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Kyoto, Japan Sightseeing: One, two, and three day itineraries.
Introduction: Kyoto is indisputably Japan’s cultural capital. Largely spared by American attacks during World War II it remains Japan’s historical-cultural hub and as such cannot be missed for the dedicated tourist to Japan. Unique to the city is its checkerboard grid layout with streets and blocks forming a perfect square more commonly found in New World cities of the Western Hemisphere. This attribute is owed to the Chinese influence in the city’s foundation. Kyoto was established as the capital of Japan after it was moved from Nara in 794. It gave up that status during the Meiji Restoration which moved the capital to Tokyo in 1869 but the city remains Japan’s most important in terms of culture and history. Kyoto is easily navigated because its orientation and layout correspond to the points of the compass, but it’s also a mixed blessing because the city is huge. Walking between the major sights in the city, which are many, is not recommended, unless you welcome blisters and soar feet from concrete underfoot. Despite the ease of finding your way among the grids of Kyoto’s layout – a rarity in Japan – the city has not been spared the unflattering label of a concrete jungle. The ultra-modern eye soar, the Kyoto Tower, the city’s tallest building, is one example of the lack of sensitivity for the city’s storied past. In fact the monuments tend to be a collection of oasis in the middle of an urban shell rather than an ancient city that remained intact into the modern age. Despite the plethora of pre-War buildings and traditional Japanese townhouses known as machiya, modernization continues to encroach on the city’s famed history. The best approach to seeing Kyoto is to use the excellent subway system to different sections of the city and beat the pavement once you arrive at a corner of the city or a district, known as a -ku. Kyoto is also conspicuously in a basin, ringed by hills and mountains. Steep uphill and downhill walks will are almost always required to access some of the most famous sights such as Kiyomizu-dera temple. In general avoid Kyoto during Japanese holidays such as New Years and Obon in early August. Summers are hot and humid. The autumn brings out beautiful fall colors and the spring bloom nicely highlights some of the old buildings such as Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion). Whenever you go it may be difficult to avoid crowds – the city sees 30 million visitors annually on top of the1.5 million residents. The abundance of points of interest and crowds can make visiting Kyoto overwhelming for the foreign tourist, especially for those with limited time. This page will help you decide what to see in selected one, two, and three day scenarios. Following the itineraries is a short description of Kyoto’s major historical and cultural sites.
Getting around Kyoto. Unless you are Japanese, have experience using public transportation, or can read kanji fluently, avoid the city buses and stick with the Kyoto Municipal Subway. Other options such as taxis tend to be pricey. The Subway is the simplest public travel option with signs in English and is relatively easy to use as there are only two lines. With the exception to some of the temples in the mountains, you can access all of the sites below by using the Kyoto’s subway combined with walking. You can purchase an all-day Kyoto subway pass for ¥600 (one day). Also available, should you use the bus lines, is the Kyoto Sightseeing Card ¥1,200 (one day), ¥ 2,000 (two days). This allows unlimited rides on the Kyoto subway and buses.
One Day. Visit Kiyomizu-dera, perhaps Kyoto’s most popular temple before walking to Sanjusangendo, famous for its thousand Buddha statues. The Golden Pavilion is a another ‘must-see’ so plan to spend no less than an hour walking around the beautiful gardens and pond that frame the temple. In the afternoon, head to Nijo Castle, an extant example of a flatland-castle, built during the Shogunate period (1600s). Head over to the Heian Shrine, later in the day, to catch the sun (hopefully shining) bathing the bright orange rooftops.
Two Days. Start the day atTo-ji taking in the five storey pagoda before heading to Kiyomizu-dera and Sanjusangendo browsing the shops on along the steep street that leads up to the Kiyomizu-dera complex. Head to the Kyoto National Museum to view the extensive collection of early Japanese art and antiquities. The Golden and Silver Pavilions are beautiful in of themselves but the gardens which surround them are a bonus. Nijo Castle and the Kyoto Imperial Palace are reminders of Japan’s imperial past as is the Heian Shrine built to commemorate past rulers. Ryoanji is a great introduction to Zen Buddhist and its rock garden is impressive.
