A Season In Kyoto
The Zen "dry garden" at Tofukuji Temple by John Lander
Inspiration to poets and artists for centuries, autumn’s vermilion leaves have a certain resonance for us all. There is no better place to experience the changing of the seasons than in Kyoto. Over the centuries, certain temples and gardens have become known for their array of trees, maple for autumn reds and sakura for pink in springtime. As former capital of Japan for more than a thousand years, Kyoto has always been considered the cultural center of the country
As a living, breathing modern city Kyoto still preserves its identity with its own style of cuisine, pottery, geisha and painters. Certain districts of the city are devoted to pottery, while others are known for textiles or traditional performing arts. Geisha, the word itself meaning artist, are masters of dance and music. You can still glimpse geiko, as geisha are known in Kyoto, in the Gion district early evening on their way to appointments at tea houses.
Tucked into cozy neighborhoods are more than 1600 temples and 250 shrines, not counting the most awe-inspiring gardens in Japan. Not surprisingly, most visitors get swept away in a blur of visiting all of Kyoto’s sights. Following the foliage can help you plan your visit.
The Musts: Ryoanji, the Golden Pavilion and Kiyomizu
Ryoanji teases the senses. The ocean is symbolized by a layer of sand with furrows suggesting the rippling of waves with tiny moss covered “islands” off center. A waterfall is represented by an artful arrangement of cascading rocks. Originally an aristocrat's country villa, Ryoanji is one of the best examples of dry landscape gardening in Japan. The grounds of Ryoanji are vermillion with maple leaves in autumn and pink with sakura in spring.
Repeatedly destroyed by fire over the centuries, Kiyomizu has been rebuilt on each occasion and is renowned for the imposing veranda supported by tall wooden columns and braces. The waterfall is counted among the ten most pure water sites in Japan - drinking from this sacred fall is said to bring good health and fortune. The sights and sounds of the area below the temple haven't changed in centuries, with many of the family-owned shops here dealing in traditional Kyoto arts and crafts since the Edo era.
Kinkakuji, familiarly known as the Golden Pavilion, was originally the private villa of Yoshimitsu - a Shogun in the 14th century. The Golden Pavilion is composed of three types of architecture: the first floor is imperial, the second floor is in the fashion of a samurai house while the third floor is in Zen temple style. The building is covered in gold leaf reflecting beautifully on the pond by which it was built.
Kiyomizu, Kinkakuji and Ryoanji are all UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Staying at a Ryokan
Inside a Japanese inn, the hallways are somber. The kimono--clad staff slip by in silence. The rooms, elegant spaces of tatami and sliding screens, are luxurious in an austere way. There are no room numbers, though each has its own name and character. Traditional ryokan keep the flagstones at the entrance wet, honoring an ancient tradition of hospitality and welcome. By exchanging western clothes for simple cotton kimonos, eating traditional food, sleeping on futons on a tatami mats you enter both another world and a different century.
Dinner is traditionally served in guests’ rooms on low tables. A dazzling array of dishes are artfully laid out for your meal. A tiny saucer of pickles, a delicate basket of tempura, a lacquer bowl of soup, shellfish arranged on rectangular plates. You seat yourself on the silk cushion as the maid quietly raps on the door, bearing another tray with sake. The ceramics, not to mention the foods they contain, are so beautifully presented that it feels almost sacrilegious to begin eating. But you will.
Kyoto isn’t only about exquisite temples, refined gardens and colorful shrines. Markets are one of the best places to experience the local scene, people-watch, and interact with the vendors. Vibrant markets are held on certain days of the month all around the city, such as the Nishiki Food Market along Nishiki-koji Street. Kiyomizu-zaka, the narrow street leading up to Kiyomizu Temple has been a shopping street since ancient times, specializing in ceramics and other Japanese crafts.
If shopping is not your bag, why not get all dressed up as a geisha or a samurai?
You can enjoy a complete makeover, hold a fan or parasol and have a studio photo taken of the inner geisha in you at in the heart of the Gion geisha district. With the popularity of the movie Memoirs of a Geisha, you might like immersing yourself in backdrops where Sayuri, the main character, was filmed along the Kamo River or the hundreds of red gates at Fushimi Inari Shrine. A riverside stroll or hike up in the hills around Fushimi Inari Shrine, however, are always worthwhile no matter how you are dressed.
Roads Less Traveled
Winding along a stream through eastern Kyoto is the Path of Philosophy. Over the path is a canopy of trees that connect small temples, shrines and tiny arched bridges over the stream. Take the afternoon off and just wander down the Path of Philosophy and take in the scenery by the babbling stream, observe the passersby in quiet contemplation or stop by one of the many cafes along the way. Though you might not hit upon the meaning of life while there, you will surely enjoy your rest from urban Kyoto.
