Even if there is no international airport in Kyoto, it is the most visited city in Japan for the numerous historic monuments including 1,681 Buddhist temples and 812 Shinto shrines, as well as its traditional atmosphere. Encountering natives, shopkeepers and craftsmen will make you appreciate how Kyoto inhabitants are proud of their city and their commitment to preserve traditions. Kyoto was founded in 794 in a narrow basin, which measures 40km North-South and 20km West-East. Surrounded by mountains, it is hot and humid in summer and cold in winter. Kyoto streets intersect at right angles like a giant chessboard, making them very easy to navigate. They were built on the model of the Chinese city, Chang'an. Kyoto is currently the seventh largest city in Japan after Tokyo, Osaka, Yokohama, Nagoya, Sapporo and Kobe. The current population is 1.5 million inhabitants in the city of Kyoto and 2.6 million inhabitants in Kyoto department.
Life in this city is punctuated by the seasons. Culture, traditions and historical monuments are perfectly integrated with the surrounding nature. Nonetheless than 16 monuments are listed as UNESCO World Patrimony : the temples To-ji, Kiyomizu-dera, Enryaku-ji, Daigo-ji, Ninna-ji, Kouzan-ji, Saiho-ji, Tenryu-ji, Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion), Ginkaku-ji (Silver Pavilion), Ryoan-ji, Hongan-ji and the shrines Kamigamo-jinja, Shimogamo-jinja, Ujigami-jinja and the Nijo castle.
You should stay 1 or 2 weeks in Kyoto to discover this old city which was for a time the ancient capital of Japan.
Located in the West of Lake Biwa, Kyoto is 500 kilometers far from Tokyo (about 2h30 by shinkansen, the Japanese high-speed train). It is also accessible from Osaka Kansai Airport, KIX, in about one hour and a half by Haruka Express train of the JR company or the shuttles of the MK and Yasaka companies.
Tokugawa Ieyasu made the Nijo Castle build in Kyoto in 1603 before his proclamation of Seii-tai-shogun, shogun of the shoguns. As this place is near the Imperial Palace, it seems he wanted to keep the movements of the Emperor under close surveillance : the Tokugawa clan set up his government and lived in Edo, currently Tokyo, while the imperial court remained in Kyoto.
After the stay of the third shogun, Iemitsu, nobody in this clan came to the castle until the fourteenth shogun, Iemochi. The authority of this family ended with the fifteenth shogun Yoshinobu, who announced in this castle the return of his authority to the Emperor, a determining event of the Meiji Restoration. The Edo period began and ended in the same castle. The solemn paintings on the sliding doors, done by the Kano family, show the prestige of the shogun of that time.
The paintings of tigers and leopards on the sliding doors were used for intimidating the feudal lords as soon as they entered the room. At the time, there was no TV or picture unabling to know the wildlife. The lords were asked without preamble to sit in the middle of this large room, with the eyes of those wild animals watching to them from all sides. The Shogun Tokugawa succeeded in discouraging his vassals of a possible rebellion from the beginning of their visit.
Access to the Nijo Castle in Kyoto : get off at Kyoto station and take the subway to Nijo-jo-mae, 260 yen. Ticket : 600 yen.
Arashiyama is located on the western border of the city and attracts a large number of travelers. His limpid river, changing its name from upstream to downstream (Hozu, Oi and Katsura) flows in a mountain valley. You can go over it on the "Togetsu-kyo" bridge, literally "the moon that crosses the bridge." Cormorant fishing is practiced in summer. Around the mountains, there is a bamboo forest. In autumn, you can attend to the festivals koyo (November) and hanatoro (December).
The Hozugawa Kudari, a boat going down the river Hozu, is beautiful. In a boat journey of an hour and a half, you can see the landscape and scenery of Arashiyama.
Access to Arashiyama : by train, JR Kyoto Station, take the San-in line (Sagano) platforms 31 to 34 and get off at Saga-Arashiyama (15min), or take the Randen train (Keifuku-Railway) and get off at Arashiyama station (terminus). By bus, take the lines 11, 28, 73, 91 or 93.
