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On Walkabout In: Kyoto, Japan

Basic Information

  • City Name: Kyoto
  • Where: Japan
  • Population: 1.4 million
  • More Information: Japan-Guide.com


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Narrative

Unfortunately my wife and I only had one day available to travel out of Tokyo to Japan’s cultural capitol of Kyoto.  Kyoto is located towards the center of the country and has historically been the location of the country’s political leadership before the country was united under the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1603.  After the establishment of the Tokugawa Shogunate political power was transferred from Kyoto to the newly established capitol of Edo which is called Tokyo today.  The ultimate sign of this change in the location of the country’s political power was when the Japanese Emperor moved from Kyoto to the current Imperial Palace in Tokyo in 1868 with the collapse of the Tokugawa Shogunate and the establishment of the reform minded Meiji government.

Map from the Lonely Planet website.

Despite the loss of Kyoto’s political power all the temples and shrines over the centuries that were built in the ancient capitol remain which has made the city and the region the cultural capitol of the country.  The cultural and historical significance of Kyoto is so great that during World War II the allies refused to bomb the city in fear that if they did any occupation of Japan after the war may be impossible due to the outrage the people of Japan over the destruction of the city.  This decision ultimately saved all the historic architecture that remains in the city today.  To visit the city, my wife and I road the Shinkansen bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto.  The train was very fast and we were at the ultra modern looking Kyoto Station in a little over 2 hours:

After arriving at Kyoto Station the first thing we did was eat a Japanese breakfast at the station which included plenty of vegetables and fish.  After eating we then proceeded to walk to our first destination in the city which was Toji Temple which was located near the station.  Here is an example of the neighborhood around the train station looks like:

 

On the way to the temple I took this picture of a moving truck that looked like some kind of Transformer:

As the sun was rising in the distance we got our first look at Toji Temple’s very large five-storied pagoda:

This pagoda was erected in 826 and stands an impressive 57 meters high and overall the tallest pagoda in Japan.  This pagoda can be seen all across the city which has caused it to become the symbol of the city.  The rest of the temple was constructed in the late 700’s, however most of the buildings are reconstructions after being burned down in a fire back in 1486:

The temple worships the Shingon sect of Japanese Buddhism thus Buddhist statues can be seen scattered around the temple:

Due to the age and religious significance of the temple it has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  I have no idea why some of the statues are wearing some clothes, but it was interesting to see because most Buddhist temples I have been to do not dress up their statues:

Something we noticed while walking around the temple was the number of people walking around in kimonos:

Compared to Tokyo we would see many more people in Kyodo wearing kimonos not to mention seeing some of the city’s famous geisha.  Anyway from the temple we next found the nearest subway station to take us to our next destination which was Nijo Castle:

The subway was an older model compared to Tokyo’s subway system, but just as efficient as it got us to where we needed to go.  After a short walk from the subway my wife and I soon found ourselves at Nijo Castle:

Nijo Castle was constructed in 1603 after Tokugawa  Ieyasu united the country under one Shogunate.  The castle was constructed as the Shogun’s residence in Kyoto even though he had already made the decision to move the nation’s political capitol north to Edo which is modern day Tokyo.  The castle he constructed in Kyoto I think shows how Ieyasu made sure to construct a castle so intimidating that no one would dare to challenge his power.  The castle has impressive defensive fortifications such as this huge outer wall with a deep moat:

Inside these defense fortifications though the castle’s interior is not very grandiose, but instead features small buildings that were typical of Tokugawa Ieyasu:

Despite constructing smaller buildings Ieyasu’s successors would go on to add to the castle and make it more grandiose than it originally was.  However, Ieyasu’s residence, the Ninomaru Palace survives in its original form:

There is a small fee to enter the Ninomaru Palace and unfortunately visitors cannot take pictures inside.  It is still well worth going inside to see the palace especially to check out the “Nightingale Floors” that Ieyausu had installed that squeak when anyone walks on them.  This was alert guards of any intruders at night.   Outside the palace is a beautiful traditional Japanese garden called the Ninomaru Garden:

Further inside the palace complex is yet another massive defensive perimeter with yet another moat:

Within this inner defensive perimeter Ieyasu had constructed a smaller palace, but his grandson added to the palace by constructing a five story keep that burned down in the 18th century and was never rebuilt.  However, some of the smaller inner buildings remain:

Here is a view from the walls looking across the inner palace complex:

All in all my wife and I really enjoyed visiting Nijo Castle which was not only a beautiful location, but also an interesting history lesson about the fascinating Tokugawa Ieyasu and the Shogunate he founded. My wife and I from the Nijo Fortress next took a cab to eastern Kyoto to see the Nanzenji Temple.  Here is an example of what a taxi in Kyoto looks like:

It was late in the afternoon by the time the taxi dropped us off in eastern Kyoto.  We proceeded to walk through a neighborhood towards the Nazenji Temple:

By the time we reached Nazenji it was closed to visitors though we were still able to walk around outside the temple:

The temple is located at the base of the Higashiyama Mountains and is considered an important Zen Buddhism temple in Japan.  The temple was constructed in the 13th century as a retirement home for Emperor Kameyama.  Later the home was converted into a temple before being destroyed during the civil wars that raged through Japan in the 16th century.  With the stability of the Tokugawa Period (1603-1867), Nanzenji Temple was rebuilt and the buildings on the site today date from this period.

