Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Kyoto

Kyoto. The epitome of traditional Japanese culture.

It is said that no trip to Japan is complete without visiting Kyoto. With over 50 million tourists visiting Kyoto each year, it is not an exaggeration. Kyoto is the best place to experience Japanese culture, sights and history. Having heard so much about Kyoto, we were eager to visit Kyoto. We had originally planned to visit Kyoto in summer but had to drop the idea when we learnt that the summers in Kyoto can be hot and humid. We decided to make a trip in the winter months but Kyoto winters are supposed to be severe too. So finally we decided to make the trip in Autumnn. We eventually visited Kyoto in October. It indeed proved to be a good decision as the weather was pleasant and we had a nice tour.

There is a lot of information about Kyoto on the internet. We referred to a lot of websites when we were planning our Kyoto trip and we realised that each person who visits Kyoto has his own version of what to see and when to go. That was when I decided that I should put up my version. Our trip was a combined trip of Kyoto, Nara and Hakone. I will post about Nara and Hakone in separate posts soon.

Kyoto was the ancient capital of Japan much before Tokyo ( then known as Edo) was designated the capital city. Though it has kept up with the current times and style, Kyoto has retained its cultural essence and a trip to Kyoto is indeed an experience in itself. Kyoto lies in the Kansai - Kinki region. It is connected by air, road and railway to all major cities in Japan. The nearest airport is Kansai International Airport. It is also connected by Shinkansen and JR line railways.  It is about a 7 hour drive from Tokyo (500 kms) and about 10 hour drive from Iwaki (674 kms). We had initially thought of going by bus or train instead of driving all the way to Kyoto from Iwaki. At the last minute we decided to drive to Kyoto. We started early in the day, at 4 am to be precise on Wednesday, 20th October and after few short coffee and rest breaks at the rest areas, we reached Kyoto at around 2 pm. The weather was good. Surprisingly even after a 10 hour drive we still had energy for beginning our Kyoto sightseeing. We first visited Kinkakuji - The Golden Pavilion.

The official name of Kinkakuji is Rokuon-ji temple. It was designated a Unesco World Cultural Heritage in 1994. This Zen temple is a three storied structure which is covered in Gold leaf. Each story is built in a different architectural style. Visitors cannot enter the Golden pavilion. There is a Japanese style garden with a pond, a tea house, the priests’ quarters and a small shrine.


After that we visited Arashiyama which is famous for the Bamboo Groves.


We could not visit the Tenryuji Temple since it was almost closing time. So instead we visited the Togetsukyo Bridge and river side.

 The uniqueness is that the river on the west of the bridge is called Hozu river and on the east side is called Katsura river.

It was almost sunset and since most tourist spots close around that time we decided to go to our hotel. Our hotel was in the Karasuma area and was very conveniently located. Kyoto station was close enough and so were the bus stops.

The best way to explore Kyoto is by bus. Kyoto is not a very big city and it is not impossible to drive around. Thanks to navigation systems, it is actually very easy to reach the sites. But finding parking can be a bit difficult in the popular spots though not impossible. Also parking charges during the daytime could be high. Nevertheless we decided to explore Kyoto by bus. Kyoto has a Bus pass system. The One Day Sightseeing Pass costs 500 yen and is reasonably priced considering you can travel  unlimited times within the circuit . Most tourist spots are within the circuit. For places outside the circuit, passholders need to pay an additional charge. There is also a Two Day Pass priced at 1200 yen . The buses have displays in English.  Announcements about the approaching stations and the nearby tourist attractions are in English .All this makes it easy for travellers to find their destination easily. The buses were not crowded and the frequency was pretty good too. However we were travelling on a week day so I am not aware of the situation on weekends and holidays.

Every place in Kyoto we visited had big groups of school students. I thought that it must be common for student groups  to tour Kyoto during autumn. My friend tells me that it is common to see student groups of all age groups in Kyoto the whole year !

On Thursday, 21st October, we started from our hotel at about 9 am and first went to the JR Kyoto station. It is a gigantic building and ultra modern architecture. Quite a contrast considering that Kyoto is best known for its culture, traditions and history. The Kyoto Tower is right opposite the Kyoto Station . The various sightseeing and local  buses also start and terminate from outside the Kyoto Station. We had passed by the Higashi Honganji temple on our way to Kyoto Station and we decided to stop by there on our way to Nijo Castle. The Higashi Honganji temple does not appear to be on the itinerary of most tourists and we were amongst a handful of tourists at the time there.

Our next destination was Nijo Castle. This building was built in 1603 and was the official residence of the Tokugawa Shogun in Kyoto. This was designated as an Unesco World Heritage site in 1994.


This place was definitely crowded and student groups were a larger part of the crowd. A part of the castle was also under renovation. The painted sliding doors and the squeaking floor ( named as Nightingale floors) in the Ninomaru palace are the only two specialities of an otherwise simple castle. There are few exhibits aiming to recreate the life during the Shogun’s presence in the castle. There are few other buildings along with the Honmaru Palace  in the vicinity but none of them are open to public. There is a garden which is well maintained.



We then proceeded to Kiyomizudera temple.

It can be said that no trip to Kyoto is complete without visiting Kiyomizudera. The Kiyomizudera is one of Kyoto’s most visited spots and true to what we had read and heard, it was full of tourists and school students. Kiyomizudera was also designated a Unesco World heritage site in 1994.

From the bus stop, a steep uphill walk leads to the Kiyomizudera temple. Halfway up the hill, the road is lined on both sides by various shops selling souvenirs, food stuff, crafts etc . The road as well as the shops are crowded with tourists and school students.
It is a Buddhist shrine which is in existent since 798 AD though the current structure dates back to the 17th century.