Covered with moss and surrounded by bamboo, Gio-ji, 20 minutes walk from the famous bamboo forest, is a beautiful temple of Arashiyama district. This hermitage is in honour of a woman of the twelfth century, Gio. She was living in Kyoto and was reputed to be a ravishingly beautiful dancer. She practiced shirabyoshi, a kind of dance performed exclusively by women wearing a white male tails. Because of her beauty, the Governor of this time, Taira-no-Kiyomori, loved Gio. They began to live together.
One day, a girl knocked at their door. Her name was Hotoke-gozen. While the Governor didn't want her to come in, Gio, out of pity for her, introduced her into their house. Hotoke-gozen, who was also a shirabyoshi dancer, showed her virtuosity to the Governor. Her art, more elegant than Gio's one, charmed the husband, who sent his wife packing ; at the time, Gio was 21 years old and Hotoke-gozen 17.
Shattered by sadness, Gio cut herself off from the world with her mother and her sister. She shaved her head and led a lonely life in this small temple. Her haiku (a 5-7-5 syllables poem) expresses her sentimental pain:
Mijikayo no Yume ubau mono Hototogisu
Translation: what deprived me of a dream of a short night, was a cuckoo.
A few years later, she had a visit from Hotoke-gozen, who had robbed her of her ex-husband. Tormented by guilt, Hotoke-gozen wasn't able to live with him. After reconciliation, they lived together peacefully.
This episode is described in "The tales of Heike", a story of the twelfth century about the Taira family. Note that the husband of Gio built the Itsukushima Shrine on Miyajima Island.
Nowadays, Gio-ji is wellknown for its moss garden surrounded by bamboo. The soil being clayish and waterproof, moss is often used in the temples of Kyoto.
Just in front of the tunnel Kiyotaki, in the north of Arashiyama district, there is the small temple Otagi-Nenbutsuji, with its very smiling 1,200 statues. Unlike Jizo, a small statue protecting children, the statues of this temple are called Rakan. They represent people who have reached the final stage of Buddhism exercises. In other words, Jizo is a child and Rakan, an adult. Japanese people still believe that these statues protect inhabitants and travelers who visit this temple. The Rakan roar with laughter. When this temple was moved here, the believers and local inhabitants made these 1200 statues: they aimed at creating a unique temple that can give believers a deep peace. The name of the craftsmen is engraved on the back of the statues. All the statues are different. The Buddhism says: "everyone has his character or his position, but if we manage to respect others with their differences, then we'll be saved by Buddha." Walking in this small temple, statues teach us how important it is to live peacefully with others. Made in the twentieth century, some statues are holding a guitar or a camera.
Why 1200 statues? Upon the death of Shakyamuni (Siddhartha Gautama), the founder of Buddhism, 500 disciples came for the funeral, and a year later, 700 disciples attended the ceremony of the first anniversary of his death. In honour of this story, the believers have created 1,200 statues, corresponding to the number of disciples of Buddha.
This monastery was, in the past, in the centre of Kyoto and was moved in 1921 in this very quiet district, called Saga-toriimoto, an out-of-the-way place of Arashiyama. Since the 15th century, people came there and formed a hamlet around the hudge red door, torii. Farmers, fishermen and craftsmen found this place pleasant and built there houses with thatched roofs. Nowadays, there are about fifty houses and the atmosphere is still quiet. This district is one of the four traditional sites to save in Kyoto with Sannei-zaka, Gion-Shinbashi and Kamigamo. In these sites, it is not allowed to build or demolish buildings without an authorization in order to preserve the scenery.
Access to Otagi-Nenbutsuji: take the Kyoto-bus number 72 in front of Kyoto Station and get off at Otagiji-mae.
Ticket: 300 yen.
Tenryuji temple is the best zen temple of Kyoto. In the fourteenth century, the shogun Ashikaga Takauji competes with the Emperor Godaigo. They aspire to create a new government but oppose their views. Takauji expeled from Kyoto the Emperor Godaigo, who dies in a mountain, in the South.
In the past, it was thought that when an important personality died miserably, it would cause an earthquake or a disaster. To honor the soul of the Emperor, Takauji made this temple built. The name of the temple, Tenryuji, which means " temple of the dragon in the sky" (ten : sky, ryu : dragon, ji : temple), was chosen because Tadayoshi, Takauji's brother, dreamed that a dragon of gold rose in the sky.
