cover photo: Geishas walking in Kyoto neighborhood
This is Japan:
Land of Ancient Wisdom and Modern Precision
Kyoto, HimEJi Castle, Myajima Island and Hiroshima
(Third of Four)
By: Amber Creighton
Photos By: Amber Creighton
After a restful night on our futon beds at Hanaya ryokan, we enjoyed a traditional breakfast of trout, sushi and Japanese omelet.
We then enjoyed the morning exploring the village of Tsumago in detail, journeying to the breathtaking destination of Kyoto, the capital of Japan for over 1,000 years, and remains an entertaining cultural Mecca.
Kyoto is also famed for its traditional culinary delights and fine dining options.
Kyoto has three main sections. The historic districts, located just outside of the sprawling modern city of Kyoto, is a great place to begin exploring.
The historic districts are within walking or biking distance. Life goes on here much as it has for the last millennia, but with a modern spin and conveniences.
The historic districts are rich with amazing temples, Zen gardens, and unique sights such as the Geisha district of Gion.
There are only 100 true geishas left in Kyoto. Modern geishas are trained in the traditional dance, instruments, and singing of their predecessors. Being a geisha in modern Kyoto is comparative to being a ballerina at the Metropolitan Opera. It is a choice and takes a considerable amount of talent and practice to master the traditional arts.
In Kyoto, there are 1,700 Buddhist temples and 300 Shinto Shrines. Some of the key shrines and temples to see in the historic districts are the Kiyomizu temple, the Nanzenji with its Silver Pavilion, and the Sanjusangendo temple.
Near the Nanzenji Temple and its gardens is The Philosopher’s Walk, which parallels the Higashiyama Canal. The Philosopher’s Walk is a lovely way to stroll through ancient Kyoto on the east side of the city.
Also, don’t miss out on touring and tasting your way through the Nishikikoj-dori food market for an authentic Japanese experience, which is also within walking distance of the center.
The picturesque Western suburb of Arashiyama offers many Zen gardens and temples. This includes one of Kyoto’s big five, the Tenryuji temple. The intriguing Bamboo Forest and a chance to feed snow monkeys at Monkey Park are also here. A relaxing boat down the Hozu River is a wonderful way to reach this area during good weather.
A short train ride away from central Kyoto, is the Fushimi-inari Taisha Shrine famous for its many torii. Hike to the top of Mount Inari along a 4km gateway called the Oyama-meguri. This gateway is lined with thousands of torii which result in a surreal tunnel-like view. Make certain you arrive early before the large tour groups and buses arrive. The bus-loads of group tours limit chances of getting any clear views of the thousands of beautiful torii gates here. The thousands of torii gates, when viewed unobstructed, is quite an effect.
Sake barrels are often displayed in temples as evidence of the purity of the water in the temple grounds. More than 40 sake cellars are along the moat of Fushimi-inari Taisha Shrine as evidence of the water’s purity. This is also a reminder of the link to the historic town that was here during the Edo period, from the 17th to the 19th century.
From the Fushimi-inari Taisha Shrine take a short train ride to the magical Nara Park with its famous Bowing deer. Nara spreads over acres of ancient temples, dating predominately to the 5th and 6th centuries when Nara was the capital of Japan.
Nara Park is filled with Bowing deer. The deer are friendly and safe to approach. They are docile, unless you try to feed them. The deer go crazy for the biscuits sold to feed them on every corner. They bite clothing and kick outward to get the biscuits. Every time we heard a scream piercing the serenity of the park, we knew that someone was trying to feed the deer.
The temples and setting of the Nara Park are incredible. Don’t miss the impressive Todai-ji Temple, which holds the great bronze Buddha as well as other large statues and intricate carvings. The Kofuku-ji and Horyu-ji temples are excellent. The eastern end of Nara Park is also dotted with temples.
The main districts of Kyoto and its many temples, as well as its iconic Zen temples, are accessible by Kyoto’s excellent bus transportation system.
I loved the Gold Pavilion painted bright gold and placed in a reflective lake. The Golden Pavilion was constructed in the 1390’s and accurately rebuilt in the 1950’s. The nearby Ryoanji Temple and the Ninnaji Temple are home to the classical Zen Gardens, which Kyoto is often most noted for.
The morning we left Kyoto, we saw the beautiful Sanjusangedo Hall, built in 1164. This Hall contains a staggering 1,001 carved deities. The Hall with its surrounding gardens can be leisurely viewed in under an hour and make for an excellent morning stroll.
Miyajima Island and Hiroshima
After experiencing the ancient beauty and intrigue of Kyoto, we made the three hour journey to Miyajima Island. This magical majestic Island is most photographed place in Japan! Miyajima Island is just a ten minute ferry ride from Hiroshima! When traveling from Kyoto to Miyajima Island, a key stop off point along the long journey is Himeji Castle. Himeji Castle, founded in 1333A.D., was built up over centuries. It is in excellent condition due to ongoing restorations. Himeji Castle is internationally famous for being the setting of the Bond film with Sean Connery, “You Only Live Twice.” Climbing the many levels that are open to the public is a historical treat. A relaxing exploration of the castle and the surrounding Koko-en Garden can be accomplished in a few hours.
Miyajima Island is famous for an 800 year old, excellently reconstructed, floating red torii gate placed into the sea. This torii gate is fully accessible for an up-close view at low tide. The island is also adorned with an incredible temple structure of Itsukushima-jinja shrine. This shrine dates to 1,500 years ago and since been faithfully reconstructed. Miyajima is dotted with friendly bowing deer, and beautiful nature walks. Lovely traditional Japanese shops line the main street and the atmosphere is relaxed and friendly. The beaches are majestic as they extend into the surrounding seas. The food was other-worldly and the traditional rooms were spacious.
Hiroshima is a must visit to truly appreciate the complexities of historical and modern day Japan. The Peace Park and Atomic Dome are extremely moving. The Memorial Museum is important to see, but perhaps not recommended for the weak of heart or small children. Hiroshima is an interesting metropolitan modern city with many unique dining opportunities and beautiful parks such as the Shukkei-en Gardens.
This concludes our tour throughout mainland Japan. Now on to the Okinawa Islands, the fourth and final article in our Japan adventure series.