Millennium old history and traditions, breathtaking temples, geishas, sublime gardens: you have arrived in Kyoto.
We took the famous Shinkansen train from Tokyo and arrived a few hours later in the beautiful city of Kyoto. Visiting Kyoto and its many temples was a dream come true. To me this is where old Japan is the most palpable. We only stayed one day in Kyoto which is definetely not much to see all Kyoto has to offer but we still managed to spend a pleasant day, going from temple to the other.
A few history words
Kyoto, which is located at the center of the Honshu Island, was Japan’s imperial capital from 794 to 1868. As the center of Japan for over a millennium, the city has seen the construction of thousands of beautiful temples and has developed traditions that are still palpable today: the tea ceremony, the arts of the geisha, the finest Buddhist iconography. Today, Kyoto is said to have remained Japan’s cultural center, and several temples are listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Among Kyoto’s 2000 religious places, we had the chance to visit four temples (Nishi-Honganji, Kiyomizu, Kinkaku-ji and Yasaka Shrine) and to walk around the famous traditional Gion district.
The Nishi-Honganji Temple
We started our day in Kyoto with the visit of the Nishi-Honganji Temple which is located very close to the train station.
This temple was built in 1591 by the warlord Toyotomi Hidetoshi and is considered one of the finest examples of architecture from the Azuchi-Momoyama Period (1573-1603).
We entered the site via this impressive door.
We then went to the most beautiful temple that I have seen during our entire stay in Japan: the golden temple!
Kinkaku-ji, the “Temple of the golden Pavilion”, is one of the most popular buildings in Japan. This impressive structure is overlooking a large pond and its top two floors are completely covered in gold leaf! The pavilion is set in a magnificent Japanese garden. A small fishing deck is attached to the rear of the pavilion building.
The golden temple was originally built at the end of the 14th century, as a villa for Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, the shogun at the time. After his death, his son converted the building into a Buddhist temple, as indicated in his father’s will. The temple burned down several times throughout its history, and more recently in 1950 when it was set on fire by a fanatic monk. The present structure was rebuilt in 1955.
I loved these little dolls at the souvenir shop!
We then went to Kiyomizu-dera Hondo, a magnificent and impressive 12-meter-high wooden temple, supported by pillars off the slope of a mountain.
The temple was established in 778, even before Kyoto became the capital of Japan, but it burned down several times and most of the buildings that we can see today were rebuilt in the 1630s. Not a single nail was used in the entire structure and more than 410 cypress boards were needed.
There is a popular and dreadful expression in Japanese coming from this site: “to jump off the stage at Kiyomizu” (the equivalent of the English expression “to take the plunge”). It refers to an ancient tradition from the Edo period that said that if one were to survive the 12-meter jump from the stage, one’s wish would be granted. Apparently about 85% of those who tried the jump did survive, but the legend does not say if their wishes were granted or not. The practice is now prohibited.
The complex is composed of a pagoda, a waterfall and several other shrines.
To reach the complex, we went up an animated pedestrian street with many souvenir stores and restaurants. There, as well as in many places in Kyoto, we saw many women dressed with beautiful traditional kimonos. Many Japanese people enjoy dressing in a traditional way when visiting Kyoto.
We then reached the “niomon”, the impressive entrance gate to the complex.
Among the many shrines, we particularly liked the Jishu Shrine, dedicated to the god of “love and good matches”. A pair of “love stones” are placed 6 meters apart. It is said that if you manage to walk from one stone to the other with your eyes closed, you will find true love.
You can have a break and drink some tea in this amazing site. Do not forget to take off your shoes!
The Yasaka Shrine
The last temple we visited was the Yasaka Shrine located in the famous Gion district.
The Yasaka Shrine, also known as the Gion Shrine, was first built in 656, but most of the buildings that remain today date back to the reconstruction of 1654.
We entered the site through the “Ro-mon”, a magnificent bright red two-story gate at the top of the steps. The entrance is said to be protected from evil spirits thanks to the two flanking Shinto statues.
Once we entered the site, we saw two main buildings: the main hall on our left and the religious stage in front of us.
There we saw worshippers trying to wake up the god with a bell rattle in front of the building, and then going praying before the altar.
In front of the main hall, stands a roofed stage for religious ceremonies. The hundreds of lanterns that decorate the stage are lit at night and bear the names of local sponsors.
The Gion district
We finished our exploration of Kyoto with the visit of the Gion district.
The Gion district was originally built during the Middle Ages to accommodate the visitors of the close-by Yasaka shrine, and then evolved to become one of the most exclusive geisha districts. You will love wandering these little streets flanked by old traditional wooden buildings, teahouses and restaurants. The facades of the building are rather narrow (5 to 6 meters wide) as property taxes used to be based on street frontage, but they extend up to 20 meters from the street.
If you are lucky, you might catch a glimpse at a geisha on her way to an entertainment. If there were about 100 000 geishas before World War II, they are only about 1 000 nowadays. Many girls still try to become a geisha but the training is very strict. They must become experts at singing, dancing, playing the Samisen, the traditional Japanese lute, and at the art of conversation. Their conversational skills are renowned and they pride themselves with being able to talk to anyone about anything.
Unfortunately, we did not stay long enough in Gion to get to see a Geisha. Next time maybe!
I hope you enjoyed walking around Kyoto. I want to go back!
– Our trip to Japan –
Click on the markers for more details