Kyoto is home to no less than 17 World Heritage sites, so it’s pretty ridiculous that I hadn’t managed to visit it in the 7 months I’ve been here. That changed yesterday when I went on a day trip with some other teachers. We arrived into Kyoto at 8:55am so that we had as much time as possible to spend there. The first thing that was striking was the railway station, which is huge and has 16 floors. Most of this is hotel, but the main plaza was cavernous, with thousands of people milling around. This time of year is one of the most popular to visit Kyoto as all the leaves begin to change colours. We bought an all day bus pass for only ¥500 and I’d highly recommend that to anyone visiting.
The first area we visited wasn’t actually in the main city, but 5 minutes down a branch line. Tofuku-ji, or the eastern temple of happiness was highly recommended by a number of Japanese friends for this time of year. The temples were beautiful, but were outdone by the gardens of maples and acers, which were a mass of oranges, reds and greens. A small Zen garden of sand, stone and bushes provided a place to sit and contemplate, though that wouldn’t really have been possible with all the visitors walking past.
Next we visited Sanjusangendo, which roughly translates as Hall of 33 chambers. This building is famous for housing 1001 statues of Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy. At around 120 metres in length, it is Japan’s largest wooden building and was remarkable enough, but inside was awesome. Arranged into 3 rows, 1000 human-sized hand-carved and gold-leafed wooden statues fill the hall. In the middle sat a final statue, 11 feet tall and incredibly ornate. These 1001 statues were attended by 30 further stone statues which deified qualities such as thunder, wind and beauty. Photos were not allowed inside the hall, which was a shame, but a Google search for Sanjusangendo will get you these results. At any rate, I doubt I’ll forget this place in a hurry.
Next up was Kiyomizudera, which is probably the most famous temple in Kyoto, at least for the Japanese. Since Lost in Translation, most westerners I think would have heard more about the Golden Temple, Kinkakuji. Kiyomizu is huge, and the whole thing sits on stilts about 300 metres up on the side of a mountain. There is apparently a Japanese expression “To fall off the platform at Kiyomizu”! Again, this was fantastic and the view should have been great, but it was a little foggy so we couldn’t see much. Even so, the climb was well worth it.
After having something to eat, it was nearly late afternoon so there was time for just one more temple. This was Ginkakuji, the silver temple. Again, this temple is incredibly famous, though not so much for the temple itself, which is incredibly old but a little uninspiring compared to others, but for the gardens it stands in. This is one of the best examples of Zen gardening in all of Japan. Somehow, sand had been arranged into a perfect conic, as well as raked into striped patterns on top of a raised base. Further up the trail, a small waterfall and bamboo forest as well as more acers and maples made for a very peaceful time. Even though there were lots of visitors, the place remained quiet and tranquil.
I’ve seen lots of people write about feeling “at rest” in Kyoto and I couldn’t agree more. Though it is a huge city, I felt more relaxed here than maybe even Takayama, which though smaller and quieter, lacks any true spectacles which make you stop and stare. The experience of being humbled by a place hasn’t hit me since visiting the Grand Canyon, but Kyoto as a whole managed to do that, even though we saw only a fraction of it. For anyone visiting Japan, make Kyoto a high priority on your list of travels and give yourself three or four days to experience it as it’s impossible to see all of what it has to offer in one day. I already have plans to go back in January and see it in snowfall, when Kinkakuji, Nijo Castle, the Imperial Palace and Arashiyama woodlands will be high priorities. Of course, what it also did was make me incredibly tired, so I fell asleep on the way back home and was pretty knackered today. On Monday, I’m off on another day trip, this time with my Japanese school, so I’ll be getting lots of rest as I think I’m coming down with a cold.