Kyoto is the historic capital of Japan, from 794 until 1868, when the capital moved to Edo (now Tokyo). There are two palaces, 400 Shinto shrines and approximately 1,600 Buddhist temples. So, suffice it to say, if you dig Japanese history, this is the place for you. Some of the most famous temples are here, so expect the crowds, but you can also wander into some pretty special non touristy places easily.
Kyoto is laid out on a grid, so it is easy to navigate compared to Tokyo’s winding streets. Think New York City’s grid compared to downtown Boston’s confusing snarl. Probably best to divide the city into quadrants to explore. Our first day, we visited the southeast end at Kiyomizu-dera. Our guidebook said this is the most popular temple in Kyoto and the crowds supported that theory. The temple predates Kyoto’s creation and was first established in 778 around a pure spring. It is beautiful and its view of Kyoto provides a great overlook.
Our next day touring Kyoto, we visited both central Kyoto and north east Kyoto. We toured Nijo-jo (the castle) where the shogun held court. Built in 1603 for shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, this moated castle is worth a visit. Check out the nightingale floors (designed to prevent the ninjas from surreptiously sneaking up on a man) and the gardens, both a highlight.
We had an overly ambitious agenda of then marching to the northeastern quadrant and visiting Ginkaku-ji. Known as the “Silver Pavillion” and built by the son of Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (who built the Kinkaku-ji, or the Gold Pavillion across town), this site was a highlight for us. It’s Zen garden is one of the nicest we saw and its construct combines the island concept of pure land Buddhism and zen concepts (it was converted to a zen garden)
For our final day, we visited both Kinkaku-ji (the “Gold Pavillion”) and Ryoan-ji. The two most popular sites in the northwest quadrant of the city. Ryoan-ji is one of the most famous zen gardens. The stone garden has fifteen rocks but you cannot see all fifteen from any one point where you sit. The flashiness of its neighbor Kinkaku-ji is stark by comparison. Kinkaku-ji was designed to have three floors, the first floor was designed to resemble the quarters of a feudal lord, the second designed for a shogun and the third story designed to get you closer to Buddha and enlightenment.
But probably our favorite thing of all was wandering around the Gion (the entertainment district), finding a place to eat. We were lucky enough one morning to spot a geisha ducking down an alleyway (not a common sight). Some of the restaurants do not allow patrons who have not been invited in and so it can be intimidating, but we got lucky three nights with great traditional Japanese meals. One was very high end where they cook for you table side. The second was lower end (yet delicious) with three salad courses and then you order your dinner and the third was moderate and probably our favorite experience of all (chef’s choice). We will write about our various food experiences in a separate post, but suffice it to say we had varying but all great experiences.