Kyoto: Cultural Capital of Japan
Kyoto is UNESCO World Heritage central, with the largest concentration of designated Cultural Properties in Japan, an inevitable consequence of being Japan’s capital for over 1000 years. The images that most people have of Japan can probably all be found in the Kyoto vicinity. There’s no better place to go temple hopping in the country, as our photos below attest.
Kinkaku-ji: While beautiful from the outside, that’s as close as the public is allowed to approach. The temple is also a fairly recent reconstruction after an angry monk burned it down in 1950. There’s a pleasant stroll in the area, but the rain abbreviated our time there.
Ryoan-ji: The rock/zen garden is considered the best in the world, an ironic designation since its distinction brings in crowds that end up spoiling the zen-ness of the place.
Hongan-ji Temples: Two giant temple complexes serve as headquarters to Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, and on our visit, a Japanese-American priest gave us a fascinating introduction to their religious beliefs. If possible, plan a visit for two days in a row; the temple coordinates tours of the Shiro-Shoin, perhaps the best preserved Edo period residence in Japan – but you have to sign up the day before. The former residence of a warlord has all the original wood, artwork, and screens, a wonder to behold and only available by a free tour.
Tenryu-ji: On the outskirts of Kyoto is this Zen Buddhism temple which had one of our favorite gardens – modest, restrained, and lovely. The temple grounds were thoughtfully laid out with strolling paths all around.
Arashiyama Bamboo Forest: Behind the Tenryu-ji is one of Japan’s famous sights, the densely populated bamboo forest where the towering “grass” amplifies even the gentlest breeze.
Fushimi Inari Shrine: At the southern end of Kyoto, this shrine packs in countless numbers of torii across the side of a mountain. We were captivated not only by the torii, but the ancient forest that grows along the paths.
Kyoto Train Station: As if to defy the history of the city, the train station is a modern behemoth of steel that stretches into the sky. The design and space invite travelers to lose themselves among the escalators, catwalks, and viewpoints. If you visit Kyoto, get to the station at least an hour early to wander around.