10 best places to visit in Kyoto Japan’s ancient capital

10 best places to visit in Kyoto Japan’s ancient capital


1-    in the years since World War II, Kyoto has changed greatly. The city of one-story traditional houses has seen modern buildings of extraordinary height rise in its midst. Travelers often come to Kyoto looking for a traditional Japanese city of low buildings and architecture of past centuries. Instead, they are amazed by the modern steel, glass and brick structures they find. Kyoto, as with every other city in the world, continues to grow and to change, for it cannot remain a museum frozen in time. Yet there is strong concern in Kyoto about the continuing danger to the city’s historic nature and architectural heritage. There are ongoing attempts to preserve the best of the past in its temples and shrines as well as in its traditional housing. This initial walk therefore takes place in an area which has been designated as an historic section worthy of preservation, and it ends at one of the most venerable of Kyoto’s temples, Kiyomizu-dera (Clear Water Temple). This walk accordingly offers a partial glimpse of the city as it existed prior to the modernization of Japan in the 20th century.


One could walk straight up sloping Kiyomizuzaka from the bus stop to the temple, but a deviation two streets to the north along Higa shi-oji-dori (the main north–south street) offers a worthwhile diversion. Two streets to the north, turn to the right on to Kodai Minami Monzen-dori. At the second street on the right, turn again to the right and climb up the steps to Ninen-zaka (Two Year Slope) to begin a walk into the past. This offers a picture of the city of Kyoto as it once was. Fires have destroyed so much of old Kyoto through the centuries that it is unusual to find an area that still provides the appearance of a Japanese city before the modern age. Fortunately, Ninen-zaka and Sannenzaka (Three Year Slope) offer just such a remembrance of times past. Concerned over the disappearance of the two-story shops and homes which were typical of Kyoto city life, the city government has created a few “historic preservation districts” in areas which have remained comparatively unchanged. One such area encompasses Ninen-zaka and Sannen-zaka.



Ninen-zaka bends gracefully, as a proper traditional Japanese street should, and ends in a short staircase which leads into Sannenzaka. In turn, Sannen-zaka also ends in a steeper set of steps which lead up to Kiyomizu-zaka (Clear Water Slope). As has been the case for the past several centuries, pottery can be found for sale along both Ninen-zaka and Sannen-zaka, but you will noy encounter the full panoply of chinaware until you climb the steps at the southern end of Sannen-zaka and enter Kiyomizu-zaka, which leads uphill from Higashi-oji-dori to the Kiyomizu-dera Temple at the top of the street. In the last century, English-speaking visitors nicknamed Kiyomizu-zaka “Teapot Lane,” a name it still deserves. Here you can find shops which sell Kiyomizu-yaki (Kiyo mizu pottery) and other chinaware. Souvenir shops line the street cheek by jowl. The street is always crowded with visitors heading to the temple, many in groups led by their banner-waving leader. It is always a street full of excitement and color during the daytime.



Kiyomizu-dera (Clear Water Temple) is one of the oldest temples in Kyoto, its establishment even predating the founding of the city. The temple was created in 788, six years before the Emperor Kammu decided to move his capital to Kyoto. Legend has it that Enchin, a priest at a temple in Nara, had a vision that he would find a fountain of pure or clear water (kiyo-mizu) at which he could build a temple. At the Otawa-no-taki (the Sound of Feathers Waterfall) on the hill side where the Kiyomizudera now stands, he came upon Gyo-ei, a hermit residing at the Otawa Waterfall. To Enchin’s surprise, the hermit announced that he had been awaiting Enchin’s arrival, and now that the priest from Nara had arrived he could move on to a less settled area. He gave Enchin a log of sacred wood and instructed him to carve the log into an image of Kannon, the deity of mercy. With that, the hermit disappeared. Later Enchin found the hermit’s sandals atop the mountain, leading him to the realization that he had been speaking with a manifestation of Kannon who had thereafter ascended from the mountain crest. Enchin carved the image of the 11-headed 1,000-armed Kannon, and he created a small, crude temple building to house the image— the beginning of Kiyomizu-dera.



At the foot of the hill at Higashi-oji-dori to the left lies the entry to the Nishi Otani Cemetery, one of the two oldest cemeteries in Kyoto. The small double bridge over the waterway has been nicknamed the “Spectacles Bridge” (Megan-bashi) since the reflection of its semi-circular arches in the water make for a complete circle and the circles and the structure of the bridge can be perceived as a pair of eye glasses. A cemetery may seem to be an unusual place to visit, but this mortuary for the abbots of the Nishi Hongan-ji Temple and the followers of the Jodo Shinshu sect of the great priest Shinran offers another aspect of Japanese life.

