Kyoto Attractions: The Essential Places You Must Experience
Feral monkeys, Geishas, odd food, temples galore, sake-induced hallucinations, a 1000 stone warriors, all this & more Japanese madness than you can shake a stick at. Kyoto, a bullet train ride away.
"A long time ago. In a galaxy far far away...."
The Emperor Strikes Back.
Yes, I admit it, the first thing I did as I hit Japanese airspace and vacated all my luggage from the belt is head out like the Roadrunner to the nearest movie theater. I mean, frankly, what kind of evil, dark and rotten organization decides to send you out on a recognisance mission the very day the new Star Wars hits the silver screen. Evil, vile and simply ungodly. Savages, that's what my editors are, crude savages.
With that said and my job, no doubt, hanging by a very frail line, we might as well get this train a rockin'... Full steam ahead. Next stop, KYOTO.
Let's give everybody a quick recap of what's transpired so far. I the plucky, harebrained, insensibly ignorant of other people's culture, tourist, has crash landed like Mars space probe on Japan. Everything tastes, smells, looks, and seems a bit wacky. Don't believe me, well, here's a gigantic headline, today, as I exited my hotel, I saw a kid walking a lettuce like a cocker spaniel on a leash. That's not a joke, and I was not "under the influence", it actually happened and, apparently, by the fact that he was later on joined by other grocery strolling devotes (the veggie aisle at the nearest supermarket was clinically ransacked and now resembled a ghost town), this sort of thing is rather common. A way and I quote: "To fight off depression... Cause owning a pet is far too costly in the current economic climate."
By now, you are probably thinking, I'm missing something. I feel as though I entered the movie halfway through. You are right, in order to really grasp the nuances (and since I won't be repeating myself) of cowboying your way through ninja town, you must first read my previous samurai infested odyssey. Don't worry, I'll hit the emergency brakes, let you take the next stop and hang around while you get your neurons working on this article's prequel. It's free, won't charge you extra and, trust me on this, you'll regret it further down the road, if you keep up this pose of being too cool for school.
Kyoto For Insiders: Kyoto has a Bullet Train! O.K., it's not exactly a secret but I really wanted to underscore it. The Tōkaidō Shinkansen is operated by JR Central. In less than two hours you can skim half of Japan on a moving contraption that would even make Flash work up a sweat. Hit Tokyo, Osaka, Hiroshima and Hakata in a series N700 shinkansen super train.
Just so you get a quick idea at what you will be facing when visiting Kyoto. I will try to be as succinct as possible, but at the same time slap you silly with the enormity of the travel you have just chosen to partake in. Kyoto has been, since 1994, designated as a World Heritage Site. The UNESCO's main idea was, that given the fact that more 20% of Japan's National Treasures, not to mention a staggering 14% of properties of cultural importance, can be found scattered willy-nilly throughout the region, it was simply easier to give Kyoto complete blanket protection.
Fushimi Inari-Taisha Shrine
Opened 24/7, it's free and it's located at 68 Fukakusa Yabunouchicho, Fushimi Ward, Kyoto. With that said, simply copy and paste the last piece of data into your phone and let Siri take you on a trip.
The head shrine for Inari Ōkami (a deity that has over 38 thousand places of worship across Japan), this place is sort of like the Athena Parthenon for, well, Athena. Fushimi sits right at the mountain entrance of one of Kyoto's many naturally dense areas. The earliest structure was completed in the 8th century, but it wasn't until a hundred years later, that Fushimi really got the headway it deserved and landed in the big leagues. In 969, during the early Heian period, Emperor Murakami afforded the temple official imperial patronage.
The main attraction of the shrine is the thousands of torii (a traditional red Japanese gate that marks the path that one most follow from profane to the sacred), lined in a perfect repeating succession toward the inner place of Mass. Each torii, has been donated by a powerful individual or a Japanese business.
The mountain, and here's the big "uh-oh" moment for the lot of us, stands approximately 250 meters above sea level and as if that wasn't enough to make us do a double take, the whole of the shrine spans 4 kilometers on an continued angle. In layman's terms, break out your NIKEs cause there be walking to do.
Quick question, you lob my way: "Mister smarty pants, what's with all the fox statues?"
Ah, you sort of noticed those then. Well, kitsune, or foxes for us yokels, are sacred idols in Fushimi. They are regarded as messengers to the gods and one of their main attributes is the fact that each statue holds a key in its maw. The symbolism of said object is closely tied to Inari's foremost patronage.. Inari, before everything else, is considered the God of rice; the keys represent the deities powers over rice granary.
