Mention Japan to almost anyone and my guess is the first place they will think about visiting is Kyoto. The city is very much the cultural heart of the country, its capital for more than a millennium, even during the Shogun era when the seat of power, although nominally held by the Emperors in Kyoto, actually belonged to the Shogunate and their new capital on the eastern seafront in Edo.
Kyoto is a large city of over 1.5 million. If there is one famous view it is surely this one taken from the grounds of the Kiomizu-dera Temple.
A moderately interesting quirk of language links the two cities. Modern day written Japanese has three different sets of characters – kanji borrowed from Chinese and first used at a time when most Japanese was spoken with little written down, and the two syllabic forms of hiragana and the more severely-styled katagana. In kanji, the character for “To” has at least two meanings – one is “capital” and the other is “east”. What we now call Kyoto was originally known by various names, its latest being Kyo. So it became Kyo-To – Capital Kyo. When the Shogunate moved, Edo eventually became known as East Kyo or East Capital – To-Kyo.
The move to Edo was to solidify the authority of the Shogunate in its main power base. A bit like Washington today, Kyoto attracted the nobility, lobbyists and a host of corrupting influences surrounding the person of the Emperor. After the move, the Shoguns forced the Emperor and the nobility to remain in Kyoto.
Lanterns outside a Kyoto Temple
To ensure there could be no mass uprisings by the many feudal lords around the person of the Emperor, the Shoguns mandated that each had to make a pilgrimage every two years to Edo. Naturally there was an ulterior motive – two, in fact. The huge cost of moving an extremely large retinue of retainers on such long journeys meant it would be nearly impossible for any one lord to raise an army to march against the Shoguns. Secondly, wives and heirs had to remain in Kyoto, for pretty obvious reasons. This proved a huge boost to economic activity along the route with inns and restaurants doing a roaring trade. Even today there are walking tours covering most of the Nakasendo Way taken by those lords. But if you enjoy walking, best to cover just a small part as its full length is about 330 kms!
A Delighful Village on the Nakasendo Way
Many of Kyoto’s famous temples and shrines are far older than those in most parts of the country. A quick glance shows how old the wood is.
So if Nikko portrays baroque and even rococo Japan, Kyoto’s architecture is far simpler and starker – with occasional exceptions like this ceremonial gate.
Whereas Tokyo was largely destroyed by massive firebombing in World War II – one raid alone obliterated over 40 sq. kms. – Kyoto escaped much of the conventional bombing. Even so, it could have entered the history books in a far more sinister way. It was on the list of cities targeted for the first atomic bombs. Largely because of its cultural significance, US Secretary of State for War Henry Stimpson persuaded Truman against Kyoto. Nagasaki was chosen instead.
Typical Kyoto Temple
When I first visited Kyoto, I just assumed the city would be quite small with the main temples all relatively close together. Not at all! They are in fact pretty spread out and you need to plan for about three days to take in most of the best-known ones. My early photos are fading and so I include a wikipedia photo of one of the most famous and must-see temples – the Kinkakuji Temple’s Gold Pavilon. As you’d assume, it is covered in gold leaf. Set on a small lake in a lovely park, the main problem is its location in the city’s far north west. Since you will want to base yourself near the centre, visiting the Gold Temple requires a 40-minute bus ride from the bus station on the north side of the main railway station.
Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Temple
Another must-see is the similarly but inaccurately named Silver Pavilion or Ginkaku-ji. This is because there is not – and never has been – a trace of silver anywhere to be seen on this Zen Temple set is much more sparse surroundings. This temple is to the north east of the station next to the Honen-in Temple. The beauty is less the Temple itself and much more its setting in the eastern hills with its unique Japanese sand garden known as the “Sea of Silver Sand”.
Closer to the centre is the equally famous Kiyomizu-dera Temple complex referred to above with its main hall and extensive verandah supported on tall pillars.
This is closer to the station on the east side of the city. The best time of year to visit is either when the cherry blossom is in bloom or the woods are covered in bright autumn leaves. On my last visit three years ago, I caught just the start of the cherry blossom season. Entering by the complex steps you pass though an orange niomon gate with a similarly coloured small pagoda a little further on. Soon you are at the side of the main pavilion, an immense structure always packed with visitors. An indication of its popularity is that in 2007 it was one of 21 finalists for the New Seen Wonders of the World.
