A Short Guide to Kyoto


No trip to Japan could be complete without a visit here. Yet how to make the most of what is usually only a few days, to visit a city that’s evolved over centuries of continuous and even ongoing civilisation? Having been there quite a few times, each at considerable expense, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are indeed a hard-core of ‘must see’ sights, which can fairly be called unmissable. Other experiences await, but these are, for me at least, the highlights that should not be missed.


The rock garden here is at once mysterious and beautiful. Not the beauty of an ornate cathedral, but the simple beauty of what you would expect from a piece of classical zen art. Contemplate the stones and try in vain to see them all at once (it’s impossible). Then wonder… am I at once being contemplated, too?



Some call it ancient tack, others a rich experience, but you owe it to yourself to see for yourself. Once a countryside retreat with Chinese-style garden, it only became a zen temple after his death, hence the relatively sumptuous surroundings. To my mind, the sight of the golden pavilion reflected in a lake teeming with local wildlife is unforgettable. It will eclipse any preconception you may have of a temple being a staid place of worship, as you experience the life and dancing sunlight of the gardens surrounding it. Don’t be afraid to have your picture taken in front of it. Everyone does and are you not also both someone and ‘everyone’?


Often compared to its golden twin Kinkakuji, this ‘Silver Pavilion’ offers an arguably superior garden, with a mysterious and carefully raked dry sand garden to go with it. The cone-shaped ‘moon viewing platform’ figure is quite unique and has an otherworldly feel to it. Walking along the path will bring you to a viewing platform with some broad views of the city and you will know you’ve been to one of the most highly esteemed temples in Japan.

The Philosopher’s Path

Otherwise known as, “Tetsugaku no michi”, this is a pleasant, canal-side path you can follow from Ginkakuji to the temple Nanzenji. In springtime it is especially nice, as it is lined with the seasonal cherry blossoms, but really any time of year it is a pleasant way to travel between temples by foot, seeing or sampling the various small shops, cafes and restaurants lining it. Watch out for the delicious local flavours of ice-cream, such as sweet-potato or sesame-paste and also for a famous dog who loves along this, happy to pose with visitors.

Fushimi Inari Taisha

If you’ve ever seen photos of seemingly endless ‘tori’ red shrine gates stretching into the distance like some kind of optical illusion, you may well have been seeing images of this shrine. Though many go here for the hiking trails (both long and short, you can go as far as you like) in the surrounding countryside, it’s these gates themselves that make the place so memorable. Who knows, maybe you will feel drawn to the mysterious Inari, the Japanese rice god, who through his fox messengers is at turns both wise and mischievous. Foxes and racoon-dogs are held to be magical animals, capable of shape shifting into humans, often alluring femme fatales, in Japanese folklore. This natural, or even supernatural ambivalence makes for an enigmatic deity, one who must be placated as often as possible, to keep the good fortune flowing.


You may think that the Buddhists were too austeer to ever imagine building a Cathedral-like structure. Well, think again. From the massive surrounding grounds to the elaborate, palace-like structures, this is an exercise in (relative) enormity. The views and rich feelings to be had here are quite unlike any other temple I’ve been to. Welcome to a cultural nexus of not only past, but present and probably future Japan. Even more than other temples, this would be good to visit ‘in season’, to appreciate the changing season’s effects on the surrounding nature and indeed the nearby hills’ wilder versions of the same. Yet, it is worth visiting all year around, so don’t let that stop you from enjoying it to the full. High on a hill itself, the walk up passes many small and entertaining shops selling all manner of festive wares, then once up there, the view of the city and fresh breezes will take your breath away.


If you have any image of historical Japan, it probably includes the geisha. Well, you might be surprised to hear that they are still around, if in limited numbers. This is one of the few districts in which you can see them, or their apprentice . It is also a teeming urban hub with something of the ‘shita-machi’ feel of an old capital’s downtown. Maybe you’ll see something here, maybe you won’t, but you are sure to feel the atmosphere.