Kyoto For Insiders: as you approach the shrine, you will notice hundreds of street vendors selling their wares. A perfect opportunity to seize the moment and buy cheap trinkets and nicknacks. A tradition, for any "white devil" visiting Japan, is to partake of a tsujiura senbei* that's is sold like candy across the path.
*Tsujiura senbei (辻占煎餅?), a form of fortune cookies dating at least to the 19th century, and which are believed by some to be the origin of the Chinese-American fortune cookie.
Hours: 8:45 to 17:00 (admission until 16:00)
Entry to Ninomaru from 9:00 to 16:00.
Price: 600 yen. English audio guides are available for 500 yen.
When the average westerner imagines a castle, he instantly recalls the walled buttress of Minas Tirith; Gandalf warding off an army of Nazguls and Orcs. A giant monumental fortress of heavy stone and masonry. In Japan, most castles do not adhere to this ideal. They are aesthetically apt and pleasing to the eye, chameleons that match their surrounding region, mixing into the greenery and shrubbery like an army commando. They are, in a way, one with nature.
Nijo Castle is a flat plain castle, one built on a low hill, most of its architectural scheme was constructed around a series of structural defensive concepts. Sharp corners, tight spaces, blind alleys, right angles and square courtyards. Each ingenious constructive gambit created for the single-minded purpose of pushing an invading army into a deadly bottleneck position.
Nijō Castle was erected by a combined effort of all the Feudal Lords of western Japan in the beginning of the 15 centuary. The project spearheaded by Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate. The main building was finally finished in 1626, and much of its fortifications served as a home to Tokugawa Shoguns*.
The Castle was spaced around a surface space of 275,000 square meters. Much of this land is devoted primarily to gardens and water features. The castle was organized around the militarized paragon of wide moats and stone walls. Two concentric rings divide the castle; one within the other, each split by an expanse of frigid waters. The outer ring houses the Ninomaru Palace while the inner closes around the ruins of the Honmaru Palace.
*The Tokugawa shogunate, also known as the Tokugawa bakufu (徳川幕府?) and the Edo bakufu (江戸幕府?), was the last feudal Japanese military government which existed between 1603 and 1867
Kyoto Imperial Palace
Kyoto Gosho, Nakagyō-ku.
Hours: From duck till dawn.
Price: Public and can be visited freely.
In order to really sink in what you are about to visit, I'm going to synch up a parable with western society. The Kyoto Imperial Palace is the equivalent of an old discarded White House someplace in the States or what would happen with Buckingham Palace if the queen decided one day that London was simply too much a drab and she needed a change of scenery.
Up until 1869, the Meiji Restoration*, much of Japan's powerbase lived in Kyoto. The emperor and the Shoguns dictated policy from this region. Since that fateful year, all political function were diverted to Tokyo. Formerly called Heian-kyō (平安京, literally "tranquility and peace capital"), Kyoto was Japan's capital for over one thousand years. Hence, as you are now starting to realize, the absurd amount of temples, shrines, government building and patriotic brick brack that swarms around this city.
The Imperial Palace grounds, Kyoto-gyoen, are vast, and by vast, I mean whole city blocks. If you look at an aerial photo of the place, you will be gobsmacked by the sheer amount of land it engulfs. Not only those Kyoto-gyoen hold the main buildings, but the estate also houses the Sento Imperial Palace gardens. A total of 1,300 meters (4,300 ft) north to south and 700 meters (2,300 ft) wide.
We are talking about dozens of gates and dozens of buildings. Among them: Shodaibunoma, where dignitaries would sit and talk before having an audience with officials; Shunko-den, where the sacred mirrors and enthronement ceremonies were held; Ogakumonjo, the entertainment hub. Poetry, dancing, performing arts center for the Emperor's amussment; Takamikura, where we will find the imperial throne; Otsunegoten, the big shot's residence... And these are just a few of the many historically heavy sites you will visit during your stay.
*Meiji Restoration (明治維新 Meiji Ishin?), also known as the Meiji Ishin, Renovation, Revolution, Reform, or Renewal, was a chain of events that restored practical imperial rule to Japan in 1868 under Emperor Meiji. Although before, during Japan's many periods, there were always Emperors, the Shoguns had a lot a sway and cloud when it came to dictating social order. The were a political facet that all Emperor's had to not only deal with, but placate. The Meiji Restoration is in part credited with bringing Japan out of the Dark Ages and into the modernized world.
