Kyoto, Japan

Kyoto: Temples, Shrines, Forests & Geisha

The Fushimi-Inari Shrine is one of the most well-known images of Japan, and rightfully so, it’s spectacular.  There are hundreds of orange vermilion torii gates, which form a pathway that unbeknownst to me, lead to the top of Mount Inari.  It was an unexpected burst of exercise to start the day and certainly one way to keep warm in the crisp Kyoto winter. The walk was worth it for the views alone, but also the torii gates are beautiful against the against the lush green forest.

Kyoto, Japan

Fushimi-Inari Shrine

Kyoto, Japan

Fushmi-Inari Shrine

Kyoto, Japan

Fushimi-Inari Shine

Kyoto in January might have been cold, but it was cool and crisp with a brilliant blue sky. Perfect for exploring and meandering.  I walked endlessly around the streets exploring the temples and shrines.  There are literally thousands in Kyoto, so seeing all of them, even all of the major ones, is impossible.  Temple fatigue is real friends, so pick wisely.

Top of my list is the Golden Pavilion, which I think is a must-see.  Call me shallow but what’s not to love about a temple clad in gold.  Set in a gorgeous park-like surrounds, the pavilion glistens and shines in the sunlight, reflected perfectly in the lake.  I loved it, and probably for its sparkly beauty, it was easily my favourite.  Destroyed by arson in 1950 and faithfully reconstructed, an exact replica of the original stands, it’s completely covered in gold leaf, with a bronze phoenix on top.  I could have looked at it all day.

Kyoto, Japan

The Golden Pavilion

If  you can tear yourself away from the Golden Pavilion, it’s an easy stroll in the sunshine to Ryoanji Temple.  I confess I didn’t know much about this temple and the Kinkaku-ji Temple had set the bar high.  I wasn’t quite sure what all the fuss was about here, but it turns out to be the site of one of the most celebrated gardens in Japan.  Without a tree or even a blade of grass, it is made up of 15 rocks on a white gravel landscape.  This rock garden is supposed to be the highest expression of zen Buddhist teaching, inspiring peace and contemplation.  Some even go so far as suggesting that it is “the single greatest masterpiece of Japanese culture”.  I obviously need to spend more time studying the art of zen.  This is not the first time I’ve had this realisation.

Kyoto, Japan

Ryoanji Temple is famous for the Rock Garden, the ultimate expression of Zen

There were so many temples I saw I lost count of numbers and names.  At Ninnaji-Temple I loved the huge 5-story pagoda and the massive stone guardians which were completed in 888.  At Sanjusangen-do Temple, I was impressed with the huge long hall with 1001 kannon (goddess of mercy) statues, however I was less impressed with the 1001 tourists.  It claims to be the longest wooden structure in the world, dating back to 1164.  It would be spectacular if you had the place to yourself. I visited Kyomizu-dera Temple quite late in the day and missed the crowds.  Nishi and Higashi Hongan-ji Temples are near the Kyoto Station, huge wooden structure which claims to be the largest wooden structure in the world.

Kyoto, Japan

Kyoto, Japan

Ninnaji Temple

Without even trying I visited dozens of temples or shrines.  Big important ones, but also lots of small neighbourhood ones that I stumbled upon, and where I was the only person.  In some ways they were almost my favourite (except for the Golden Pavilion, obviously!).

However when Temple or Shrine fatigue sets in (woefully early in my case) there is so much more to do in Kyoto.  You will probably arrive by train (hopefully by Shinkansen, what a great experience), and Kyoto Station itself, completed in 1997 by Hioshi Hara, is quite an impressive architectural structure.  If you’re hungry, head straight to Nishiki market, try some samples and buy something you’ve never had before – probably not a difficult task!

There are two other areas that Kyoto is famous for.  Arashiyama is gorgeous area surrounded by natural beauty just out of the city.  It’s most famous for the bamboo grove and that’s why I visited. What a treat, the light as it comes through the trees is so beautiful.  I stood in the trees with the dappled sunlight and surrounded by a soft light. Even with a crowd it felt like it was just mine.

Kyoto, Japan

Arashiyama Bamboo Grove

The Gion district is quite a different place.  Famous primarily as a Geisha area, it is a neighbourhood filled with narrow streets and old two-storey wooden structures, which nowadays are restaurants, bars and upmarket guesthouses.  A canal meanders through it,  fringed by cherry trees – it was very atmospheric.  I was especially lucky as while I wandering through the cobbled laneways I happened to be standing outside one of the houses as a geisha ducked out briefly and darted into the next house.  It felt like a glimpse back in time.

As the ancient capital of Japan, some say Kyoto is still its true heart.  It certainly connected for me, I loved it!

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