A trip to Japan should allocate as much time as possible to
Kyoto. The ancient capital of Japan for over a thousand years, it
is home to invaluable treasures and is a repository of much of the
best Japanese art, culture religion and thought.
No less than 17 UNESCO World Heritage sites head a cast of
thousands that include fabulous temples, shrines, palaces, gardens,
museums, parks and a castle. If you have time, all 17 are well
worth the effort. If your stay is short, don't miss these:
Kiyomizu-dera Temple, the Buddhist temple of "pure water"
founded in the 8th century is one of Kyoto's oldest and most
revered temples. Perched high in the eastern hills, it affords
panoramic views of Kyoto.
Daigo-ji Temple complex houses a total of over 100 halls,
pagodas, and monasteries. The surrounding ponds and gardens are a
riot of blossoms in the spring and beautiful any time of year.
The Ryoan-ji Temple is the classic Zen rock garden, and not to
be missed during your tour of Japan. Its structured grace, fine
lines and emphasis on absence is meant to inspire contemplation.
With jostling hordes of Japanese tourists, its inspiring meditative
mood may feel diminished, but a visit to this archetypal landscape
is still worthwhile.
Ginkaku-ji Temple (Silver Pavilion) is an architectural
masterpiece, embodying many quintessentially Japanese structural
elements. Built in the 15th century, it became the basis for modern
Japanese residential architecture. Its rock gardens and inner
courtyards also showcase some of the different styles that have
come to define the Japanese garden.
Kinkaku-ji (Temple of the Golden Pavilion) is one of the most
recognizable temples in the country, covered as it is in shimmering
gold leaf. A monk suffering from mental illness set fire to the
temple in 1950, destroying the structure. It was restored to its
original glory in subsequent decades. The incident is explored by
the great Japanese writer Yukio Mishima in his novel The Temple
of the Golden Pavilion.
Nijo-jo Castle was built around 1600 for the warrior Tokugawa
Ieyasu, the first shogun of the Edo Period. A historic drama of
Shakespearean proportions surrounds the samurai and his ascent to
power. Within the castle grounds is the Ninomaru Palace, famous for
its "nightingale floors" that squeak when walked upon so as to warn
residents of invaders.
A visit to the Sumiya, a functioning teahouse until WWII, will
leave no doubt about the Japanese genius for design, architecture,
and carpentry. No trip to Japan would be complete without visiting
the Gion district's Hanami-koji street at sunset to glimpse geisha
in their traditional finery.
It can be argued that Japan is home to the world's best gardens.
The Saiho-ji Moss Garden at Kokedera Temple is a case in point. The
temple and its grounds are covered with a thick carpet of 120
species of moss. But that doesn't begin to tell the story of this
place. There is a spiritual gravity here, a deeply quiet beauty.
You've traveled a long way in hopes of experiencing the "real"
Japan. This may well be it. (Note: Permission to enter tranquil
Kokedera is required in advance. A written request stating the date
you intend to visit must be submitted, so advise your Travel
Specialist if you plan to include Kokedera in your Japan
Kyoto is a great place to simply spend days strolling from site
to site, along the Philosopher's Path and cobblestone streets, and
from noodle shops to tea houses. Walking through the old quarter
with a knowledgeable guide reveals thriving cottage industries
producing all manner of traditional goods. Knotted prayer tassels,
tofu, green tea candy, hand-painted silk fans, lacquer ware bowls;
these arts are alive and well but one must know where to look. Our
Japan tour guides will unlock the door to these ancient arts and
reveal their meaning within the context of Japanese society.
If you arrive or depart Kyoto by train, prepare yourself for the
most whizz-bang six-story train station-cum-shopping mall you've
ever seen, a conspicuously ultra-modern steel, glass and neon study
in functional constructivism and consumerist excess. It's the
perfect-or perfectly jarring-structural antidote to Kyoto's
famously quiet, less-is-more cultural traditions.