657 Sanjusangendo Mawaricho, Kioto 605-0941, Kyoto
Hours: 9 - 5 (it nonetheless keeps wonky hours, so your best bet is to check their website on the day you want to visit).
Price of Admission: 600 yens.
As you swagger up to Sanjusangendo, you are struck with how absolutely dull it is. Compared to other items on the list, not to mention the whole of Kyoto, this temple simply doesn't have enough showmanship. It lacks bangs for bucks. It is, objectively speaking, rather breathtaking, unique and absolutely amazing, but, by now, your jaded eyes have captured structures and vistas that could positively give this riff-raff a leasson or two on the merits of using more bling. It's sort of slipping your feet into the sand of an L.A. beach and contemplaning teh panorama, after an extended stay in St. Marcus. It's nice, but, it's still a bit "ehhh"; obligatory shrug of the shulders.
But wait, tighten your belt, hold fast to your gob and close your peepers lest your eyes bug out. Two, tree steps into the temple's interior and bang! Amazement has just whacked you with a 12-pound sledgehammer and, while your down for the count, Surprise is kicking that entropic disease apathy from out of your ribcage.
Inside, you will find an army of statues flanking your from right and left, daring you to talk trash about their Buddhist temple. A stone horde of warriors, numbering 1001, in rows of 10 and columns of 50, weaponized to the teeth, waiting for, I imagine, the coming of the Japanese Ragnarok.
Completed in 1164, under the order of that period's muckety-muck, Emperor Go-Shirakawa, the temple's name literally means "Hall with thirty-three spaces between columns"... The Emperor was practical like that.
The supreme deity of the place is Sahasrabhuja-arya-avalokiteśvara or the "Thousand Armed Kannon"; hence each soldier, wrought from Japanese Cypress and swayed in gold leaf, stand as a representation of this God's many limbs.
But, aside from the frightening and, quite frankly, imposing army, you will also discover 28 guardian statues of lesser Gods. Their origins come from Sanskrit texts of Hinduism, suggesting, in theory - put forth by valued academic gray beards -, that there is a stronger tie between the spiritual and cultural ideas of India and east Asia.
1-294 Kiyomizu, Higashiyama-ku.
Price of Admission: 300 yens.
Kiyomizu is one of those pesky UNESCO sites I mention above. You know the type. The type that simply begs to be seen. The type that will have you rolling about in your bed, in complete and utter despair at the fact that you overlooked it on your way through Japan.
Kiyomizu is an independent Buddhist temple, what that means is that it does not enter into a particular sect in Buddism. At first, it belonged to the old and influential Hossō sect. In the mid-1960's it sort of cut all ties with that house and started doing its own thang'.
A particular note of interest, before we scale through this chapter, is that fact the Kiyomuzo does not participate in the famous temple route of the Chūgoku 33 Kannon Pilgrimage* through western Japan.
The temple was founded in 778 and its present buildings date back to 1633. It takes its name from the sparkling mountain waterfall that flows in its interior and, simply because it knows the fine gangster it truly is, it likes to thumb its nose at the competition and say, in its best Samuel L. Jackson voice: "do you see me? DO YOU SEE ME?! Not one nail was used in my construction. I'm all that and more, punk!"
This temple is both sacred and so hardcore, that in 2007 when the judges were picking the New Seven Wonders of the World, Kiyomizu obtained runner-up cred' and almost made the list.
Kyoto For Insiders: There is a popular Japanese expression, the English equivalent to "Take the plunge", that goes: "to jump off the stage at Kiyomizu". The root can be traced to Kiyomizu-dera. The Edo tradition/urban legend began as a dare. Basically, you dove off the Kiyomizu's veranda, a 13-foot drop, and splashed into the pond where the waterfall drained into. Over 230 jumps have been recorded, with an 83 percent survival rate. The payoff, if you didn't drown, split your spine in two, or simply smash your head against the ground, is the superstitious belief that the temple's Gods would grant you a wish. The practice has since been banned, but, visitors are encouraged to drink from the waterfall as it is rumored that its crystal liquid bestows good luck on all who partake of it.
*The Chūgoku 33 Kannon Pilgrimage (中国三十三観音霊場 Chūgoku Sanjūsan Kannon Reijō?), is one of a number of traditional Buddhist routes that score the Japanese country site. It most deals with temples securely fastened to the western part of the continent.
2 Ginkaku-ji-chō, Sakyō-ku.
Price: admission ¥500.
Hours: 8.30am-5pm Mar-Nov, 9am-4.30pm Dec-Feb.
