The ancient city of Kyoto cries out to be explored. For 1074 years Kyoto was Japan’s capital city. From 794 to the end of the 12th century, Kyoto flourished under imperial rule. It was at this time when Japan’s culture started to become independent of Chinese influences and to develop its unique characteristics. Steeped in history and tradition, Kyoto can be described as the heart of Japanese culture. Nowadays it is not uncommon to see elderly Japanese women walking the streets dressed in traditional kimono and the world of geisha is still very much alive. In addition to the 1600 temples and 400 shrines the city has many parks and gardens. The seventh largest city in Japan with a population of 1.4 million, Kyoto can be reached in 2 hrs 50 mins by bullet train from Tokyo and 1 hr 15 mins from the Kansai International Airport. A visit to Kyoto is like a walk through 11 centuries of Japanese history.
The magnificent Golden Pavillion was constructed in 1393 as a retirement home for Shogun Ashikaga as a statement of his prestige and power. In 1950 it was burnt to the ground by a crazed student monk and re-built in 1955 based on the original design. The first floor is palace style, the second floor is the style of the samurai house and the third floor is a Zen style temple. All floors are covered with gold leaf on Japanese lacquer. The picture perfect golden image reflected in the surrounding pond on a clear day is a photographer’s dream.
Built in 1603 this castle was the official residence of the Tokugawa Shogunate. To safeguard against treachery, the interior was fitted with ‘nightingale’ floors and concealed chambers where bodyguards could keep watch and spring out at a moment’s notice. You enter the castle through the impressive Kara-mon, Chinese Gate. From the Kara-mon, the carriageway leads to the Ni-no-maru Palace (Second Inner Palace), whose five buildings are divided into many chambers. The outer rooms were kept for visitors of low rank and were adorned with garish paintings that would impress them. The inner rooms were for the important lords. After the Meiji Restoration Nijo Castle became the Kyoto Prefectural Office until 1884. Since 1934 the castle has belonged to the city of Kyoto and has been opened to the public.
The garden at Ryoanji attracts people from all around the world. This Zen rock garden consists of 15 rocks arranged in three groupings of seven, five, and three in gravel. From the temple’s veranda, only 14 rocks can be seen at one time. Move slightly and one of the original 14 disappears. In the Buddhist world the number 15 denotes completeness. The place to visit for some Zen contemplation.
Toei Movieland is an entertaining way to spend a couple of hours between visits to temples and shrines. This outdoor set of a feudal age town is still in use for period movies. Miniature castles, houses and shops used in previous films are displayed in the Film Art Hall along with a brief history of Japan’s film industry. Producers are occasionally looking out for foreign extras to play roles of early European arrivals in Japan. You can pay to dress up as a samurai warrior or a geisha for the photo opportunity.
The longest wooden structure in the world, Sanjuusangendo, houses 1001 gold statues of the Thousand-Armed Kannon (the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy). At age 82, master sculptor Tankei carved the main statue - a 6 ft tall, 1000 handed Kannon. This temple was first built in 1164 and rebuilt in 1266. The rear archery field is still used for special occasions.
Founded in 798 and rebuilt in 1633 without the single use of a nail, Kiyomizu is famous for its wide wooden veranda providing the visitor with a panoramic view of the city. This is the most visited temple in all of Kyoto. Jishu Shrine is located nearby and is a dwelling place of the deity in charge of love. Visitors ensure success in love by closing their eyes and walking about 18m between a pair of stones. The Otowa-no-taki Waterfall is a place for tourists to drink or bathe in these sacred waters that are believed to have therapeutic properties. The steep approach to Kiyomizudera is known as ‘Teapot Lane’and is lined with shops selling Kyoto handicrafts, local snacks and souvenirs.
A comprehensive introduction to Japanese performing arts, Gion Corner provides the foreigner with an insight into Japanese music, dance and comic plays. Various forms of dance and plays are performed including a bunraku puppet play. This 50 minutes of entertainment also includes snippets of tea ceremony, koto music and flower arrangement. Two shows are presented daily.
The Heian Jingu Shrine was built in 1895 to mark the 1,100-year anniversary of the city of Kyoto. Even though it is a relatively modern structure, the shrine is a scaled replica of the first imperial palace built in Kyoto in 794. Heian Shrine is famous for its bright colours of green and vermilion and for its garden that has something for all seasons - weeping cherry trees in spring, iris and water lilies in summer and rich maple leaves in autumn.