Temple fever in Kyoto

Kyoto Travel Blog

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The dai burnt into the hillside that is visible from northwest Kyoto. If you're in the area of on my birthday (16 August) have a look up and you'll see it burning!

Sunday: Northwest Kyoto

I had three more days in Kyoto after my night out to try and see some of what the place had to offer.  Despite getting in at 5am I awoke at 8.30am because my room hadn't shut the blinds before going to bed the night before so light was streaming in - I didn't feel so bad so I thought "what the heck" let's go sightseeing.  This day I had decided to travel to Northwest Kyoto to have a look at two very different temples in Kinkaku-Ji and Ryoan-Ji.  Then I was hoping to finish off the day with a visit to Nijo castle, built for the first Shogun so they could "look after" the emperor.

I had read that one way of visiting the temples in the northwest was to catch the metro to Kitaoji and walking to them from there as they were broadly on the same road.

The Golden Temple and its beautiful gardens
  This was a mistake...  The temples are a long way apart from each other and the lack of sleep and rather copious amounts of alcohol were starting to kick in!  I plodded along this road, originally going the wrong way so I had to retrace my steps before eventually arriving at the entrance to the Golden Temple, as Kikaku-Ji is known in English.

It was worth the walk.  Like most temples in Kyoto you have to pay an entrance fee but the temple was beautiful.  It's covered in gold so must be an incredibly impressive sight in the sunlight!  Even on the overcast day I visited it the temple seemed to still shine bright.  The garden it lies within is beautifully kept as well.  There are a couple of zen pebble gardens and a lot of waterfalls - it seems that waterfalls are important as the noise they make if they aren't too big can be very soothing and condusive to meditation.

The lake was so calm you always got these lovely double images
  A lot of these gardens don't use grass - instead they have manicured beds of moss that look like carpets they're so smooth!

On leaving the Golden Temple I took a wrong turn and only realised about half an hour later... to make things worse it had started to rain!  I slowly made my way back to the right road, and walked into Ryoan-Ji.  The most famous thing about this temple is the zen garden they have.  This is within the main temple complex which you have to take your shoes off to get to and consists of impeccably raked pebbles with 15 rocks placed around the garden.  It is known as the dry landscape style and supposedly no one knows who designed it.  You really can just sit there and stare at the garden and ponder it - again I expect it's a very useful meditation tool.

A view of the temple from further up
  To be honest I was just happy to be able to sit down out of the rain after my detour!  The rest of the garden is in a similar style to that seem at the Golden Temple with yet more of the moss carpet everywhere.

I had decided to make Nijo castle my final destination that day, indeed because of all the unnecessary detours I had made earlier in the day I didn't have time to see anything else after this anyway.  It was now I made the first use of the excellent Kyoto bus network which was very easy to use.  The have screens at the front of the bus telling you the name of the next stop in both kanji and western latin characters.  I jumped off the bus at the usefully named Nijo-Jo stop and paid my entrance fee to get in.  That day they were offering free English tours and so I was taken around the impressive castle.

The zen garden a Ryoan-Ji. As you can see, many people were "contemplating" it!
  Japanese castles are very different to western castles as they have large but low walls and then huge expanses of empty space before the main castle itself.  I guess there must have just been very different styles of battles in Japan and perhaps not the sieges that were seen in Europe.  The castle itself is fascinating, and as you walk around on the boards you hear this creaking or squeaking sound not unlike a nest of small birds coming from your feet.  This is the infamous nightingale boards which were designed to squeak at the lightest foot so the Shogun would know if anyone was trying to eavesdrop.  The wonderfully painted screens and wood carvings were hard to make out as the sky was gloomy outside and they don't allow much light in to protect the paintings.
The inner entrance to Nijo-jo
  To help you understand the function of each of the rooms they have placed figurenes dressed in traditional Edo-style within some of the rooms.  Outside the main complex there are a lot of beautiful gardens.  But my mood was rather reflective of the weather and I felt cold and wet so I don't think I could really enjoy it.  One thing I would recommend though would be to visit this castle in the cherry blossom season as they had an avenue full of cherry trees that would look simply stunning at that time of year!

That evening was spent watching "The Last King of Scotland" with some people I met at the hostel - very good film I recommend it!

Monday: Northern Higashiyama

I had decided to tackle the northern part of Higashiyama on Monday.

The main building at Nijo-Jo. Inside this were the nightingale boards.
  Again there were more temples on the horizon but I had also planned a walk through one of the hills behind the first shrine I visited and then a walk down the philosophers path to the last stop of my day.  My first stop was Nanzen-Ji, a large Zen temple which began as a retirement villa for a very old emperor.  As with most places it was destroyed at least once in its history and the present buildings date from the 17th century.  If you're happy to pay the price you can climb the sort of gatehouse to get a great view over the city (so I've been told).  Instead I decided to just plump for the entrance fee into the main temple which includes the chance to take in the Leaping Tiger Garden, a classic Zen garden with a beautiful backdrop of the green wooded hills behind.
One of the many gardens surrounding the castle. If only it hadn't been raining...
  I decided to go for a climb in these hills but this was a lot more difficult then I was expecting!  There isn't really much in the way of signage to find the right trail, and even less if you can't read Kanji (like me)!  At first I started going in the wrong direction by following some red painted stumps which I presumed (wrongly) were marking a trail.  I got rather worried when it was telling me to walk down an almost sheer drop so I turned back.  Finally I found the right trail - you had to follow the acqueduct up into the mountains for a very short time and go past another temple complex on your left above the main temple towards the hills.

