Kyoto 京都市: A City Full of Temples & Shrines
With so much to see, and only three full days in Kyoto, Alex, my mom, and I had quite a few early mornings! Most of the temples close by 4 PM, so we were out the door by 7:30 or 8 each morning! Luckily, the hotel where we stayed, Sakura Terrace, has a Japanese-style spa (gender segregated and nude) as well as a large common area with free welcome drinks each night, so we were able to relax each night after a long day!
Here are the highlights of some of the temples and shrines we saw:
Arashiyama: 45-minutes by train, in the west part of Kyoto, this was a nice half-day trip for Alex and me. The main attractions include a monkey park (after our experiences in Hong Kong and Bali, we’re done with monkeys…), a bamboo forest pathway (unreal how tall the bamboo can grow), and the beautiful Arashiyama mountain (trees just starting to change colors). We were very lucky to arrive early in the morning, because by 11 AM, the bamboo forest was full of large tour groups (thanks Andrew for the tip!). We crossed the Katsura River on the romantic Togetsukyo Bridge and were lucky enough to see a small parade (women dressed all in white, chanting and drumming)… not really sure what the parade was for?
Sanjusangen-do Temple: Called “a hall with 33 spaces between columns,” this temple houses 1001 statues of Buddhist gods (Kannon), made from Japanese cypress. There are 1000 smaller statues that are standing and one large statue that is seated. A little over 10% of the statues were made when the temple was founded in the 12th century, and the remainder were created during the renovations to the temple in the 13th century. From what we could see (of the first couple of rows), the statues all look slightly different!
Tofukuji Temple: Unfortunately, by the time we arrived at this temple, it was already 4 PM and the temple was closed. We did have a chance to walk around the grounds (beautiful with Japanese maple trees). We walked across one bridge and had a nice view of the Tsuten-kyo bridge. While walking, we saw a woman taking multiple pictures of her poodle (dressed in a shirt and pants). On our way back, that poodle was still being tortured… er, I mean photographed… poor dog!
Yasaka Shrine (Gion Shrine): We saw the main gate of this shrine on our first night in Kyoto, while walking around the Gion district. We went back the next day and walked around the grounds. There were beautiful lanterns, as well as a park with a pond.
Fushimi Inari Shrine: As soon as we arrived here, there were banners all over, proclaiming that this shrine was voted #1 on Tripadvisor as THE sight to see in not just Kyoto, but all of Japan! Again, we were very lucky to have arrived early (thanks again Andrew!) because by the time we were walking out, two hours later, the place was mobbed. The actual shrine (originally dedicated to the god of rice) is at the bottom of Inari Mountain, but there are thousands of orange-red Torii gates that wind all the way up the mountain. Apparently business owners and merchants had been the main worshipers at the shrine, and each of the Torii gates are installed from the donations of different businesses. Many of the gates have names and dates carved into them. What a great way to fund renovations! There are many statues and pictures of foxes at this shrine, because they were seen as the messengers between the worshipers and the rice god.
The map showing the path to the top of the mountain was a little misleading (not the scale) and confusing but we made it to the top (nice view). I had read on Tripadvisor that after a while, seeing the Torii gates gets a little boring… and they were right! We were eaten alive by mosquitoes (heavily wooded pathway) and my mom’s knees hurt after climbing all the way up (and down) so I think next time, we’ll stop halfway and turn around early!
Eikando Zenrin-Ji Temple: This Buddhist temple has immaculately kept grounds. There’s a large pond, and the foliage has just started to turn color. Beautiful wooden corridors connect the various sections of this temple. In some ways, it felt like a very large tree-house, with some hidden staircases and many rooms. Like most temples and shrines, we had to remove our shoes at the entrance and walk around (the interior) barefoot. Alex liked the serenity of this temple to the Fushimi Inari madness.
Shoren-in Temple: This small temple (dedicated to Tendai, a small sect of Japanese Buddhism) looks more like someone’s (very nice) house. The head priests from this temple had close ties with the Imperial Family.
Kiyomizu-Dera: This Buddhist temple is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The temple is constructed using no nails! There’s a large viewing platform that affords a nice view of Kyoto city. Some parts of the temple were under construction (and apparently have been for a while). Apparently, people used to jump off the Kiyomizu stage (13 meter drop) because they believed that if you survived the jump, your wish would be granted. The survival rate was surprisingly high (over 80%) but it’s now prohibited!
There are a bunch of smaller shrines, one of which is dedicated to love. It was too crowded when we were there, but there are two “love stones” placed 20 feet apart, and if you are able to reach the second stone from the first (while blindfolded), then you’re supposed to be able to find your true love. “You don’t need to do that, you already found Alex,” my mom quipped. 😀
We waited in line to taste the water from the Otowa Waterfall (falls in three channels, into a well). We each picked up a long ladle (a metal cup with a very long handle) and drank the water from each of the three channels. If you do this, your wish is supposed to come true!
Ginkaku Temple (Silver Pavilion): This Zen temple was built by the grandson of the founder of the Kinkaku (Gold Temple, actually coated in gold leaf)- which we skipped due to time constraints. There is no silver to be seen at the Ginkaku Temple (it was supposed to be covered with a silver-foil overlay) because the project was put on hold during a war and never completed after the founder’s death. The gardens are beautiful and extremely well-kept (a guy was picking through the moss, looking for weeds- he gave me a piece of weed to look at). There are also some meticulously-made sand gardens, including a conical pile that is supposed to represent Mt Fuji.
The three of us loved Kyoto. The city is small. The people are very friendly. And the temples and shrines are amazingly well-kept. We would definitely go back for a second visit!