Set in the northern hills of Kyoto, the perfection of Shisendo Temple is in the details: winding streams, sculpted bushes, raked sand surfaces with mountains in the background. The murmuring of a small waterfall is punctuated by the clacking of the sozu - a bamboo rod that fills with water from the stream - when it fills up it strikes a rock and clacks, empties, then repeats the process. Centuries ago the sozu was meant to scare away wild deer and boar in the area, but has remained in the garden as a poetic feature that serves to highlight the silence of the grounds. Shisendo was originally the retreat of samurai and poet Ishikawa Jozan and retains its peacefulness to this day, unlike many of the more famous gardens in Kyoto.
Arashiyama is a pleasant district of bamboo groves and thatched teahouses in the western outskirts of Kyoto. Its landmark is the arched Togetsukyo Bridge spanning the Hozu River, with forested Mount Arashiyama (literally ‘storm mountain’) in the background. Countless maple trees turn bright orange and vermillion in autumn, making Arashiyama a mecca for leaf-viewing. Unlike the busy temple districts in urban Kyoto, Arashiyama’s sights are surrounded by natural scenery as they were originally intended. The area’s rural feel is best explored on foot or by rented bicycle. Boat rides down the Hozu River are a popular and pleasant way to see the area as well. Basho, the wandering Japanese poet, stopped for a time here in the late 17th century. He stayed in a hut called Rakushisha - the hut of the fallen persimmons which has been rebuilt. Basho found the scenery around Kyoto and Arashiyama so impressive that he wrote:
“Tomorrow I leave the hut of the fallen persimmons
and nostagia hangs over my heart.”
If you go:
Kyoto’s colorful markets are held on certain days of the week: Kitano Tenmangu Shrine, held on the 25th day of each month. Other large markets include: the first Sunday of each month an antique market is held at To-ji Temple; the 12th of each month at Myoren-ji Temple; and the 15th of each month at Chion-ji Temple.
Have a makeover as a geisha at Yumekoubou; 45 Kitanouchi-chi, Minato-ku, Kyoto; tel 075-661-0858 www.yumekoubou.info/english
Visit JNTO (Japan National Tourism Organization) on the web at www.jnto.go.jp
and select Kyoto for further information. The Kyoto branch office of JNTO, called TIC or Tourism Information Center has a booth on the 2nd floor of Kyoto Station. For city bus and subway information go to www.city.kyoto.jp
You will find copies of the Kyoto Guide magazine at most hotels, ryokan or at Kyoto Station. Visit their English, Japanese, Korean or Chinese versions on the web at: www.kyotoguide.com/
Kyoto is spread out and getting around can be an expensive headache, so the Kyoto Sightseeing Two Day Pass Card at Y2000 is a great deal (one day for Y1200), valid for all city buses and subways as well as the “Raku” sightseeing buses that go to all the major gardens and temples: www.pref.kyoto.jp/visitkyoto/en/ - select the Transportation tab, or just buy the card at any subway station or at Kyoto Station upon arrival.
Walking Tours of Kyoto are led by Mr Hajime Hirooka, or “Johnnie Hillwalker” as he calls himself, leads walking tours of Kyoto every Monday, Wednesday and Friday leaving from Kyoto Station at 10:00 am, taking 5 hours. JPY 2000 per person, tel 090-1890-0096 http://web.kyoto-inet.or.jp/people/h-s-love/ See Kyoto in style with Mr. Doi and his private taxi tours at JPY 4400 per hour 090-9596-5546 www3.ocn.ne.jp/~doitaxi/
Helpful Japanese ryokan online guide www.ryokan.or.jp/english with many direct links to inns all over Japan including Kyoto, some with English-speaking staff such as Watazen Ryokan with rates starting at Y7000 per person (without meals) www.watazen.com to the historic and deluxe Hiragaya Ryokan with rates at Y35,000 including two meals www.ikumatsu.com.
The Welcome Inn Group helps visitors select ryokan according to price, area and amenities. For help with selecting a Japanese inn you can browse photos, descriptions, and rates before booking. Note that springtime in Kyoto is a very busy season, so book early. www.japaneseguesthouses.com/
For travel text, photo packages and stock photography on Asia go to Asian Images at http://www.impactimage.info/
Maiko or Apprentice Geisha During a Song and Dance Performance
Mums and Kyoto Architecture
Rickshaws Have Made a Big Comeback in Japan
Fushimi Inari Shrine, Composed of Thousands of Torri or Red Gates
Shisendo - One of Kyoto's Most Exquisite Gardens
on 20 November 2006.
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