For information, Ashikaga Takauji was the first shogun of the Ashikaga clan and his grandson Yoshimitsu, the third shogun Ashikaga, made the Kinkakuji Temple (Golden Pavilion) built.
The garden of Tenryuji was done by the monk-gardener Muso Soseki. It is said to be the first model of "shakkei" garden, which represents the marriage between the garden and the surrounding environment. The first syllable "sha" means "borrow" and "kei" means "sky". The shakkei is a style that incorporates the landscape to the garden in an harmonious whole. Here, three mountains fit the garden in the background : Arashiyama, Kameyama and Ogurayama. The Tenryuji building was burned around ten times, but the garden has kept the appearance it had 700 years ago. This garden is a true marriage between aristocratic culture and Zen. Muso Soseki was already 71 years old when he finished the garden. He said that the value of gardens do not depend on rivers or mountains, but on their souls.
Japanese garden is really interesting because it has elements that call out visitors. Here, for example, at the bottom of the pond where carps swim, you can see a collection of rocks. It is a waterfall without water. According to a Chinese legend, if a carp succeed in climbing a waterfall, it can become a dragon. However it is difficult for fish to climb. It means you have to make efforts to get over an obstacle and overcome the difficulties of life to grow.
If you visit this temple on the weekend or a holiday, you can see the ceiling mural of Unryu-zu dragon. In Japan, the dragon is the god of water. It can protect buildings from fire by bringing rain. In the past, fires were a serious problem in Kyoto where wooden houses were very tight. The dragon is considered a patron god since a long time, especially in the school of Zen Buddhism. This painting is 10.6m long and 12.6m large and the ticket is 500 yens (in addition to the ticket of the garden). The dragon eyes follow you when you move, that's why he was nicknamed "Happo nirami no ryu" (dragon who observes the eight directions).
In the garden there is a large calligraphy tool called "suzuri." This object is very honored because it is said you can make progress in calligraphy if you pray here. The famous picture of the dragon was painted with this big suzuri. This tool is used to make ink. Water is put into the hollow portion and an ink stick is rubbed in. All Japanese children learn calligraphy at school. It is not only a way to write but also a way to express the beauty and depth of the heart.
If you want to experience Japanese family life, visit the shopping streets, shotengai. I'm not speaking about busy streets of the centre of Kyoto, but those of the suburbs. Before the shopping centres were built, people used to go shopping in shotengai. Along the walkways, where arcades were built by merchants who wanted to make their streets more convenient on rainy days, there are small specialized shops. You can see there the authentic Japanese life.
However, a lot of individual stores are in front of financial difficulty. After successive deregulation, particularly those of the Government Junichiro Koizumi (2001-2006), many small and medium enterprises have closed.
Fortunately, it remains in Kyoto lively shotengai. I present here Demachi, located near the junction of the two rivers, Kamogawa and Takanogawa (kawa or gawa = River). This area is also near the Imperial Palace, Shimogamo Shrine and the Buddhist temple Shokoku-ji, this is a good place to rest between visits.
The Demachi district is the arrival of the path on which people in the past were carrying seafood and fish products from the Gulf Wakasa, in the north of Kyoto. This path is called Saba-kaido (saba = mackerel, kaido = road) because the mackerels of Wakasa were transported to Kyoto (inland) to be eaten. In Demachi there are restaurants of sabazushi, sushi with mackerel.
Demachi, literally "out of town", is nevertheless called "Kyoto's entry". At the time the bridges of the Kamo River were not built, people entered Kyoto by this district. Far from the congestion of town centre, the Demachi-yanagi station, located at the confluence of two rivers, is ideal to join the districts of Matsugasaki, Yase, Ichijoji and Shugakuin.
Access to Demachi: take the bus 205 to Kyoto Station and get off at Aoibashi-Nishizume or take the Keihan line and get off at Demachiyanagi (last station).
Surrounded by mountains, except in the south, the city of Kyoto has increased with the rivers that still remain as oasis.
The Kamogawa river, located in the east of the city, flows from the north to the south. In summer, you can find about 70 restaurants with their "Yuka (a sort of balcony on the bank of the river)", between the streets Nijo and Gojo, offering a very characteristic scenery of Kyoto. You can see birds like egrets, grey herons, birds of prey, and above all, ducks. Indeed, kamo means duck and gawa (kawa), river.
