When I first lived in Japan, I decided that I wished to be near the former capital of Japan, Kyoto. During the reign of Shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa (circa 1603) the political capital of Japan shifted to Edo, now referred to as Tokyo, meaning “eastern capital” on the south eastern coast of Honshu. Prior to Tokugawa’s reign the capital was in the center of Honshu. It is something of the spiritual capital of the country as it rose to prominence after the introduction of Buddhism, and became one of the central cities for temple construction, worship and pilgrimage.
Kyoto was never involved in World War II. So all of the temples and shrines are preserved to this day. Many are refurbished facsimiles of their originals, with all the original materials replaced meticulously in the same design as the former architecture. So they appear pristine though most parts have been replaced over the past millennia.
There are so many elegant options for tourists to explore. Some of my favorites include the following:
Higashi Hoganji is a gargantuan raw-wood temple of perfect symmetries with vast wood plank walkways and indoor tatami mat devotional rooms where visitors are to kneel during temple offerings.
Kiyomizudera is perched on a cliff on the eastern side of the city. It is traditional to purify oneself ritually before ascending the cliff. So a small waterfall is where you are to take a swig of water to spit out your impurities so as to not sully the temple inadvertently.
The hillside vantage gives amazing views across the valley. The name of the temple means the “Pure Water Temple”. It’s great to visit this temple during rain storms. Huge funnels of rain shoot off its roof into the canyon below. It’s also a great place to watch sunsets if you time your visit right.
There is a temple of love here (part of the shrine-portion of the temple that has nothing to do with Buddha nor enlightenment) where one closes one’s eyes and tries to walk in a straight line from one rock to another. Probably just a metaphor about the perils of love… Of course when you see one of the saintly guides is a jackrabbit, you must think something peculiar is afoot at this shrine.
At the foot of Kiyomizudera is the historic district of Gion. You can find many traditional arts galleries, tea houses, and historic architecture. It feels as if you’re walking back in time to Edo-era Japan to visit this district. Gion is also the part of town where you are more likely to see women dress in traditional kimono style.
One of my favorites of the ancient Japanese arts is the tradition of Noh theater. It is a sort of induced meditation through dramatic performance. You can enjoy Noh even without understanding its underlying story. But you will typically receive a synopsis document that will explain the characters and dramatic arc of the story before sitting down to witness the dance. The story line of most plays stem from concepts around burdened spirits that are remain trapped by past wrongs from deeds in life. The resolution of the drama results in a spiritual absolving of the wrong that liberates the spirit from entrapment in this purgatory-like state. Buddhism in its transition from India through Tibet, China and Korea to Japan brought in concepts similar to western ideas of purgatory and trapped-ghosts caught between worlds. The resolution is typically introduced by a monk or a prayer that succeeds in liberating the attachment. The play typically starts slow with droning chants of the attendant chorus who kneel at the side of the stage. The spirits, embodied in masked dancers, move like slow mannequins doing Tai Chi early in the exposition of the story. At the resolution of the story, they move fast as the chorus chants and drums accentuate. The audience is so hypnotized by the grace and beauty of the play that the culmination at the spirit’s liberation and resolution that we ourselves feel transported and liberated by our burdens in the process.
In the north of the city is a broad river called Arashiyama (stormy mountain) which has amazing forests of bamboo.
The reason to venture here would be some amazing tea houses and smaller temples that have broad gardens covered with moss. It may be the humidity that comes from the waterfalls that causes this lush area of town. You can spend hours just wandering the hills visiting the temples between refreshment breaks.
In the north of the city are a few temples that should not be missed on your visit. The most famous is the golden tea-house called Ginkakuji. It is not one that visitors can go near. But its setting against the ponds and hillside are one of the most extravagantly composed landscapes in Kyoto.
My personal favorite is the Kinkakuji. It is also an exquisite tea house accompanied by a vast rock garden. The tea house is wooden colored and demure, the moon to Ginkakuji’s sun.
Ryoanji is the most famous of the rock garden temples in spite of being one of the most modest temples in Kyoto. The fascinating thing for me was the polished and worn edges of the “porch” overlooking the garden. It seemed this temple has not had its timbers replaced. It feels as old as the philosophy it espouses.
To get a sense of the lifestyle of the royal family in previous centuries, I recommend a visit to Nijo Castle. Here there are elegant tatami-mat halls and gardens across the castle grounds. Everything is made of elegant wood beams like Higashi Hoganji without a hint of modern comforts.
Kyoto is one of the capitals of Zen. You can stare at Ryoanji’s rock garden to try to achieve enlightenment by raw insight. Or you can practice archery or zazen in one of the local temples to try to achieve it through artistic practice. I don’t have any particular tips on this as I’ve only tried the zazen approach. But if you’re thinking of getting instruction, this is as good a place as any to start.
If you get the chance to head south to Nara, you’ll discover an altogether different experience. The town feels much more rural and modest. Your time will be spent more walking the gardens than navigating by taxi. You would of course want to see the large indoor buddha sculpture, one of the largest in the world enclosed in a temple housing just above his head.
The gardens of Nara have hundreds of deer who walk among the pagodas to be fed by visitors. They are somewhat aggressive for vittles, which are sold at local concession stands and vending machines around the grounds.
As much as you’ll be drawn to temples in Kyoto, you’ll be amazed at the variety of gardens which have their own manner of architectural charm. There are more manner of gardens in Kyoto than you’re likely to see anywhere.
There is a famous pond in Nara, which you’ll undoubtedly see that is the subject of a famous tale in the book Roshomon. There is allegedly, a dragon living in it which everyone longs to see…
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