This is more of a place to enjoy nature alongside a canal than a home to temples or shrines, but still is worth a visit for the atmosphere alone. Away from the hustle and bustle of what has become a very modern city, here you can relax beside the flowing water and be surrounded by trees. It’s also a very popular spot with young Japanese visitors, who you can see milling around the waterways, which gives it the sense of being more a living place of celebration than a historical one.


Nara, though generally considered a companion visit to Kyoto, is in reality another ancient capital, with its own, older history. Some of the oldest remains of Japanese civilisation are to be found in Nara Prefecture, where it is situated and even here you can find a much more primal, ancient sort of place. With the charming deer park to pass through and wooded settings, it is in some ways one of the most scenic places in Japan and a good place to either feed, or watch others feed, the deer. Nara has Todaiji, one of the oldest temples in Japan and coming complete with a colossal 50 meter high pagoda. Nearby, in Todaiji, tremendously sized bronze statues dominate the room of the Daibutsuden (great Buddha hall), in the largest wooden structure in the world.  Don’t forget the extraordinary shrine of Kasuga Taisha which is worth the long walk through the deer park to get to; as with anything, if you have the time.


If you have time, this countryside location is home to some of the most serene temples in all of Japan. When Kyoto itself became too busy, some monks got on their proverbial bikes (though more probably horses) and made their way here to set up San-zen-in, a temple whose garden is based around… wait for it… moss! Yes, here you stroll through exquisite and scenic moss, dotted with symbolic objects that make it all seem like a tremendous and even cosmic landscape. The simplicity of being surrounded by nothing but shades of green and the quiet atmosphere, which inspires another type of silence altogether, makes this one of the most authentically ‘Zen’ temples ever to be made.


Now this is for those who have a longish time in Kyoto, or just want to make a ‘full Japan’ experience of being there, as Kurama is an onsen town, like Ohara, outside the main city. Here, high in the hills are incredible onsens and a couple of relatively minor, but still dramatically impressive temples. The surrounding scenery is also quite beautiful, though the whole trip will take you a bit out of the way of Kyoto’s more ‘mainstream’ cultural riches.

Thus ends this short guide. It is not intended to be exhaustive and many other sights exist, some of which are a bit out of the way and further from the tourist trail. One such is Kokodera, the moss temple, yet as it needs a reservation, it is something for another trip perhaps. Don’t forget also the treasures to be found in museums, some of which are located in the temples themselves.

Note- All my hyperlinks here are to the wonderful Japanguide.com website, my virtual Bible for traveling in Japan. Be sure to check here for seasonal updates, as they have information about festivals, Sakura and autumn leaves that is hard to accurately get anywhere else (in English). Best of all, it’s all in one place and all free! Many thanks to the writers there for their excellent and even essential service to us Japan travellers.


The Zen of Photography

Recently, I’ve been writing here a lot about gear and I’ll admit, I am a bit of a gear head! But I like to think there’s more to me than that, so today I’d like to go into what going out and taking photos really means to me and what it involves (or avoids).

There are as many subjects and cameras as there are people, because what really gives them meaning is the way they are seen. In a sense, photography is like a game seen this way, with a central set of rules, mostly revolving around the rules of physics and the way light travels, with other less clear ones determining the aesthetics involved in getting a good result. A ‘good’ photo comes from awareness of these rules, but more than that, a ‘great’ photo rises when one can express something remarkable despite them, feeling no limitation. A great photo is an expression of total freedom of expression, in a universe full of limitations. It is a ‘zen like’ moment.

I’d wager that there aren’t too many truly great photos in existence, though there are a lot of good ones, which for many purposes are more than good enough. I’d also add to this that the notion of a lucky capture, which is how such great photos might seem, free from the weight of effort and struggle as they appear, will only be made the most of by someone who can consistently follow the rules enough to take ‘good’ photos. An ability to transcend the rules comes from knowing what they are and at least seeming to break through and go beyond them.