Three Days. Kozan-ji and Jingo-ji are located in the hills surrounding Kyoto and should be visited mainly for the beautiful forested setting. Daigo-ji, Ninna-ji, and To-ji are among the oldest of Kyoto’s extant temples founded in the early Heian period. The Golden and Silver Pavilions, or Kinkaku-ji and Ginkaku-ji are among the most popular sites in Kyoto if not Japan. The Heian Shrine, Nijo Castle, and Kyoto Imperial Palace are three reminders of Japan’s imperial and shogun past and offer great contrast in different architectural styles and periods. Nishi Honganji and Ryoan-ji are two more interesting Buddhist temples known forclassical Japanese architecture and Zen gardens and shouldn’t included in a three day itinerary. Kiyomizu-dera, Sanjusangendo, and the Kyoto National Museum are close by each other and offer a beautiful cross-section of art, antiquity, and architecture.
The Sites. You’ll be overwhelmed by the plethora of monuments, shrines, temples, pagodas, and other curious places, let alone the abundance of shops that specialize in traditional crafts and foods. Here’s a list of the most popular, famous, significant, and historical places to see in Kyoto. Anything else you discover on the way is a bonus and you will find them without much effort – keep in mind Kyoto has a collection of some 2,000 temples and shrines and although some are free of charge, or accept donations, many of the popular sites have entrance fees that typically charge no less than ¥500 Japanese yen per person (depending upon the exchange rate that’s roughly $6.45 USD at the time of writing - December 2011). Finally, many of the temples are closed the last week of December and the first week of January because of New Years. Check ahead if you plan to visit during this time.
Daigo-ji. This Buddhist temple of the Shingon sect is best known for its graceful five storey pagoda which is considered a National Treasure of Japan. The temple dates from the Heian period to the year 874 and is located in Fushimi-ku.
Ginkaku-ji (Temple of the Silver Pavilion). The Silver Pavilion doesn’t quite have the history or the eye popping looks of the Golden Pavilion but this Zen Buddhist temple shouldn’t be left out of any two or three day itinerary to Kyoto. Founded in 1490 the structure was meant to be built as a counterpart to its more famous Kinkaku-ji. Following various wars and interruptions plans to foil this two storey pagoda in silver never quite materialized but the name stuck. If you find the plain appearance of this temple disappointing the tranquil settings will surely offset those feelings. Ginkaku-ji is in Kyoto’s Sakyo-ku.
Heian Shrine. After Kinkakuji, this is one of the most photogenic of Kyoto’s monuments with its blazing coat of bright orange that absorbs and reflects sunlight so perfectly. For this reason plan your visit early or late in the day, assuming it’s sunny, to get great color saturation in your photos. Heian is a Shinto shrine and is one of the newer monuments in the city having been founded only in 1895 to mark the 1,100th anniversary of Kyoto and it is dedicated to Emperor Kanmu (737-806) and Emperor Komei (1831-1867). The Heian Shrine is fronted by a huge orange torii so the entrance is hard to miss. Similar to many temples and shrines is the water font at the Heian Shrine and the bamboo ladles used for drinking from the font – a purifying ritual that many partake.
Jingo-ji. Established in 824 as a Shingon Buddhist temple on Mount Takao to the north of Kyoto in Ukyo-ku, a trip to Jingo-ji is well worth it for anyone with a three-day itinerary. The setting is remarkable among beautiful forests on a mountain top and the buildings are beautifully accented by the foliage. Buses from the center of Kyoto travel to Jingo-ji.
Kinkaku-ji (Temple of the Golden Pavilion). Probably the most photogenic and iconic of Kyoto’s historical monuments, Kinkaku-ji, or the Temple of the Golden Pavilion is a Zen Buddhist temple founded in 1398 with a past as colorful as its shiny exterior. It might come as a surprise that the current structure dates to 1955 but the sheer beauty and setting easily makes this fact a footnote. A deranged novice monk set the building ablaze in 1950 which accounts for the relatively new structure which is said to be a replica of the original. A UN ESCO World Heritage Site, this building is a particular favorite for Japanese to have their photo taken against the famous temple as a backdrop. Kinkaku-ji is in Kita-ku (North) Ward of the city.