Tired of the turmoil and stress, a civil war constantly harassed him with, Ashikaga Yoshimasa desired a place where he could kick back, relax, perhaps have a little fun with his concubines and simply retire and have cold sake. So, in 1482, the mighty shogun, created Ginkaky-Ji. A placid country getaway with vast vistas, ponds, and serene gardens.
The name loosely translated to "Temple of the Silver Pavilion", this was on account of the fact that Ashikaga Yoshimasa had a fixation with silver and wished to ordain the complete villa in silver foil; the man kicked the bucket before completing this dream.
After Yoshimasa's death, the structure was reformed, per the Shogun's dying wish, into a Zen Temple.
The walkways lead all through the temple and the gardens. Note, that while you are traversing them, you will witness meticulously raked piles of sands at different intervals; cone constructions of white powder. These rather complex constructs are said to represent the active stratovolcano of Mount Fuji.
Nishikikōji-dōri, between Teramachi & Takakura, Nakagyō-ku.
Opening Hours: 9am-5pm.
By now, deep into your trip, you might be going stark mad with theological fervor. Maybe, even having a psychological meltdown, one of those strange afflictions that seem to attack people whenever they visit the holy lands. Kind of like the "Jerusalem syndrome". Obsessive and strange behaviour manifesting itself religious delusions. Mia Culpa, I might have swamped you with too many temple, shrines, pagodas and the like.
From here on, just until you get your s@#t together, we are going to put all the Gods in the backseat of the train and head off to new vistas. Time to clean your palate and freshen your mind. And, what better way to clean your spirit, than by indulging in sin. Say hello to gluttony, your new best friend.
Although handsomely stocked in all sorts of paraphernalia (a perfect place to buy the inlaws something and not file for bankruptcy in the process), the real pleasure derived from Nishiki market is one that can only be captured through taste-buds. Here you will find a host of weird, strange, scary and even alien food. Food that has no right, in some cases, to even exist in this dimension. Food, that you somehow know must have fallen from an interstellar ship, or at the very least previously called its home "Monster Island."
But, frankly, who cares. Everything is fresh, everything is crunchy and tasty and mouth watery. Everything brings joy to your stomach and a song to your heart. Are you really going to get prickly about it? So it has a third eye, that, my adventurous friend, only adds flavour.
By the way, every vendor will likely scream at you: "Irasshaimase!" They are not calling you a pig, or insulting you, they are simply being nice and saying "welcome." High five them, they deserve nothing less.
Monkey Park Iwatayama
8 Genrokuzan-chō, Arashiyama, Ukyō-ku.
Cost to your wallet: adult/child ¥550/250.
Opening hours: 9am-5pm 15 Mar-Oct, to 4pm Nov-14 Mar.
Monkeys! Hundreds of monkeys out in the open. Unless you still have nightmares concerning that 90's Dustin Hoffman classic "Outbreak", you can't possibly give up a chance to play with wild cute, furry, monkeys. (P.S.: don't taunt, touch, try to play catch or poke the monkeys. They might turn around and bite you. Or, in some case, and this is not a joke, steal your wallet).
The park sits on Mt Arashiyama and houses a troop of over 200 Japanese macaque monkeys. The park and its vicinity are easily accessible, the real danger starts after you cross the second bridge and enter, gasp, a sport zone.
Once you've decided to actually spend a day or so frolicking with the wildlife, then you will have no other choice but to dust off your spandex and dry-fit muscle shirt. Monkey Park sits on top of a hill, a rather steep hill, a rather steep hill that has no monorail or mechanize transport. The, by now, no doubt exhausted traveler, will have to brave a path full of switchbacks, turns, rocky terrains, hard angles and sweat-inducing fun.
Psss, there's a second route, an easier route. Once you've passed the ticket turnstile, you will come to a fork on the road, the left-hand side is faster but harder while the right takes you to the children's playground and slower slope that also drives you towards monkey paradise. If it's a hot day, no matter which trek you pick, by the time you reach the top, you will be drenched. Soaked in funky smelling sweat, lacking vital fluids and having a potassium imbalance. Luckily for you there is a concession stand waiting for you; willing and able to hydrate your battered body and vacuum clean your pockets.
Kyoto For Insiders: most of the monkeys are docile, you can even buy for 100 yens a bag of chestnuts and peanuts to feed them. Still, keep in mind that they are nonetheless rascally fellas' and wild animals. The males, primarily, are highly territorial and park officials will advise you, once you arrive, to not get into a staring contest with them. Some Y heavy chromosome primates are known to go hog-wild when you lock eyes with them.