The five traditional districts of Kyoto are usually called hanamachi or Kagai, literally "flowers' district" : Gion-Kobu, Gion-Higashi, Miyagawa-cho, Ponto-cho and Kamishichiken. In the Miyagawacho district, near Kiyomizu-Gojo station, you can often meet maiko or geiko, dancers in kimono, real alive flowers. Maiko is an apprentice and is younger (between 16 and 20 years old) than geiko. Their make-up is traditionally white because in the old days when there was not yet electricity, their faces could be seen well in the dark.
To become an apprentice, girls must belong to a house called okiya. They learn the manners and rules of this traditional world from their house's mother, okaasan. They practice Japanese traditional arts such as dance (kyo-mai), shamisen, flower arrangement (ikebana) and tea ceremony (sado). To become a maiko training is very hard and at least one year is required. They go to a special school and work hardly at home, dreaming of dancing in a theatre one day.
Almost like a real mother, the role of the okaasan is very important. For girls who left their native regions, she is the only person whom they can rely on. She teaches them not only courtesy, but also her philosophy of life as a woman. When her "daughters" begin officially their career of maiko, she gives them a fan.
When it begins to get dark, maiko go to work in an ochaya restaurant, where they entertain guests with traditional dances and games. They work until late in the night. A maiko generally becomes geiko after five or six years of hard work. Even after becoming a geiko, they continue their efforts to improve their skill in traditional arts. If they want to marry, they have to stop their career as a geiko.
If you are interested in this traditional world or would like to have such a dinner, it is better to ask an interpreter-guide. In Kyoto, people respect the tradition called ichigen-san-okotowari, which means that they decline sudden strangers' visit. They think that knowing well their customers is very important to satisfy them.
There are some differences between maiko and geiko : for their outfits, maiko wear a red collar, which is replaced by a white one when they become a geiko. Maiko do their own hair, while geiko wear a wig. Besides, maiko's wooden clogs, called okobo, are very thick and makes the sound "kobo kobo" when they walk because of a bell placed inside. These clogs with a bell date from the time when maiko were about ten years old. At midnight, it was sometimes dangerous for them to walk alone. Therefore, their mother put a bell in their clogs so that people can find them if they lose their way. There were many houses in the district, but a family crest was stitched on their long belt, falling from their back, and called darari-no-obi. Thus inhabitants of the district could find maiko and their house if they got lost.
According to the writer of the 19th century, Takizawa Bakin, Kyoto has the three most beautiful things: temples, water of the Kamo River and women.
It's pleasant to have a walk in those five traditional districts of Kyoto throughout the year. In spring and autumn, there are also traditional dance performed by maiko and geiko of the different districts, at a reasonable price.
By the way, if you want to take pictures of maiko and geiko when you meet them in the street, courtesy should not be forgotten. To ask their permission, you can say : "sumimasen, shashin o tottemo iidesuka ? (Can I take a picture of you ?) ". They live in the district but they are sometimes shocked at the impertinence of tourists who wait just outside their house. Some of maiko are the age of high school student. To respect their life, we advise you to enjoy performances in the theatre, or reserve an "ochaya" restaurant. Then you can spend a wonderful time in their presence.
In the north of Gion, the most famous traditional district of Kyoto where the traditional culture began to flourish, there is a small river, Shirakawa. It is full of charms and crossed by the Tatsumi-bashi bridge. The paved streets offer a special atmosphere and are illuminated at night by the graceful lights of the restaurants. There are a lot of wooden houses. This place, of the 17th century, would not have been saved without the perseverance of the people who perpetuate traditions. This district has two main streets, Gion-Shinbashi and Shirakawa-Minami, the intersection of which there is the small shrine "Tatsumi-Daimyojin", dedicated to the goddess "Benzaiten" patron of the arts and water. In the morning geiko and maiko often come there to pray to make progress in dance and music. You can go up the river to the Heian-Jingu shrine. The Shirakawa River (literally white river) is really beautiful with its cherry trees and willows. The poet of the 20th century, Yoshii Isamu, who loved this district, has made this poem:
Translation: Gion is so adorable that I hear the sound of its river at my bedhead.