When Shinran died on November 28, 1262, his body was cremated, and eventually in 1694 a portion of his remains were moved from his original burial site to a hexagonal mausoleum at the Nishi Otani cemetery. (A portion of his ashes were also placed in the Higashi Otani cemetery of the Higashi Hongan-ji Temple, which is a branch of Shinran’s faith.)




Of course, there is little doubt as to where to start this particular walk, since the Sanjusangen-do Temple with its golden Kannon images will always top any visitor’s list of places which must be experienced. Sanjusangen-do is on the south side of Shichijo-dori at Yamato-oji-dori.



Across Shichijo-dori from Sanjusangen-do is the Kyoto National Museum, and it is worth a visit since it presents an excellent picture of the arts of Kyoto’s past. It perhaps is best saved for a rainy day (as with other museums) when one does not wish to be traipsing between outdoor temples and shrines.

The Kyoto National Museum was founded in 1875 as an Imperial museum, and in 1897 its original building was erected in the then current European style that can best be described as Victorian Neo-Renaissance. The museum was given to the city of Kyoto in 1924 and then was nationalized in 1952. In 1966, a modern addition (designed by Keiichi Morita) was opened. Originally planned as a museum for important items of artistic or historic merit from temples and shrines that the Meiji government took over, it has developed a substantial collection of its own—as well as borrowing from private collections and religious institutions when mounting special exhibitions.



The Hoko-ji Temple is on the east side of Yamato-oji-dori, one and a half streets from Shichijo-dori, just beyond the Hokoku Jinja (Hokoku Shrine) whose main entrance faces Shomen-dori, a street heading downhill to the west. The entrance to the Hokoku Jinja should be bypassed, for the Hoko-ji grounds begin at the end of the shrine property. Hokoji is open from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. There is no entry fee.


The only historic remnant in the Hoko-ji, the one-time site of the Great Buddha of Kyoto, is its infamous temple bell. There is no charge to see it, but if you wish to strike the bell with its beam, the attendant may collect a small fee for this privilege. Although the history of the temple is fascinating, other than seeing the bell it is not worth entering the remaining buildings, which date from the 1970s after the latest fire to plague the temple. The Hoko-ji Temple was erected by Toyotomi Hideyoshi in part out of his own vanity and in part as a ploy to disarm all but the new warrior class (samurai), which officially came into being as a result of the codification of rank and status that Hideyoshi began and which the Tokugawa shoguns would formulate definitively after 1600. This “pious” act of creating the Hoko-ji Temple was hardly based on religious zeal.



Before leaving the Hoko-ji, note the Mimi-zuka mound, which was created in front of the Great Buddha Hall of the Hoko-ji. It reflects the obverse side of the honor given to Hideyoshi in his own day, for it is illustrative of the cruelty of wars waged by the warriors of that time as well as of later times. The Mimi-zuka mound is on Shomen-dori just west of where that street intersects with Yamato-oji-dori (west of the entrance to the Hokoku Shrine) and immediately to the west of the children’s playground. Mimi-zuka is a mound in which the ears and noses of defeated Koreans were buried after the Korean wars of Hideyoshi in 1592 and 1597. The mound originally stood in front of the gateway to the Daibutsuden (Hall of the Great Buddha) of the Hoko-ji Temple, a hall which has now been replaced by the Hokoku Shrine in honor of Toyotomi Hideyoshi. The mound is a tall hill behind a fence and is topped by a very tall sotoba (a five-part memorial stone). In 1592, Toyotomi Hideyoshi determined that he would conquer China, a part of his dream of ruling all of East Asia. He sent a massive army into Korea, penetrating to Pyongyang and the Tumen River to the border of China. Ultimately forced by the Chinese to retreat to the south of Korea, his war was not a success; it merely resulted in many casualties on both sides as well as a continuing antagonism with Korea and China.


10-                    HOKOKU SHRINE

The Mimi-zuka mound reflects the senseless military ardor of Hideyoshi, and today it remains, ironically, before the Hokoku Shrine, the Shinto memorial to Hideyoshi’s enshrined spirit. The Hokoku Shrine is on Yamato-ojidori where Shomen-dori meets Yamato-ojidori, north of the Kyoto National Museum. There is no admission charge to the shrine. Its Treasury is open from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.

The era of peace and a growing economy, after the devastation which had been visited on Kyoto by the century of civil war, endeared Hideyoshi to the public. His festival celebrations, though sometimes brash, also warmed the citizens of Kyoto to his rule. Thus, after his death, one of the popular songs sung by the people at his shrine summarized these feelings.



Post a Comment