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.
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.
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.