This poem is engraved on a stone in the middle of Shirakawa-Minami Street.
This store is located near the philosophers' path and is convenient for travelers who want to have a break with an ice cream.
Strawberry soda ice candy: 60 yen / milk ice candy: 100 yen / fruit (strawberry, banana, clementine, pineapple), cream or red beans ice candy: 140 yen / pineapple juice: 30 yen! Closed on Tuesday.
If you have time, enjoy the Silver Pavilion.
Ichijoji is a district of Kyoto wellknown for its ramen street full of ramen restaurants, that are Chinese noodles. Takayasu is a stylish and clean restaurant, identifiable by its large sign and the long queue of people waiting. Its white soup is excellent and the interior is furnished with good taste.
Ramen: 650 yen / fried chicken (5 pieces): 500 yen.
In the Japanese ryokan Hatanaka, in front of the southern gate of Yasaka Shrine, you can enjoy a delicious dinner while enjoying traditional dances of a maiko and a geiko. They are women dressed in kimono, whose face is made up with white foundation and who distract their customers during parties. They are often invited at parties or at some social events. This is why, every day, they must diligently pursue their studies and be witty to give different kinds of clients a good reception. Their company is highly appreciated.
In Kyoto, we never use the word "geisha" which is rather used in Tokyo and means "person who deal with art". Be careful, in Kyoto, this word can be considered rude.
Most of the time, it is difficult to arrange a banquet with them without the invitation of a regular or during a business dinner. It is quite expensive, between 50,000 and 100,000 yen per person for two hours with a maiko, a kaiseki meal and drinks.
In Ryokan Hatanaka, you can enjoy an evening with a maiko and a geiko without spending a fortune. This traditional inn offers a dinner with them four times a week. Many explanations are given in Japanese and English on their dance, the patterns of their kimono, the difference between maiko and geiko, their hairstyle and hair pins (hana kanzashi)... You can also participate in traditional games during these parties. Be careful, if you lose, you will have to drink a glass of sake! You can talk and take pictures with them and taste various local and seasonal dishes. For this very pleasant and excellent dinner, it will cost 18,000 yen per person, which is very reasonable considering the quality of the services. Here is a sample menu:
Appetizers: sushi, matsutake
(kind of Japanese mushroom), vegetable dish with mustard, herring roe
wrapped in laminar, duck with miso, fruit of gingko, omelette, black beans,
shrimp, abalone, grilled fish and small cheese.
There is no doubt you will be satisfied of this excellent dinner and great time spent with a maiko and a geiko at Hatanaka Ryokan.
Kyoto Cuisine and Maiko Evening in the ryokan Gion-Hatanaka, every Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday from 6 to 8PM (2 hours meal with a geiko and a maiko or two maiko), price: 18,000 yen including tax per person.
The Shisendo villa, in the foothills of the Mount Shugakuin, is a Japanese house surrounded by a bamboo forest and a beautiful garden of azaleas. In this quiet atmosphere and the soft murmur of the brook, enjoy this unforgettable scenery. This villa was built in 1640 by the samurai Ishikawa Jozan. After retiring, this man was involved here in his poetry, calligraphy and landscape gardening studies. He has invented the shishiodoshi, a bascule made with bamboo that hit a stone due to the weight of water.
Opened daily from 9AM to 5PM. Ticket: 500 yen.
If you have time, visit the Buddhist monastery Nobotoke-an, one minute walk from the Shisendo villa.
In the southeast of Kyoto city, there is the Fushimi-Inari shrine, with its thousands of red gates (torii). It dates from 711. This sanctuary has attracted a large number of farmers who wanted a good harvest, the god of rice being represented there. The rice was important in that time, because it was used as currency. Nowadays, this shrine is visited not only by farmers, but also by businessmen, corporate executives or simply any citizen coming here to pray for the health of his family, prosperity or success in business.
In Japan there are thousands of shrines called "Inari". This term means "rice harvest." If you see a monument called ~inari, this means that it is a sanctuary that was built to wish a good harvest and honor the god of soil. The Fushimi-Inari shrine is the see of all these sanctuaries that are among 30,000 throughout Japan.