Walking through a vermillion gate known as Nio-Mon , we passed by a three storied vermillion pagoda known as Sanju-No-To on our way to the Kyodo Hall .

We then walked across to Hondo , the Main Hall.

 The statues are hidden from public and displayed only once in 33 years.

Just outside is Kiyomizudera’s most famous structure is the big wooden terrace named as Butai or dancing stage which offers a wonderful view of Kyoto city. The terrace is so high that there are many Japanese sayings associated with it. One for instance is the Japanese  equivalent of “ jumping off the stage at Kiyomizu” which is used to mean “ taking the plunge “ or “ Achieving a near impossible task”.

Walking ahead we reached the Oku-no or the Inner temple.

Outside is a small terrace which offers a good view of Kyoto and the great terrace. A walking trail and a stairway both lead down to the Otowa waterfalls .

Kiyomizudera by itself means “ Temple of pure water”. These are three streams of water which each of which stand for  health, success in studies and long life. But drinking the water from all three streams is considered as sign of greediness.  Most people are of the opinion that it is best to purchase souvenirs and gifts from the Kiyomizu area because of the pricing and variety. The other popular souvenir and gift shopping areas are Arashiyama and Gion.

From Kiyomizudera we proceeded to Heian Jingu Shrine. A giant Torii on the road marks the beginning of the path to the Heian shrine. The Heian shrine is a Shinto Shrine and it was built in 1895 to commemorate the 1100 th anniversary of the establishment of  Kyoto ( then known as “Heiankyo”) as the capital of Japan.

The vermillion coloured shrine and other buildings in the complex are definitely a photographer’s delight.  This shrine is dedicated to Emperor Kanmu, the founder of the Heian capital and Emperor Komei, the last ruler of the Heian capital. This shrine was built in honour of Kyoto serving as the capital of Japan for over 1000 years. 

The day we visited was the eve of the Jidai Matsuri. This festival which is held on 22nd October each year is one of the three most important festivals of Kyoto and we could see preparations in full swing at the Heian shrine. The Jidai Matsuri is a colourful procession where people dressed in period costumes parade the streets. The procession begins at the old Imperial palace and terminates at the Heian shrine.

We then headed back to Gion area and our first stop there was at the Yasaka Jinja shrine. This Shinto shrine was once known as Gion Shrine. The vermillion coloured wooden entrance is an impressive sight.

Kyoto’s most famous festival, the Gion Matsuri which is held in July each year is held here.

After a short tour of the Yasaka Jinja complex, we were ready to explore the Gion area. We shopped for some colourful candies and trinkets. The candies are a speciality of Kyoto and especially in the Gion area. We walked around hoping to see a Geisha or a Meiko on their way to work.

We did see a few people dressed as a Meiko but not sure if they were the professionals or tourists dressed as one. (Many studios in Kyoto offer packages where people can dress up as Geisha or Meiko and have themselves photographed. It takes a few hours for the elaborate makeup, dressing and then the photoshoot.) We then ventured into the  Hanami-koji street which is popular as the Geisha area. This area has many O-chaya or Geisha banquet halls and it is common to spot a Geisha or two.  The best time to visit this area is around 4.30-5.30 pm.

After Gion, we headed to Toji temple. It was past the closing time of Toji Temple but we wanted to have a glimpse of the Toji pagoda. This pagoda is the tallest pagoda in Japan. We got to see the illuminated pagoda from outside offcourse .

 After that we proceeded to Kyoto station. The lit up Kyoto Tower just outside the Kyoto Station looks impressive.

 Just when we were about to leave for our hotel, we were in for a surprise. An impressive musical water fountain show which lasted for 20 minutes was displayed just outside the Kyoto station.

Next day, we started our day with a visit to Sanjusangen-do.

Sanju sangen-do is a Buddhist temple which has a collection of 1001 life size statues of standing Kannon.  The main deity is a gigantic seated thousand armed Kannon called as Sahasra Bhuja arya Avalokiteswara. The 1001 statues of Kannon are placed in 10 rows and 50 columns on both sides of the main deity. There are 28 statues in front of the 1001 Kannon statues and these are the guardian deities. These guardian deities are the Buddhist versions of the Hindu gods. Photography inside this hall is prohibited.  There is ample parking space for visitors. Parking is free for 40 minutes and that is approximately the time required for a tour of Sanjusangen-do.

We then proceeded further to Fushimi Inari.

Fushimi Inari Taisha is a Shinto shrine. It is the head of all Inari shrines in Japan.  It is located just a short walk from JR Nara line Inari station. The shrine is dedicated to Inari, the god of rice and is considered the patron god of business.


The shrine is located at the foot of Mt Inariyama. A short flight of stairs leads to the beginning of a Torii lined trail leading to the inner shrine.

The trail further leads up the Mt Inariyama. The thousands of wooden torii next to each other are a sight by themselves. These torii are donated by businessmen in gratitude for success and luck in their business.

 There are many stone fox statues holding a stone key in their mouth at the Inari shrine. Foxes are regarded as the messengers of Inari and the key is supposedly for the rice granary.


 If you are lucky you could also get to see a Shinto music and dance ritual performed by Mikos’, the shrine maidens.

Kyoto has a lot more to offer and the places we visited may be just a few of the popular destinations. But what we saw was indeed memorable and it is justified to say that we had managed to cover a fair portion of Kyoto’s attractions in the two days we spent there.

Kyoto tends to be crowded with tourists all year round. Hotel reservations in advance are necessary. Summer and winter are supposedly severe in winter. Autumn ( mid October to mid November) and Spring ( March-April) are recommended as ideal travel time. There are special illuminations at various spots during autumn. It is best to read about Kyoto, its history and the attractions and plan an itinerary for local sightseeing well before you arrive in Kyoto to avoid last minute hectic travel.

When in Japan, Go Kyoto !

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