901 Higashishiokoji-cho, Karasuma-dori, Shiokoji sagaru, Shimogyo-ku.
Just by looking at it, you wouldn't guess that the first coat of paint Kyoto Train Station ever acquired was way back in 1877. The site opened by imperial decree. Since that day, the building has undergone a couple of plastic surgeries. Some by choice, others simply because there was this hoopla mid' the 1940's called World War 2 and the allied forces were a bit obsessed with what they considered "strategic targets."
The current, ultra-modern, might have sprung from a catalog off the Jetson's timeline, structure was inaugurated in 1997, commemorating Kyoto's 1,200th anniversary. The architect, behind the cubist fare, was renowned artist Hiroshi Hara.
This place serves as the main hub for all subway and rail lines. It is, in a way, the main artery of Kyoto. Sooner or later, you're obligated to enter it.
In Kyoto train station, aside from getting elbow kicked to the wall, cause everybody is in a mad dash hurry to get someplace else, you will get to experience a miasma of entertainment possibilities. Shopping, in unique and chic stores, a live-action theater and Ramen. All sort of fishy and crustaceous filled dishes swamp Kyoto station.
Kyoto For Insiders: In Japan, for some reason, which my tiny mind will never comprehend, getting money out of your local ATMs is met with a big NEGATORY. Those big electrical boxes, we simply can't live without back in the states, are a bit prickly with international credit cards on this island. You have to find the right one, that fine specimen that will fulfill your monetary needs. Best bet, local 7-11 or at a postal store.
Plucked into existence in the Middle Ages, Gion is the setting for Arthur Golden's novel "Memoirs of a Geisha." The Author did extensive studies on the area before he scratched out his first word on paper.
Gion was constructed to accommodate the weary traveler or the flock of visitors that usually swarmed Yasaka Shrine. Nowadays, the tables have turned and the reality is that Gion has slowly stolen the limelight from that sepulcher.
Gion preserves its turn of the century atmosphere. Cobblestone streets, paper houses with wooden walls, candle lit carton lamps, traditional Japanese architecture and rows of machiya* lining the streets. It is one of the most popular night stops in Kyoto. The main appeal, aside from immersing yourself in feudal japan, is its geishas.
This area has rapidly become a major tourist point in Kyoto. Offering a grand variety of restaurants, legal gambling, Pachinko** venues and night clubs. But, the real clincher, the only reason why it is pivotal in your travel to Kyoto to visit Gion are the ochaya (teahouses). Inside, Geishas will serve you in full silk colorful attire. Regaling you with their company, their love of song and dance and their sparkling conversation. Each of these teahouses is a closed world, a completely different cosmo from the one next door. The cocktails may differ, the meals completely opposite and the decor as contrasting as night or day. Each a unique experience.
A must, if you are visiting Gion, is to try out a typical kaiseki*** dinner.
*Machiya (町屋/町家?) are traditional wooden townhouses found throughout Japan and typified in the historical capital of Kyoto.
**Pachinko (パチンコ?) is a type of mechanical game originating in Japan and is used as both a form of recreational arcade game and much more frequently as a gambling device.
***Kaiseki (懐石?) or kaiseki-ryōri (懐石料理?) is a traditional multi-course Japanese dinner.
Kyoto For Insiders: in Gion, the title "Geisha" is frown upon. The ladies who inhabit this area, prefer the local term geiko. Geisha means "artist" or "person of the arts" while geiko loosely translates to "child of the arts". One other reminder, Geishas are not street walkers or escorts. There is a rather nasty misconception, among westerners, that Gion is Kyoto's red-light district... Toss that idea out of your head. Geishas are entertainers, not prostitutes and, I'm fairly sure most of them might know some ancient secret martial art, so step lightly.
Well, that's it, I was only paid for so much and, truthfully, I'm having Star War withdrawal. I'm off to the nearest cinema and giving you a rest.
In conclusion, Kyoto has enough stuff, essence, material, jam-pack attractions and quintessential tourist meat to have you rethinking your Japanese vacation. Should you stay a bit longer? Should you revisit some of the sites? Should you reorganize your journey through the Land Of The Rising Sun. That is up to you. But... Since you are asking, or, at least, that's what I'm hearing, I would recommend the following: DON'T SLEEP, period. Pack as much as you can into one day. Then close your bags and head on down to Hiroshima, or Tokyo, or Osaka. Japan is simply great. It's exciting, it's strange, it's weird and wacky, and you should never leave a stone of it un-turned.
Signing off. May The Force Be With You. Or, at the very least, all the caffeinated drinks you can carry.
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