Kyoto, Japan 72-Hour Vacation
Step Through Time
Centuries and Counting
by Andrew Bender
Grand Shinto Shrine Fushimi Inari Taisha
If Tokyo were a person, you may think he's a samurai, on guard and dutiful; a manga character, or even Hello Kitty. But with Kyoto, the symbol would undoubtedly be the geisha; an artist of refinement and a practitioner of all that is gracious in Japanese culture. No wonder Kyoto was the setting for Arthur Golden's novel Memoirs of a Geisha.
The sensations of this city
are singular: the bells of Buddhist temples ring,
carried to your ears by the breeze, followed by
the otherworldly chanting of monks. Romantically
lit streets set a backdrop out of the 18th century. And indeed, a split-second glimpse of a geisha, if you're lucky enough to see that much, is an image to last a lifetime, as she seems not to walk so much as to float to her next appointment.
was Japan's capital for much of the nation's
history, seat of the imperial family from A.D. 794
until 1868. During that time it was called Heian-kyo
("capital of enduring safety"). Buddhist
temples and Shinto shrines, immaculate gardens and
rustic teahouses, a picturesque downtown and colorful
festivals became the city's hallmarks, even after
the shogun (military ruler) moved the day-to-day
functions of the government to
the faraway town of
the early 17th century.
1868, the emperor Meiji moved the imperial capital
to Edo as well and renamed that city Tokyo, while
Heian-kyo was renamed Kyoto (capital district) to honor
its heritage. Today, Tokyo may be the national capital,
but Kyoto never stopped being the capital of the
is also virtually unique among large Japanese cities
in that it was spared bombing in World War II. Many
of the city's temples, shrines and one-time
palaces trace their histories back twelve centuries.
Yet these ancient structures are sprinkled
around a very modern downtown with
cutting edge buildings and shops, hotels and restaurants
that show that Kyoto—like the nation it represents—is
also looking, clear-eyed, toward the future.
Many of Kyoto's best hotels are right in the city center. The ryokan (Japanese-style inn) Tawaraya is a favorite with celebrities and other well-heeled guests, whose outlay of significant cash is rewarded with personalized service, legendary discretion and a mixture of Japanese and western style rooms. The more moderately priced Hotel Nikko Princess Kyoto is a 16-story western-style hotel with large rooms (for Japan) and a location in the center of everything.
Keep in mind, that Kyoto doesn't really have much of nightlife, so enjoy long, leisurely dinners before relaxing in your hotel.
Kyoto restaurants serving breakfast are few and far between, but hotels offer quite lovely ones, so you're best off enjoying breakfast in your hotel today and for the rest of your stay. On
your first morning, hit the ground running… No,
scratch that: step gently, for this is Japan's
most genteel city. Take a taxi to Ginkaku-ji (Silver Pavilion) temple in the city's northeast
corner. It began as a villa for the emperor during
Japan's warring states period (14th century),
and the temple remains an icon even if the Silver
Pavilion itself no longer stands. Take a walk through
its hillside gardens of combed sands, perfectly
pruned trees, small pools and a variety of mosses.
entrance to the temple sits at the head of the Path
of Philosophy, which runs about 2 km south
through the Higashiyama district along the city's eastern reaches. It's
a classic walk at any time of the year, but it's
a special treat at cherry blossom time or when the
fall colors blaze. Signs along the path point toward
Buddhist temples of various sizes and grandeur.
Make sure to take time to meander in and out of
them alongside ancient cemeteries and impressive
path terminates at the imposing Nanzenji temple.
Its three-story sanmon gate was built to honor soldiers
who perished in the decisive Battle of Osaka in 1615,
in which the forces of the shogun unified Japan, ushering
in nearly 250 years of peace. At the temple's
main hall are one of the city's largest kare-sansui (raked stone gardens) and national treasures including fusuma-e (murals painted on sliding doors) of leaping
tigers against a backdrop of gold leaf.
Restaurants surrounding Nanzenji are a great place to stop for lunch. The specialty is a Kyoto delicacy called yudofu, a boiling pot of tofu blocks, more interesting than it sounds thanks to accompanying sauces and condiments.
Many of these restaurants, like Okutan, have lovely
sated, take a quick taxi ride to busy Kiyomizu
Temple—it traces its origins back to
the 8th century (although the current wooden buildings
date from only 1633). You'll recognize it by its
famous pagoda and views from its hillside clear across
town. There's a lot to see here, but "can't
misses" include the sweeping verandah and the
fountain from which you can sample waters said to have
curative and brain-enhancing powers (students come here
to prepare for university entrance exams). At the small
Shinto shrine in the temple precincts (known as En-Musubi
Jinja), visitors with their eyes closed walk between
two stones set in the ground—legend has it that
if they make the trek successfully, they'll find
their true love.
lively streets heading downhill from the temple include
some atmospheric shops and cafés (to the right),
or head left to descend Chawan-zaka (Teacup Slope), with shops selling Kiyomizu-yaki style pottery. For more ceramics, another several minutes'
walk away is the home of Kanjiro Kawai, now a museum
dedicated to this lauded 20th century ceramicist and
a key member of the mingei (folk craft) movement
that also included Shoji Hamada and Shiko Munakata.
five-minutes-or-so walk away, wrap up the day's
sightseeing with a visit to Sanjusangendo.
At the center of an airplane-hangar-sized hall dating
from 1266 sits one giant statue of the Kannon (Buddhist
deity of mercy, called Guanyin in Chinese) flanked by
1,000 human-size Kannons. At first glance, the smaller
statues, with their faded gilt, may look identical,
but if you look closely you'll notice that each
is subtly different, their 40 arms brandishing varying
symbols of healing, longevity and more.
When the lights go down, head for dinner at Shabu-zen, which serves shabu-shabu, a heartwarming, cook-it-yourself concoction of paper-thin beef which cooks nearly instantly along with vegetables in a pot of boiling water set into your table, before you dip them in different sauces. Walk off your dinner with a stroll in the Gion or Pontocho districts, the mood-lit locations of Golden's novel, where if you squint you can imagine that you've stepped back 200 years in time, and it's the best spot to possibly see a geisha or maiko (geisha in training) pass by.
to Day 2
* Images from the Japan National Tourism Organization