Although the cherry blossom here was still not quite out, there were parts of Kyoto where the trees were in more radiant bloom.
Having been several times to Kyoto, I enjoy just wandering around. Apart from temples, Kyoto is famous for its gardens. Walking almost anywhere it is impossible not to come across some of interest.
On my last visit I used up my few remaining points to spend two nights at the quite lovely Hyatt Regency hotel near this temple rebuilt in 1249 after a fire. Uniquely it contains 1,000 life-size statues of armed soldiers.
The Sanjūsangen-dō Temple close to the Hyatt
If I return I will again stay relatively near the station. Not only does that make travelling around easier, there are many much cheaper hotels nearby – for I certainly could not afford to pay the Hyatt prices! The station area also has many inexpensive restaurants offering Japanese and western food. Dining in one, I noticed this price list -
For a very brief moment I rather hoped it might refer to a few moments behind a curtain with one of the very cute waiters, those better endowed charging more! In fact, the length referred to a sort of Swiss Roll cake to take away! Bummer!
From the Hyatt it was easy to take long walks with a simple map and explore at will. It is also not far from the Gion District, the historic nightlife entertainment centre packed with bars, restaurants and where you will probably see the occasional geisha. This is a favourite evening spot for photographers when the cherry blossom is in bloom.
Like Nikko, Kyoto and Nara are magnets for Japanese tourists. Some dress up, rather like these pretty girls, although these are not quite kimono which certainly would not be worn with sneakers! Sometimes, too, you will see farmers in traditional costume
If you have time and want to see one amazing Art Gallery and Museum, take a short 38 km trip east of Kyoto to visit I. M. Pei’s architectural gem, the Miho Museum of Asian and European antiques. Set into a hillside with a short walk through a tunnel before getting there, the entire Museum is constructed to make you feel as though you are wandering outside in the forests rather than in an enclosed space. Truly a unique experience.
copyright: Miho Museum
When visiting Kyoto it’s easy to take a short trip also to nearby Nara, for a brief 8 decades before Kyoto the nation’s capital. Nara is much smaller and easier to get around. It is also totally different. In its heyday, it was the custom to model cities and even much of society after the Chinese. So the model for Nara was the central Chinese city of Chang’an, the capital of the Tang Dynasty. Towards the end of the Nara period, a Buddhist monk founded the monastery at Mt. Hiei near what we now call Kyoto. Within a few years, the capital was moved to Kyoto where it remained, at least in name, until the Meiji Restoration in the mid-1860s.
I took a 6-hour coach tour to Nara – and regretted it! The tour guide was a Japanese around 60 who had lived in Chicago for some years and just would not shut up! Much of the time he was making silly jokes rather than giving us lots of historical and other detail. And most of the jokes just fell flat! But the tours are not expensive and they do save a lot of time, even though you only see a small part of what Nara has to offer.
A Torii Gate in Nara Park
The highlight is the huge Todai-ji Temple, far taller than any other I have seen elsewhere in Japan. It is simple and elegant, but take away its height and it would seem distinctly unimpressive. Yet it contains many interesting features, not least the Daibutsu, at 14.98 meters the largest bronze Buddha statue in the country.
Entrance Gate to the Todai-ji Temple
Tagging any statue as the “largest” can be dangerous because this is certainly not the largest in the world. Almost certainly that accolade goes to the towering statue at Leshan close to Mt. Emei and not far from Chengdu in China.
The key word here is “bronze”. Largest is a relative term but within the confines of a temple the Daibutsu certainly seems so.
There are several other massive statues towering over you as you walk around inside. To either side of the Daibutsu are the Komokuten, a pair of fierce looking guardians. Outside one black skeletal statue clad in red robes glowers at you. Known as the Binzuru statue, some believe that if you are ill all you need do is touch the same part on the Binzuru statue and you will be cured.
Don’t be surprised when walking through Nara Park on the way to the Temple to be surrounded by small tame deer. Another important Shinto Temple in Nara is the brighter Kasuga Grand Shrine. A key feature here are lanterns. Three thousand of them line the way up to the shrine and everywhere you look there are rows of hanging lanterns.
