Traveller Lowdown - Kyoto

The pinnacle of Japanese civilization, history and culture, KYOTO also combines big city sophistication with small town charm. Having immersed himself in this most rewarding of destinations, Alex Benasuli feels that he will never be the same again. Visions of golden leaf-accented dark wood pagodas, vermillion-coloured Torii gates and kimono-clad women are forever seared into his memory. The joys of a city break simply don’t get better than this.

For more than a millennium, until 1868, Kyoto served as the capital of Japan and the seat of its political, military and religious power. Somewhat unsurprisingly, therefore, the Japan of samurais and geishas, of grand temple complexes and sublime gardens, of mountain backdrops and crystal-clear streams and of cherry blossoms and autumn foliage are all showcased in Kyoto. Its glorious past and gorgeous nature-filled surroundings are to be discovered around every corner.

Yet, while Kyoto is more popular as a tourist destination than ever before, the city’s myriad of attractions ensures that there is plenty of room for everyone. Hidden spots are still be to found and once-in-a-lifetime moments to be experienced. This is an exotic and seductive place, where your jaw will literally drop multiple times each day and all your romantic notions of the Land of the Rising Sun will be more than satisfied.

They say that there’s a temple for every mood and taste in Kyoto. With over 2,000 of them spread across the city, it would take months, if not years, to explore them all. Large temple complexes with multi-tiered pagodas and immaculately landscaped gardens give way to smaller, Shinto shrines. And while many of the country’s most important buildings and antiquities are to be found in Kyoto, it is the depth of what is on offer that is truly staggering. Pace yourself. See the highlights but allow time to wander around and to go a little off-piste. Invariably you will stumble upon another marvel within minutes. For all the throngs of visitors filling the streets and temple courtyards, there are also quieter scenic routes that wind through residential neighbourhoods, replete with intimate cafés, art galleries and authentic noodle shops that all offer natural breaks from the sightseeing.

If you only had a few hours in Kyoto, the delightful Philosopher’s Walk (also known as the Path of the Philosopher) in the northern Higashiyama district would be the best way to feel immersed. The two kilometre path follows a canal which is enveloped by hundreds of cherry blossom trees, making it one of the most popular walks in Kyoto during the annual season in spring.

On one side of the path, some of Kyoto’s most beautiful temples are accessible, overlooked by the rolling Higashiyama mountains. During autumn, the same cherry trees and mountain forests explode in shades of red, yellow and orange. In the hot and humid summer months, the canal waters, shaded by the tree canopies, offer some respite from the heat. Meanwhile, on the other side of the path and leading down the slope through upscale residential streets, cafés, casual restaurants and quirky boutiques abound. Just beyond the northern end of the walk, take a taxi or the metro and make your way to Ginkaku-ji Temple.

Known as the “Silver Pavilion”, Ginkaku-ji was originally built in 1484, though it has been rebuilt and renovated many times since, following earthquakes and fires over the centuries. “Silver” refers to the moonlight shadow cast upon the dark wood exterior of its central pavilion. The foreground of the temple boasts one of Japan’s most celebrated sand gardens, meticulously raked into Zen-like concentric circles, with a massive sand cone as its apex. This “Sea of Silver Sand with Moon Viewing Platform” (as this garden is formally called) is designed to encourage spiritual contemplation and provides an intro to Japanese garden. The much larger “moss” garden on the other side (of a massive wooden gate) is laid out as a series of winding pathways that make their way up the foothills of the mountain slope, with ponds, streams, bridges, tea houses and temple buildings as focal points. The views over the entire garden, the temple buildings and northern Higashiyama are breathtaking.

Just beyond the southern end of the Philosopher’s Walk, around a 40-minute walk from Ginkaku-ji, lies the equally impressive Nanzen-ji temple which dates back to the mid 13th century. Nanzen-ji’s rock garden is meant to evoke tigers and cubs crossing through water. Like most temples in Kyoto, the inner buildings house priceless collections of fine arts. In the case of Nanzen-ji, these are screen doors with tigers depicted in gold leaf. A mid-19th century Meiji-era aqueduct, plus a hidden waterfall 200 metres higher up at the rear of the complex in the Higashiyama Forest, add to the allure of Nanzen-ji.

In between the temple complexes of Ginkaku-ji and Nanzen-ji, along (or just off) the Philosopher’s Walk, are a handful of other temples, including magical Hōnen-in and peaceful Eikan-dō Zenrin-ji. One can easily spend hours or days even, soaking up the temples and natural beauty of this part of Kyoto.

To the south of Higashiyama there are number of other Kyoto must-sees. Another half day circuit could begin with a visit to Sanjūsangen-dō. Housed within the longest wooden structure in Japan, which dates back to the mid 1200s, it is an incredible sight. A large, central wooded Kannon (the Buddhist goddess of mercy) with 1,000 arms, is flanked on either side by 500 human-sized standing Kannons. Each Kannon has eleven heads and 42 arms, making them better equipped to witness and fight against human suffering. Impressive barely conveys the feeling of gazing upon this army of gold leafed wooden statues, illuminated from above. The site is often referred to as Japan’s equivalent of China’s terracotta warriors. (https://kyoto.travel/en/shrine_temple/159)

A short walk from Sanjūsangen-dō is Tōfoku-ji, another jewel in Kyoto’s’ crown of larger temples. Tōfoku-ji is usually less crowded than the others. It also has one of the best gardens to experience the autumn foliage, with scores of soaring maple trees, an abundance of water features and a variety viewing points from which to appreciate the scale and beauty of one of Japan’s most important Zen temples from different angles.