Something I was surprised to see near the temple was this large aqueduct system that looked like something straight out of the Roman Empire:

This aqueduct was one of the modernization programs initiated during the Meiji Period following the collapse of the Tokugawa Shogunate.  This aqueduct brought fresh water from the near by Lake Biwa to the Kyoto region which helped promote further growth of the city.  The aqueducts still are operational today bringing fresh water into the city:

Near the aqueduct my wife and I also stumbled upon this cemetery:

The Japanese cemeteries are much more compact compared to their western counterparts due to the limits on space to bury the dead in the country.  Near the cemetery there was also a walking trail into the adjacent forest that apparently some foreign visitors have caused issues on according to this sign at the start of the trail:

Here is what the sign says in English, note Gaijin means foreigner:

Dear Gaijin-Visitor!

This forest is one of the most spiritual sites in Kyoto.  Recently a travel guide book mention this place.  Now many visitors come here.  PLEASE: Do respect this place even if it is not your own religion.  Do not speak loud or use the path for jogging.  Please help us to protect the precious energy of this place.

Thank you!

Not wanting to offend the locals my wife and I just walked a short ways up the path before turning around and heading back towards the temple:

From the temple we proceeded to walk around the neighborhood and enjoy seeing the various people dressed in kimonos that really adds to the atmosphere of this location:

There was also a number of people with beautiful traditional Japanese homes that lived in this neighborhood as well:

Many of these homes were quite beautiful and I can only imagine how much they are worth in today’s Japanese real estate market:

Also in the neighborhood we came upon a number of smaller temples:

This one temple we walked into had a little bell that visitors could ring:

Kyoto is just absolutely filled with temples everywhere you go and it seems they are especially concentrated on the east side of the city at the base of the mountains:

Many of these temples and shrines do not have English explanations, but the Kumano Nyakuoji-jinja Shrine just north of Nanzenji Temple did:

This shrine was established by the retired Emperor Goshirakawa in 1160 as a guardian shrine for the god Kumano Gongen.  The ruling Muromachi Shogunate and samurai families during this time patronized this shrine.  The shrine was destroyed during the Onin War between 1467-1477 before being rebuilt 400 years ago by Toyotomi Hideyoshi:

From the Kumano Nyakuoji-jinja Shrine, my wife and I continued to walk north and begin to follow a walkway known as the Philosopher’s Path:

The path follows a beautiful tree lined canal that is famous during the springtime for cherry blossom viewing.  The canal is part of the aqueduct system constructed during the Meiji Period that brings water from Lake Biwa to the city.  The path is 2 kilometers long and passes a few historic structures that visitors can stop and check out:

The atmosphere along the path is only further enhanced by the various Japanese families taking a stroll along the path to include some people wearing traditional kimonos:

The path received its name due to the fact that one of Japan’s most famous philosophers, Nishida Kitaro used to walk this route every day on his way to work at Kyodo University.  By the time my wife and I completed our walk on the Philosopher’s Path the sun had set and it was dark out.  So we proceeded to walk around until we found a taxi to take us to the historic Gion District of Kyoto.

The first thing my wife and I did when we got to Gion was try to find a place to eat.  Instead of finding a place to eat on the main tourist drag that probably served lower quality food to foreign tourists at inflated prices, we walk around and found a little restaurant away from the main shopping area:

We had a great time eating a bunch of sushi here at very affordable prices.  After dinner we then went and walked around the tight and twisting streets of Gion:

Gio is famous for the geisha that frequent the various teahouses that are located in the cluster of historic buildings that compose this district:

There were some signs put up in the main tourist area for people to not be rude and take pictures of the geisha while they are busy with their customers.  So my wife and I did see a few geisha walking along the streets with their customers as well as some sitting in the various teahouses, but we didn’t want to be rude and take pictures of them.

Besides the geisha and teahouses the Gion District is also filled with touristy stores, expensive fine dining restaurants, and traditional Japanese Kabuki theater:

After spending most of the night walking around Gion it was time for my wife and I to head back to our hotel located near the train station called the Kyoto Tower Hotel where we spent the night and headed back to Tokyo the next day:

Conclusion

There is so much to do Kyoto that there is no way to see everything there is to see in one day.  Realistically people would probably really need a week to see all the main sites in the city, though it is common for Japanese to say that a lifetime isn’t enough to see everything in the Kyoto region.  This city is truly beautiful and the day my wife and I spent in the city was enough to entice us to definitely come back and spend a lot more time exploring this great city.

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