Within the shrine we often see stone statues representing a fox (kitsune). In Japan, fox symbolize harvest: they go down from the mountain to look for food in spring and go back up at the end of autumn. This period is the same as rice's one: plantation is done at the end of May and harvest between September and November.
Observe the objects in the mouth of these statues. Some carry ears of rice, some others a key (kagi) and some others a ball (tama). The key is that of a former rice loft. The ball represents the soul or the words of god.
Did you know that Japanese people were shouting, "Tama-ya! Kagi-ya!", when looking at a fireworks display? Here's the story: one day, two fireworks experts came to the shrine to pray for safety with the explosives they were handling. They didn't have yet given a name to their two stores. They decided, in honor to the statues of the sanctuary, to call them respectively "Tama-ya" and "Kagi-ya", the syllable "ya" meaning store. Then these stores have prospered and their names have become a kind of acclamation for the fireworks display.
In the sanctuary bottom, there is a path with thousand torii, built by donors. It is very pleasant to have a walk there. Two hours are needed if you want to go to the top of the sanctuary.
The torii is a barrier against evil. Therefore, no evil spirit can approach this sanctuary. On one side of the torii, it is written "ho-no", that means "donation" and on the other one, it is written the date of construction and the name of the donor.
To get there, take the JR line at Kyoto Station on the platform 8, 9 or 10 in direction of Uji and Nara and get off at Inari (5 minutes, ticket: 140 yen. Be careful not to get on the rapid train kaisoku because it does not stop at Inari). You can also take the bus "minami 5" at the train station and get off at Inaritaishamae or the Keihan line in Gion or Shichijo and get off at Fushimi Inari. You will find the sanctuary in front of the stops.
Kinkakuji, in English "Golden Pavilion" is probably the most famous monument in Japan. It is classified as a UNESCO World Patrimony. Built by the Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu in 1397, it is famous for its bright and enchanting landscape.
In the 14th century, after a long breaking off, Yoshimitsu considered to start again import-export with China. China being the largest country in Asia, he thought he had to build a special building to show its prestige and power and establish an equal relationship. He decided to make build a pavilion partially covered with gold, about 100 years before the discovery of America and its gold wealth by Christopher Columbus.
The pavilion has fascinated guests such as the Emperor of this time as well as Chinese important personalities. On the roof of the pavilion, you can see a statue of phoenix symbolizing the prosperity of Yoshimitsu. It is a mythological bird that can come back to life several times from its ashes. The landscape of the temple is so beautiful that you'll feel in the Paradise.
In 1392, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, the third shogun of the clan Ashikaga, succeeded in federating all the feudal lords of Japan. For information, his grandfather, Takauji, the first shogun Ashikaga, made the Tenryuji temple build (in Arashiyama) and Yoshimasa, the eighth generation, made the Ginkakuji temple built (Silver Pavilion).
The pavilion has never been damaged during the wars but was burned in 1950. Ironically, the fire-raiser was a novice monk of Kinkakuji. He was diagnosed with congenital deafness and had problems in his life. One day he tried to immolate himself in the garden. He failed, but the fire started in the pavilion and devastated it. He was arrested by the police and his mother who lived far away, came to Kyoto for an interview. But going back home, she committed suicide by throwing herself under a train, perhaps because she felt some responsibility. Her son died in prison.
The superior of the temple at that time, Murakami Jikai, traveled all over the country to raise funds for its reconstruction. Japan was still poor after the defeat of World War II but many people made offerings because the Golden Pavilion was a symbol of rebirth.
In the 14th century, Kinkakuji was built to show the power of the shogun but in the 1950s, it was citizens who rebuild it. It was rebuilt in 1955, with a budget of 740 million yens and covered with gold 5 times more than it was before.
Ginkakuji Temple or the Silver Pavilion, in Kyoto, was created by the shogun Ashikaga VIII at the end of the 15th century. The pavilion and its garden appeal to wabi-sabi spirit, that is to say bearness and oldness. Unlike the Golden Pavilion, Kinkakuji, built a century earlier by Ashikaga III, the Silver Pavilion is not covered with silver. Some tourist guides say that the shogun wanted to do so but hadn't enough money.
