for a roughly 30-foot-tall inscribed gate that is mounted along the trail. The foxes, are reputed to be the messengers of Inari. Some have keys in their mouths–the keys to the rice granary.


Kyoto has many more temples and gardens, but at this point, we were templed/garden-ODed (or at least Joyce was. Tom probably would have taken us to more if Joyce had let him).

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