The walk was great - really quiet shrouded by tall trees and it unearthed a gem of a shrine nestled away in the hills.

A view of the castle complex from one of its walls
  It had what looked like a polished marble floor and it looked simply beautiful with the valley rising up behind it and the gentle sound of water falling around.  I continued on and followed the path round, past some cemeteries that would have been quite spooky had it been later in the day!  Soon I began to hear the sounds of the city again and the road reappeared not far from Eikan-Do, temple number 2 for the day.  The big thing about this temple is that they have a statue of a buddha glancing backwards - this is rather unusual and comes from the story that the priest the temple is named after saw the buddha one day and the buddha glanced backwards at him.  This seemed to have a great effect on him (I wasn't quite sure why) and so he insisted they create a statue just like it.
  Again the temple was beautifully looked after but my visit was somewhat spoilt by all the building or restoration work that was going on the hall that contained this statue.  You could however walk up to a pavilion nestled in the hills which gave an almost 180 degree view of the city.

I then made my way along the famous Path of Philosophy.  This winding path runs alongside a canal and is nestled between a back street in Kyoto and the hills towering up.  It makes for a very contemplative walk, but is probably at its best in the cherry-blossom season, as when I went along it it did feel rather drab.  I took a brief detour near the northern end to go to Omen, a noodle shop specialising in thick, white noodles of the same name served in a tasty broth.

Torii at Fushimi-Inari Taisha
  The staff were very friendly and helpful, spoke some English, and had an english menu - a very tasty and recommended meal-stop!

The final spot on my itinerary for the day was Ginkaku-Ji, supposedly a must for all trips to Kyoto.  By this point I must surmise I was suffering from a bit of "temple-fatigue" as I couldn't bring myself to find the site particularly impressive or different, especially considering what I had already seen.  The garden was beautiful as always, with interesting shapes of white sand juxstaposed with the water-centric gardens so reminiscent of the Japanese past.  But there was nothing particularly different, not the beautiful simplicity of the famous Zen garden in Ryoan-Ji, nor the opulent extravagence of the Golden Temple (interestingly the name Ginkaku-Ji literally translates as "silver temple" but the temple was never covered in silver as designed - perhaps a pity considering my impressions of the place!)

With this view weighing heavily on my mind I called it a day for sightseeing, and made my way back to the hostel where I spent a relaxing evening watching DVDs with other travellers.  Sometimes everyone needs some time off!

Tuesday: Southern Higashiyama and Fushimi-Inari Taisha

My final full day in Kyoto and I planned to visit some of the areas fairly close to me in Higashiyama that I hadn't visited on my first day in the city, which mainly consisted of Kiyomizu-Dera, another ancient temple nestled into the hillside towards the south-east of the city and Fushimi-Inari Taisha, a wonderfully different temple complex to finish off my visit of this ancient capital of Japan.

Kiyomizu-Dera was one of the busiest sites I visited during my time in Kyoto.  It seemed to be mostly made of wood and had the by now familiar construction with a decked veranda sporting open sliding doors that gave you a glimpse of the colourful shrines inside.  There was a spring that seemed very popular with the visitors - part of the buddhist ritual involves cleansing your body using these natural springs I believe and at the time a lot of people were taking part.  I only watched from afar, as I felt it would be somewhat rude of me to do the same actions not understanding the spiritual reasons for it.

That afternoon I took the "Keihan Main Line" (one of the sort-of metro lines that Kyoto has) to see Fushimi-Inari Taisha.  As I walked from the station my senses were assaulted by the sights and smells of the bustling street, where many street vendors were offering snack foods and drink - I was very tempted to try some of what I assumed were dumplings but sadly I didn't feel hungry at all!  Reaching the temple complex I pretty much skipped the actual temple itself as my main reason for visiting this particular shrine was to walk through the many Torii, orange pillars, that lined the paths that snaked up and around the small mountain.  The walk seemed to go on forever, but the views at the top of the mountain were breathtaking as you could see all of Kyoto below.  It was also somewhat sad, as the urban sprawl so typical of Japanese cities hides what once would have been a stunningly beautiful view.  It is not too difficult to imagine, in your mind's eye, what Edo-era Kyoto would have looked like and what a sight that would have been from this high vantage point.  Continuing on, I managed to get thoroughly lost walking through the maze-like passageways.  It was an eerie experience as the mountain was incredibly quiet with hardly any other people walking around (at this time of year at least) - at one point as I walked up the upteenth slope I found myself thinking how good a place this would be to run; you'd certainly get very fit, and then over the brow of the hill came a runner!  Obviously I wasn't the only person with that view!
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The dai burnt into the hillside th…
The dai burnt into the hillside t…
The Golden Temple and its beautifu…
The Golden Temple and its beautif…
The lake was so calm you always go…
The lake was so calm you always g…
A view of the temple from further …
A view of the temple from further…
The zen garden a Ryoan-Ji.  As you…
The zen garden a Ryoan-Ji. As yo…
The inner entrance to Nijo-jo
The inner entrance to Nijo-jo
The main building at Nijo-Jo.  Ins…
The main building at Nijo-Jo. In…
One of the many gardens surroundin…
One of the many gardens surroundi…
A view of the castle complex from …
A view of the castle complex from…
Torii at Fushimi-Inari Taisha
Torii at Fushimi-Inari Taisha
photo by: ys484