Kyoto was the capital of Imperial Japan during the Heian period and today it is known for its temples and sights of religious significance. A visit to Kyoto is a visit to ancient Japan. It makes for an especially interesting contrast when coming from one of Japan’s many ultra-modern cities such as Osaka or Tokyo.
I had visited the city several years before but since then I’ve developed more of an interest in Zen Buddhism and other eastern religions, so I decided to return and see all of the attractions that I had missed on my first trip.
Day 1: The East
Arriving from Hong Kong after a long journey, I wanted to spend my first full day in Kyoto doing some relaxing sightseeing. I decided to check out the eastern side of the city, as it was closest to my hostel. My first stop was the Sanjusangen-do Temple. I walked to this temple, but it is also easily reached from Kyoto Station via Raku Bus 100. These are city buses that are specifically designed with tourists in mind. They only hail at stops with significance to tourists and they are equipped with easy to read maps and English signpostings.
Sanjusangen-do is a Buddhist temple belonging to the Tendai school. It was built in 1164 and tt is renowned for its one thousand golden statues of the Buddhist deity, and thousand-armed, Kannon. There are no photos allowed in the main hall, which is a shame because the sight of so many golden statues is pretty amazing. While 999 of the statues are life-sized, at the center of the hall there is one very large and very beautiful statue of Kannon.
In the temple I took part in a Buddhist fortune enhancing ritual, writing my name and wishes on a piece of wood to later be burned as firewood in a ritual ceremony. It’s also possible to write your wishes on a candle and leave it burning in the 900 year old hall.
After leaving the temple I walked to my next destination, the Kiyomizu-dera Temple. For those of you who don’t like walking, the Raku Bus goes directly from Sanjusangen-do to Kiyomizu-dera. Kiyomizu-dera’s name translates as Pure Water Temple and it is famous for its holy water which is believed to have wish granting powers. A waterfall features prominently on the temple grounds and worshipers stand underneath it holding cups attached to long sticks in order to catch and drink the water.
The temple itself is a masterpiece of construction, completed in 1649, and standing on an amazing foundation of pillars on a forested hillside. Because of the temple’s elevated location there are amazing views of the city of Kyoto. Adjacent to the temple, at no extra cost of admittance, is the Jishu Shrine. The Jishu Shrine is famous in Japan amongst young couples who come to receive good fortune in their relationships. The small shrine has many different types of fortune enhancing activities, including two ‘love stones’ located ten meters apart. It’s said that if a person can walk between the two stones while blindfolded, their heart’s desires will come true.
OOnce I left the Kiyomizu-dera temple, I walked downhill and to the nearby Kennin-ji Temple. The area around Kiyomizu-dera is filled with tourists and shops selling everything from traditional Japanese paper fans to different kinds of desserts and sweets. Kennin-ji is located near the river, just south of Gion. There are several beautifully painted screens in the temple and a zen garden, but the main attraction here is the ‘twin dragons’. A gigantic and magnificently painted ceiling that was completed in 2002.
From Kennin-ji it’s just a short walk north to the Yasaka Shrine and the neighborhood of Gion. Gion is comprised of small streets, canals and traditional wooden houses. It makes for an interesting stroll and is probably the only place in Kyoto where it’s still possible to see a geisha heading to an appointment in traditional attire and makeup. Raku Bus 100 makes a stop at Yasaka Shrine and from there it goes onward to the Kyoto National Museum of Modern Art.
Done with my first day of sightseeing I returned to my hostel and rested. When my stomach started growling, I decided to check out a vegetarian restaurant that I had read about. My hostel was nice enough to give me directions to the restaurant, which was vital as the restaurant is located on a small alleyway and isn’t easy to find. The restaurant is called Mikoan and it is located in the city center, just south of Shijo-dori and one block west of Kawaramachi-dori. Inside there’s a bar that seats about 15 people and is the only choice for seating. This makes for a sociable and communal dining experience. I ordered the vegetarian dinner set which was quite large for only 1,000 Yen. The food is home-cooked by the proprietor right in front of the bar and every dinner set is unique. Two people ordering the same set receive different dishes!