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Kyoto, Japan 72-Hour Vacation

A Step Through Time
Twelve Centuries and Counting
by Andrew Bender

The Grand Shinto Shrine Fushimi Inari Taisha
The 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.

Kyoto Japan MapKyoto 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 Edo in the early 17th century.

In 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 nation's heart.

Kyoto 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.

The 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 homes.

The 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 garden settings.

Kiyomizu Temple
Kiyomizu Temple

Thus 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.

The 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.


Another 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.

Continue to Day 2


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A five-storied pagoda Temple; Copyright Akira Okada/JNTO

* Images from the Japan National Tourism Organization

(Updated: 04/06/09 SG)

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