Around the corner is Funda-in, a sub-temple of Tōfoku-ji. This hidden gem has one of the oldest dry landscape gardens in Kyoto, and a series of traditional Japanese-style rooms – concealed behind shoji-style sliding doors – house breathtaking screen paintings and delicate antiques.

Twenty minutes south from Tōfoku-ji, is the busy, brash and seemingly more commercial Fushimi Inari Shrine. At first glance, its temple buildings – interspersed with street food vendors, religious merchandise stall holders – seem quite different to the more contemplative and elegant temple sites elsewhere in the city. However, make no mistake, this is perhaps the most important site in all of Kyoto and almost certainly one of its most Instagramed. (https://kyoto.travel/en/shrine_temple/180)

Fushimi Inari’s iconic status is secured by the ten thousand vermillion coloured Torii gates, some dating back over a millennium, that ascend Inari mountain from the main temple complex. The visual effect of multiple ribbons of brightly hued gates, forming parallel and seemingly endless pathways to the shrine at the top of the mountain, is truly mesmerising. The further up you climb through the gates and bamboo forests, passing thousands of moss-covered stone foxes along the way, the more you will have this remarkable place to yourself. Inari is the all-important Shinto god of rice, and the foxes are his guardians and messengers. The spectacular views from the top, across Kyoto, are well worth the few hours of uphill effort to get there!

The riverside suburb of Arashiyama is another part of Kyoto which displays the city’s seductive charms. Easily accessed by metro, bus or taxi, Arashiyama is easily worthy of a half day if not a whole. This leafy, western district – nestled along the Katsura River under the watchful eye of the Arashiyama mountains – makes for extremely pleasant walking, moderate hiking and cycling, particularly during spring, autumn and December during Hanatoro when thousands of lights and flowers softly-illuminate streets filled with shrines and temples. The bamboo forest behind Tenryū-ji Temple and iconic Togetsukyo Bridge (“Moon-Crossing Bridge”) are two of the best places to experience Hanatoro and Arashiyama in general.

The largest and most impressive temple in Arashiyama is Tenryū-ji, which dates back to 1339 and is one of Kyoto’s five great Zen temples. Its walking and garden paths are as striking as its main buildings. Nearby, Ōkōchi Sansō is a must for garden lovers. This former villa of one of Japan’s most famous actors from the last century, has multiple tea houses, traditional wooden buildings dotted around immaculate gardens and views over Arashiyama.

As is the case in Higashiyama, while the traditional tourist highlights are exemplary, you are encouraged to wander and explore. There are temples and shrines almost everywhere and the nature around Kyoto is breathtaking. If you are looking for mountain paths, rolling rivers, babbling brooks, and bridges straight out of a classic wood block print, you will find them all in Arashiyama, which also makes an excellent starting point for adventures in the mountains nearby.

For the little less active, the 25-minute Sagano Scenic Railway, which connects Arashiyama to rural Kameoka through mountainsides, forested ravines and along the Hozugawa river, is an excellent way to see the incredible scenery. And the period carriages with their wooden benches – a faithful reproduction of the original late 19th century train – only adds to the charming experience. (www.sagano-kanko.co.jp/en)

There will come a point in your visit to Kyoto where you will likely become temple saturated. Walking around for hours at a time stimulates an appetite and the need to unwind. Gion, historically Kyoto’s entertainment district, adjacent to Higashiyama, is still the area with the highest density of bars and restaurants was well as traditional Geisha hostess lounges. You will see kimono dressed women all over the streets, temples and hotel lobbies in Kyoto. However, in Gion they are even more prevalent.

The Hanami-koji area of Gion (on the south side of Shijo-dori) has the best-preserved streets, with the highest concentration of traditional, wooden machiya merchant houses. The side streets also provide multiple characterful dining and drinking options.

Gion Manzara is a popular but intimate restaurant, within a traditional house, that serves Kyoto-style home cooking on brightly coloured Japanese ceramic dishes, appealing to both tourists and locals alike (www.manzara.co.jp/gion). A short walk away, the area between Yasaka Shrine leading up to Kiyomizudera Temple offers another cluster of well-preserved streets, with numerous choices for more casual eating as well as some decent souvenir shopping.

Fine arts collectors or those looking for special treasures should head to Shinmonzen-Dori in Gion, which is lined with reputable antique and art dealers, some of whom have been there for over 100 years.

Over in Arashiyama, Kitcho Arashiyama is one of the best places (if not most expensive), to indulge in multi-course, immaculately prepared Japanese haute kaiseki cuisine (www.kyoto-kitcho.com). Nearby, Café Hassui sits on Hozugawa River, boasts indoor and outdoor seating and panoramic views, and serves tea, coffee, light bites and evening cocktails in a sophisticated yet welcoming setting. (www.suirankyoto.com/hassui)

Whether you have a few hours or a few weeks, spending time in Kyoto is like being in a dream that you don’t want to end. With Japan’s glorious past on display around every corner of Kyoto, you will leave the city more entranced than ever by its intriguing motherland, where art, architecture, nature, tradition and attention to detail effortlessly fuse together, providing visitors with a unique and deeply satisfying cultural travel experience. (https://kyoto.travel/en