Kiyomizu-dera. This site, along with the Golden Pavilion, is a toss up for the city’s most famous and most frequently visited. A Buddhist temple, Kiyomizu-dera, which means clear water, is considered a National Treasure and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Dating to 778 or the early Heian period, the current wooden structures were built in 1633. Well known for its balcony that overlooks Kyoto the temple is fronted by its famous orange niomon gate and a beautiful three-storey pagoda. It is located in the eastern part of Kyoto in Higashiyama-ku.
Kozan-ji. An Omuro Buddhist temple, Kozan-ji’s beautiful location in the forested hills is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There is some debate as to when the temple was founded but 1206 is a reasonable starting point. The most famous of the buildings is the Golden Hall which is surrounded by huge Cryptomeria trees.
Kyoto Imperial Palace. The Kyoto Imperial Palace still is the property of the Japanese Emperor but is open to the public and tours are available. While the Emperor’s current residence is in Tokyo, this palace was used before the imperial seat was moved to Tokyo in 1869 following the Meiji Restoration.The Imperial Palace replacedan earlier and much larger Heian Palace complex and today is situated in the Kyoto Gyoen (Kyoto Gardens).The palace is within walking distance of the Nijo Station along the Tozai subway line.
Kyoto National Museum. This grand Beaux-Arts building, established in 1897, is a nice option if you are suffering from temple and shrine fatigue, if the weather is rainy, or you desire a nice introduction to Japan’s early history. Located in Higashiyama-ku it is one of three imperially mandated museums in Japan (the other two are the Tokyo National Museum and Nara National Museum) and its collection concentrates on pre-modern Japanese and Asian Art with the largest collection of Heian art anywhere. The museum is currently closed for renovations and will reopen in 2013.
Nijo Castle. Construction of this sprawling castle-complex started in 1601 and upon completion in 1625 it became the residence of the Tokugawa Shoguns. Within two concentric rings of fortifications covering 275,000 square meters are 8,000 square meters of buildings which include the Honmaru Palace and Ninomaru Palace and Gardens. Walls and moats characteristic of many castles built in Japan during this time can be seen in this classic example of a flatland castle type. Nijo is located in central Kyoto and is within walking distance of the Nijo Station of the Tojai line of Kyoto’s Municipal Subway.
Ninna-ji. Ninna-ji is known for its Golden Hall and pagoda and like many other sites in Kyoto is recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Founded in 888 by Emperor Uda the temple belongs to the Shingon Buddhist sect. Beautiful gardens provide a pleasant contrast to the old buildings among this temple in Ukyo-ku.
Nishi Honganji. Similar to many temples in Kyoto Nishi Honganji was established in the early 17th century by the Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu in an effort to reduce the power of the Buddhist Jodo Shinshu or, Shin, sect. The counterpart is the Higashi Honganji Temple. A UNESCO World Heritage Site the huge structures are characterized by their sloped, stylized roofs and ornate gates which guard the entrance to the complex. Jodo Shinsu is the most widely practiced Buddhism in Japan and this temple serves as its primary temple. The temple is located in Shimogyo-ku of Kyoto.
Ryoan-ji. Well-known for its rock garden, a hallmark of Zen Buddhism, the temple originated in the Heian period and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It also contains the seven imperial tombs from the Heian period.
Sanjusangendo (Hall of the Lotus King). A perennial favorite in any itinerary of Kyoto this site is part of a larger Buddhist temple belonging to the Tendai sect and literally translates to Hall-with-thirty-three-spaces-between-columns. Besides the hall with the thousand Kannon statues, the long main hall of the temple is an iconic landmark in the city. The temple was founded in 1164, destroyed by fire in 1249, and rebuilt in 1266. Sanjusangendo is located near Kiyomizu-dera in Kyoto’s Higashiyama-ku.
To-ji. To-ji is another Shingon Buddhist temple with a five storey pagoda like Daigo-ji but it was founded a few years earlier in 796 during the Heian period. Its location is in Minami-ku is not far from Kyoto Station.
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