You cant be open to the wonderful, serendipitous events of life if your mind is burdened by other concerns. For me, a photographic walk is a walk in the world as if one is totally free from its burdons. This doesn’t mean you have a perfect life or a perfect mind, just that you are able to lay aside anything that would get in the way of as pure a perception of things as possible. You hear a lot about the techniques and carefully-selected equipment of photographers, but not so much about their clear, open state of mind. In terms of equipment, pros tend to like easy to use and access tools that don’t get in the way, but you hear less about what they shouldn’t be getting in the way of. You hear a lot less about their mental training, or techniques of relaxation to open their mind to an ‘unstained’ view of the world, in which their ego doesn’t get in the way of pure perception, or cloud their personality.

There’s a few reasons for this. One is that many people aspire to be great photographers and think that by following the outer forms sufficiently themselves, that will be enough. They research the equipment and even buy things sometimes way out of their range of skill to use. This state of affairs is unlikely to change, as so much of the sales of super-expensive equipment no doubt is made to people who see it as the route to ‘great’ photos, which of course is partly true as the image quality and usability it has is unsurpassed in many situations. Another reason is that, unlike sports, or arts and so on, famous photographers are a lot less well known. Even they have to do many ‘bread and butter’ jobs just to get by and no-one is too interested in the less than inspiring results this can lead to. Photography, especially fast, colour photography is a relative newcomer and has only fairly recently been accepted as an art at all.

Which all means that if you really want to be a better photographer, it is best to combine a study of the skills of it, the necessities of photography as a craft, if you like, along with some learning of what the photographers you admire most get up to. What inspires them, how they approach things, what goes through their mind as they take the photo, or conversely how they are able to focus their mind as completely as their camera, so nothing else gets in the way, if only for that moment of capture, that Zen-like moment. More to the point, since there aren’s so many acknowledged greats in photography relative to other arts, it might also be good to study the work and life of artists. Or writers. Photography as an art is just another art, one among many, with its own complex tools and traditions, but obeying the same laws of composition, perspective and needing a similarly freeing, pure perception to find anything worth looking at again in the years to come.

The Zen of Photography

Some of you reading this may have tried meditation. I realised that whilst I sometimes do so sitting still, my curiosity and impatience make walking or photographing more realistic options for me on the whole. Perhaps there are many others who feel the same- relaxing as they stroll with a camera, other worlds opening up around them as they do so. Whether they know it or not, they may actually be engaging in meditative states and as their appreciation of the wonder and beauty around them- that is, as their minds awaken to the beauty of the universe we live in- so their phiotographs reflect this. Meditation- the water in the otherwise barren desert of conscious life- may well have found a new and widespread home in this age.

When we meditate, it is a good discipline to focus on just one thing. The mind focuses on it and then, by extention,whatever is around it in a non-specific way. The thing becomes as it were, the center of the universe. This induces a peacefulfeeling, as from that perspective, everything is in order, everyhing is in it’s place. If one believes that there is a basic ordering principal or energy, or even intelligence behind all things then it is q time to see it clearly. What was hidden to us in the often bewilderingly complex macrosphere in which we live, where seemingly infinite variables combine to create a neccessarily uncertain world is far easier to manage in the smaller space of a meditation on where we are now and what immediately surrounds us. In fact, a sense if the transcendant often appears, where the spiritual underlying reality becomes apparent. Simplicity is good for our minds, it seems.

The same happens in photography. A central point of focus is neccessary for the mind to relax enough to dwell in the image. There can be no confusion as to where to rest our eyes as then fatigue quickly sets in. Yet endless details around this focus point are accepted readily. The eyes can wonder over to them, secure in having a resting place. An aesthetic euphoria comes with looking at especially pleasing images. A sense of the beauty of the universe or a taste of the meaning behind our existance is conveyed.

There is indeed a zen of photography, living in the moment which is seemingly efffortlessly captured. There is a spirit behind the image, a meaning is there to be found- and perhaps this is easier to convey with images or poetry than attempts at description of a land beyond the known.

Straight, No Chaser.

A Traditional Photography Blog - dehk © 2016

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