Land of a Thousand Temples
Japan is popular for its culture and traditions; despite urbanisation that has changed some cities into modern metropolises, there is one place that remains charming and nostalgic as ever: the city of Kyoto.
Kyoto is famously known for its natural beauty and historical buildings, from centuriesold temples, beautiful palaces and pavilions to traditional markets. I travelled to Kyoto in early April, when the weather was still cold but the sun shone brightly with the sweet smell of spring. The city was packed with tourists from all over the world: no surprise as it was cherry blossom season. I was staying in Kyoto for three days and two nights, so I purchased a twoday tourist pass to make my trip easier. The Kyoto Tourist 1-Day or 2-Day Pass is a card that allows the user to ride on city busesor subways in Kyoto as much as they like, which is a great way to explore the city. It is said that Kyoto is a land of a thousand temples; it is quite true as many temples, either stand alone or are adjacent to old palaces or pavilions. Here are some of the historical attraction sin Kyoto worth a visit:
One of the most beautiful and impressive temples in Kyoto in my opinion. I even stayed near the place to enjoy the serene atmosphere and beautiful scenery. Chion-In Temple is said to be the head temple of the Jodo-shu (Pure Land Sect) of Buddhism, and the Sanmon Gate of Chion-In is the largest in Japan, even though it was built in the 17th century. Do not forget to take a look at Amida Hall besides the hondo houses for a beautiful golden statue of Buddha. One special feature of this temple is the corridor leading from the Main Hall to the Assembly Hall, called the uguisubari or nightingale floor, constructed in such a way that the wooden floor will “sing” (creak actually) at every footstep, as a warning of intruders, a kind of security feature back in the old days. There is a big stairway at the entrance to the temple and a vast, green, beautiful garden in the surrounding area, producing a really soothing view. Most of these temples are very large and impressive, but be prepared to meet busloads of tourists, some of the buses even stopping within the temple compound. Another interesting fact about this place is that in October 2012, Chion-In Temple was used in the filming of the
Tom Cruise movie, The Last Samurai. Open 9 am to 4.10 pm to enter the Hojo Garden. Entry fee: Entry to the temple is free but you have to pay 400 yen to enter the Hojo Garden.
Also known as the Silver Pavillion, this elegant temple is a world cultural heritage site. Set in beautiful grounds at the foot of Kyoto’s eastern mountains. Ginkaku-ji Temple area is an outstanding example of fine Japanese landscape architecture. Although known as the Silver Pavilion, the Ginkaku-ji Temple was never gilded in silver, and the main temple building remains unpainted brown due to the Onin war. Somehow, in its own way, the building exemplifies the Japanese idea that something plain can be beautiful. I found the area more serene and calm than the Golden Pavilion, especially the gardens, which are designed to be beautiful in every season. An interesting fact about this temple is that it has three names, Ginkaku-ji Temple, Silver Pavillion and Zen Temple. Open 8.30 am to 5 pm Entry fee: 500 yen
Famously known as the Golden Pavilion. Like many of Kyoto’s temples, this was originally the site of a private villa, but it was converted to a temple at the very start of the 15th century by the son of Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, as a memorial to his father. Golden Pavilion acquired that name because the interior is covered in gold leaf (a popular coating of choice of the rich in old-time Japan) both inside and out, and is topped with a golden phoenix. Kinkaku-ji Temple overlooks a large pond in which it is beautifully reflected. I were there at around 4 pm and the structure was stunningly lit by the late afternoon sun. The temple is photogenically pretty, but do not expect to have it all by yourself as there are many tourists around. After viewing the Golden Pavilion from most sides, I followed a path that led me around the rest of the gardens; it was landscaped in a very natural way, with a variety of trees, bamboo, mosses and a stream. One of the most interesting parts of the garden is the statue, which functions as a guardian near the exit, where the locals try to toss a coin into a small cup to fulfil their wishes. Open 9 am to 5 pm. Entry fee: 400 JPY.
4. PHILOSOPHER’S PATH
The Philosopher’s Path is named after Professor Nishida Kitaro (1870 -1945), one of Japan’s most famous philosophers. He used to meditate on the meaning of life as he walked along this route on his commute to Kyoto University every day. This stone path is approximately two kilometres long, beginning around the Ginkakuji-Temple and ending in the neighborhood of Nanzenji, but you can depart from it at any time as there are signposts to lots of nearby temples and shrines, including the Kinkaku-ji Temple and Heian Shrine. The Philosopher’s Path is best experienced during cherry blossom season, when hundreds of cherry trees bloom along the line of a narrow canal, creating an otherworldly atmosphere just as in a painting. There are plenty of places to stop off to purchase souvenirs or have refreshments. It took a while for me to finish the route because of all the stops along the way.
This temple, without a doubt, is the most visited in Kyoto. I could easily see why people gather around Kiyomizu-dera Temple: Besides its location near enough the centre of the town, Kiyomizu-dera Temple has a lovely hillside setting with views of the town and several other nearby pagodas and temples. The unique feature of this place is the platform or veranda that juts out on one side of the main hall, around 13 metres above the hillside below. There are lots of interesting spots to take pictures at this place, the stunning main gate known as Nio-mon, the three-storied pagoda, and many other interesting structures that surround the main temple hall. Another area especially worth exploring is beyond the main hall. A winding path leads past several small refreshment booths and the water fountain that gives Kiyomizu-dera its name, which means “pure water temple”. Three separate fountains drop water into the pool below this area, and to drink the water is believed to bestow special bless-
ings, each fountain giving a different one – long life, success in career or in love. One of the most interesting activities not to miss at this temple is to experience the Tanai-meguri. I was asked for 100 yen as a donation, and to remove my shoes and put them in a plastic bag that I carried as I entered the shrine. I was instructed to hold on to the rope handrail as I entered and I soon realised why: The path through the shrine is in total darkness. Then I learnt that the idea of this ‘journey’ is to represent the womb of the female bodhisattva, so we are returning to a prebirth state and to reflect on our life in total darkness. At the center of the shrine a little light fell on a large stone, which you spin and make a wish at before ascending through more darkness until you emerge, blinking, into the bright light of day. Open 6 am to 6 pm Entry fee: 300 yen
This is probably one of the most accessible shrines for tourists to visit in Kyoto due to its proximity to Gion, a famous area in Kyoto. Located next to Maruyama Park, Yasaka Shrine, formerly known as Gion Shrine, was built to worship the oxheaded God that protects against disease, epidemic and disasters. It was not hard to spot this beautiful shrine, especially in view of its large orange gate overlooking Shijo, the main avenue through Gion, and at night when most of buildings in this shrine are lit with large, white paper lanterns. It was spiritual, peaceful and beautiful at the same time. The place is surely worth a visit, but the only thing that distracting the scenery when I was there place was a bunch of black ravens around the shrine, probably because I am not a big raven fan at all. This is a Shinto Shrine where the world famous Gion Matsuri (Gion Festival) is usually held.
No entry fee
I think the people who lived in Kyoto are the luckiest, especially in the cherry blossom season when the trees are filled with pink cherry flower petals, creating impressive natural scenery and the sweet smell of spring. This is definitely a remarkable city that I shall visit again and again.