Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Touring Kyoto

Kyoto is often called a beautiful city. I have to disagree. As the picture below shows, Kyoto, like all Japanese cities, has far too many bland buildings stretching as far as the eye can see.

I think it's more accurate to say that Kyoto is Japan's most beautiful city, which is likely true for the wonderfully diverse areas you can wander when outside the downtown core. There is little doubt that Kyoto is the best city for tourism in this country. Unlike Tokyo, which is a testament to constant change, Kyoto has maintained much of its historical areas and buildings, offering plenty of surprises to those who take the time to venture off the beaten path.

I don't want to write a post detailing all of the attractions here. I'll mention a few of the sights that I saw this weekend that might not make it on a typical top ten list. If you are going to Kyoto yourself, take the time to research the city - it's big and the attractions are not all in the same spot. In fact, it's best to divide the city into areas and concentrate on one or two areas per day. I'd guess you'd need 4 or 5 days to really see everything here, although you may get tired of all the temples after the tenth one or so.

The people at Japan Guide do a good job listing all the main sights in Kyoto and there's little I can add. So I'll talk about a few places you might not find on your map.


OK, actually Sanjusangendo is well-known, but I'm putting it here as a good starting point. The name of this temple refers to the length of the hall, 33 ken, where a ken is the distance between the pillars, which is just under two meters. It's famous for an annual archery contest known as Toshiya which takes place every January.

From the outside, there's a nice garden and path that you can wander around, but the hall itself isn't anything special. It's when you go inside that you will be amazed. After removing your shoes, you follow a path that takes you to the front corridor. When you turn the corner, you will notice that along the entire length of the hall stand 1001 life-size statues. Each of these statues is over 700 years old and represents the 1000-armed Kannon or Goddess of Mercy. Guarding these statues are 28 guardian deities, each of which is considered a national treasure. Each of these guardian deities has an English explanation which is actually more detailed than that in Japanese. Unfortunately, pictures are not allowed - there are even signs say that your camera must be examined upon exiting.

On the back side of the hall are artifacts, including bows and arrows used in the Toshiya competitions centuries ago, which are fasicinating. All-in-all, Sanjusangendo is well worth the 600 yen admission fee and a good place to start your tour as it's a short walk or bus ride from Kyoto station.

Close up of a demon on the roof


Located just down the street from Sanjusangendo, Yogenin is a small temple that was initially built in 1594 and then reconstructed in 1621 after a fire destroyed the original building. What's interesting is that during the reconstruction, the remains of Fushimi Castle were used. This castle, which was being dismantled at that time, was a key element in the founding of the Tokugawa shogunate, the last family of shoguns that ruled Japan from 1603 to 1868.

In 1600, Fushimi Castle was under control of Torii Mototada, who served Ieyasu Tokugawa. The castle came under siege from an army led by Ishida Mitsunari, an enemy of Tokugawa. Despite being severely outnumbered, Mototada managed to defend the castle for 10 days, before finally succumbing. When they realized they were to be defeated, Mototada and his retainers all committed seppuku, the ritual suicide that has become legend and is often referred to as hara-kiri in the west. But it was Mototada's ability to fend off Mitsunari for so long that allowed Tokugawa to attack elsewhere, which proved a critical advantage in the next battle.

When the castle was dismantled 20 years later, they took the floorboards on which the suicides had occurred and used them as the ceiling in Yogenin. It is now known as the "Blood Ceiling" and you can still see the blood in the shape of heads, arms, hands, and feet. The tour guide will point out the various forms on the ceiling and it gives pause to consider that these people died over 400 years ago. There are also drawings by Tawayara Sotatsu throughout the temple that are very well-known in Japan and depict exotic animals such as white elephants.
The actual tour is nothing more than the guide moving you from room to room and playing a tape recording. There are no English descriptions, so it helps if you speak Japanese, but this is definitely one of Kyoto's lesser-known but no less important treasures.

From the temple looking back to the main gate


Located near Keage station, Murin-an is a small but beautiful garden that was constructed in 1894 by Aritomo Yamagata, a solider and 3rd prime minister of Japan. Within the garden are his living quarters, a tea house, and a western-style building that was the site of the Murin-an conference held in 1903. This conference was held to determine the direction of Japanese foreign policy just before the Russo-Japanese War.

As you can see in the picture above, the garden is compact, but attractive and quiet despite being near so many attractions. If you want a respite from the hectic temple scene in Kyoto, try a few minutes at Murin-an. Admission is 400 yen but once inside you can relax as long as you want.

Site of the Murin-an conference, preserved as is for over 100 years

Sanmon (Nanzenji)

Nanzenji is a large temple located about 10 minutes away from Murin-an. It is famous for a serene rock garden but I want to briefly mention two other sights here. The first is Sanmon, which is the large main gate. For 500 yen, you can walk up a steep flight of stairs to reach a viewing area. From here you can look west into Kyoto, although the view is somewhat blocked by trees. But it's the eastern view looking into the hills that is much more interesting and relaxing. Take your time up here and enjoy the quiet.

From the top looking to the hills

Sanmon from the ground

Suirokaku (Nanzenji)

Just beyond Sanmon and off to the right is a large vaulted bridge. This is the Nanzenji Aqueduct, built in 1889 as part of the Biwako Sosui or Lake Biwa Canal. It's an interesting contrast to the austere nature of the temple buildings, and was actually controversial when it was built as the style is so different. But now it fits in quite well and offers some nice photo opportunities.

Biwa Canal Museum

Between Murin-an and Nanzenji lies a small non-descript building that might not merit a second glance. But it's worth a look as it houses the history of the canal. Construction began in 1885 and took five years to complete. This museum, which is free, documents all elements of the construction process. There's very little English here, but still interesting to see what they had to do to complete this engineering feat over a century ago.

Behind the museum is the Kyoto Zoo, the second oldest zoo in Japan dating from 1903. Might be interesting if you have children, but certainly not that important given the historical sights around.

Philosopher's Path

After you leave Nanzenji, you can walk toward Ginkakuji along the Philosopher's Path. It's a 2-km long route that follows a small canal and is lined by cherry trees. During the winter, it's not particularly exciting, but during the spring when the cherry blossoms appear, it can be fantastic. The other thing to note here is the large number of cafes along the way - try to stop in one for some Kyoto treats.

Nishiki Market

Back downtown, you may be in the mood for some food shopping. There's no better place than Nishiki Market, which is a narrow shopping street with plenty of local delicacies on offer. It runs parallel to Shijo Avenue, just one block north. I was too busy eating to take pictures, but it's definitely worth checking out if you are looking to try some different types of foods while you are here.



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