It’s years since I went to any bar in Kyoto and the very friendly one I used to frequent has long since died. There is a clutch of newer ones, including one named Azure which most reviewers recommend avoiding. It is tiny and not much English is spoken. Another I know little about is Apple Bar. Best to check the usual gay sites for updated information. Kyoto also has a couple of male bath houses/saunas, but be discreet as these are not exclusively gay. Yet with around 30 universities and colleges, there has to be some nightlife to cater for all those young guys and gals. In my most recent two day stay, socializing was not on the agenda only because I was having a ball in Tokyo both before and after!
If meeting up with a cute Japanese is on your list, you are better to spend at least one night in Osaka before or after Kyoto. Here gay nightlife is infinitely more varied and plentiful. And if your interest is more in sex than combining socializing and sex, you could do worse than contact the gay host bar Osaka Kids (“kids” is an inappropriate translation for all the boys here are 18 or older). This is a typical gay host bar similar to many you will find around Japan – although I cannot locate one in Kyoto. The routine is the same for all. Check the website for details of prices, in-bar rooms, outcall details as well as all you want to know about the guy you like, his sexual leanings (far from all are gay) and what he will or will not do. The one thing you must watch with these pleasure palaces is time. They have a very strict timing policy and you must pay in advance. I read on another site that the experience of one westerner was average. Another had a wonderful time! So you pays your money and takes your chances! Minimum charge for one hour is ¥12,000 (US$105) plus bar drinks if you buy them. Forget about asking your chosen one to come to Kyoto with you, though. The 24-hour charge is around US$720 plus his costs!
Getting to Kyoto
a. from Osaka
The most convenient way to reach Kyoto is to arrive at Osaka’s Kansai Airport. When it opened in the early 1990s, this was regarded as something of an engineering marvel. Constructed on a man-made island in Osaka Bay it was to have round-the-clock operation and enable the in-town airport to be closed. The problem faced by engineers was that the land under the sea was largely soft sand. It was estimated that the passenger terminal would sink back into the ocean by around 13 meters within 50 years. That limit was reached in less than 20 years – and it is still sinking. Although the rate has now reduced, the passenger terminal is only kept level thanks to a vast number of computer controlled hydraulic jacks.
From there you get to Kyoto by one of regular airport Limousine buses. Even more convenient is the “Haruka” Airport Express train. This departs from the airport station every 30 minutes and gets you to Kyoto in 75 minutes. As everywhere in Japan, avoid taxis. They are humongously expensive!
b. from Tokyo
Kyoto is easily accessed by the shinkansen bullet trains with dozens of daily departures from Tokyo. This departure board of trains in the opposite direction shows no less than six in the space of just over 40 minutes -
But avoid the Kodama trains. They are the slowest and stop at just about every station. Time to Tokyo is around 4 hours. The Hikari have less stops and make the journey in 2 hours 40 minutes. The Nozomi are the fastest at 2 hours 20 minutes but these cannot be used with a Japan Rail Pass. So aim for one of the Hikari departures. Each shinkansen has a number of cars with unreserved seats but these always get filled up quickly. Arriving early at the station will not do you much good because your shinkansen will only be at the platform for a few minutes at both stations. So, after arrival in the country take your Pass to a Japan Rail reservations office to reserve a specific seat. If you want to catch a glimpse of Mt. Fuji en route with the possibility of a photo assuming the weather is good, book a seat on the right side travelling from Tokyo or the left side returning from Kyoto.
And if you fly south out of Haneda airport, try to get a seat on a right side window. Three years ago there was low cloud. As soon as we broke through, we were treated to magnificent views of Mt. Fuji.
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During World War 2 Kyoto nearly was one of the primary targets for the atomic bomb. That was the military plan. Kyoto was spared because then Secretary of War Henry Stimson refused to allow Kyoto to be a target for the atomic bomb or any other bomb attack. He felt that Kyoto was too beautiful and culturally sacred to the Japanese and insisted the city be spared. Harry Truman agreed and Kyoto was removed from the potential target list.