However, research conducted in 2007 showed that silver had never been used. In fact, a great war opposed the brother and the son of Ashikaga VIII to succeed him as head of the clan. Therefore, the city of Kyoto was heavily damaged during ten years. Yoshimasa was responsible for the war and retired at the age of 37. Note that when Kyoto inhabitants talk about "great war", they are usually referring to the Onin War (1467-1477) and not the World War II.
After his retreat and to take responsibility for this war, this tormented man had built a sober residence to end his life. After his death, the monument received the name of "Silver Pavilion". Why? A simple comparison with the Golden Pavilion? The answer is in its shakkei garden which means borrowed landscape in Japanese. This technique consists in integrating the background, mountain or forest, as part of the garden, to enjoy a perfect harmony with nature. It was also used in the gardens of Kinkakuji and Tenryuji, built 700 years ago by the first leader of this clan.
To avoid to use silver, a symbol of power that might cause other unnecessary wars, Ashikaga VIII joined the landscape beyond the mountains : he used the moon. In front of the pavilion, he founded a truncated cone of sand. At night, the moon reflects on the sand and illuminates the pavilion, giving him a silver covered appearance. That is why it is now called "Silver Pavilion" while the shogun never used this metal. This beautiful garden is the crystallization of the spirit of Zen Buddhism, a philosophy for a happy life by feeling the transience of nature.
At the end of his life, he said: "Everything is ephemeral, I have no more sadness nor pleasure.". "Ginkakuji" is the nickname given to the temple after Yoshimasa's death, in contrast to the Kinkakuji. This temple is in fact called "Jishoji", the name of Yoshimasa as a Buddhist monk.
The Tofuku-ji Temple is probably one of the most beautiful discoveries you will make in Kyoto. It is 4th in the classification of the best Zen temples in Kyoto (see also Tenryu-ji).
In Japan, you will find many small minor temples around a Zen temple. They are called "tacchu" and are a particularity of the Zen school. Indeed, after the death of the father superior of the temple, his disciples build several small temples nearby to propagate its precepts. Each tacchu has a chapel to pray, a beautiful garden or secret treasures. In the past, in Tofuku-ji's district, there were more than a hundred of these temples.
Tofuku-ji was founded in 1236. It is known for its magnificent architecture and the thousands of Japanese maple (momiji). The enclosure is separated into two parts by a valley, crossed by the bridge Tsuutenkyo, literally "bridge that crosses the sky." This wooded valley that will open to you is unique. Indeed, more than 2,000 maples were planted in this temple. Their beautiful colors are noteworthy in autumn. Formerly, there were also cherry trees and their blossom attracted many people in spring. From the late 14th to the early 15th century, a monk who had a gift for painting was living in this temple. He was called Mincho. While people trusted him and recommended him to become the father superior of this temple, he refused to do painting. He did not pursue neither success nor upward mobility. He loved painting pictures of Buddha or portraits.
His work was appreciated by the shogun of that time, Ashikaga Yoshimochi, son of Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, who built the Golden Pavilion. Yoshimochi was fond of his paintings and decided to give him something as a reward. He asked Mincho what he wanted. The monk asked the shogun to cut all the cherry trees of the temple. Indeed, Mincho didn't like that people come to eat or drink in the temple during the cherry blossom (hanami). This was on the opposite of the spirit of Zen. This monk loved, above all, maples that were brought from China by Enni Ben-en, the monk who found Tofuku-ji. Mincho wanted to protect the tranquility of the temple by removing the cherry trees and replacing them with maples.
Tofukuji was so called in reference to the
names of two temples of Nara, Todai-ji
and Kofuku-ji. Todai-ji is a temple that houses a large statue of Buddha
and Kofuku-ji, founded in 710 (the first year of the Nara period), has
a large five level pagoda. Tofuku-ji was built to become the largest and
most prosperous temple of Kyoto.
This temple of the 15th century, which name literally signifies "temple of peaceful dragon", is considered one of the masterpieces of zen garden and is classified as a UNESCO World Patrimony. There are 2 contrasting gardens : the outer garden surrounded by various trees and the inner garden, in the temple. The inner garden is famous for its 15 stones scenery. It allows visitors to let their imagination free and recover their serenity. Many famous people like the French philosopher Sartre, the Queen Elisabeth and so on came to see this garden.
This garden is only made with a bed of thin gravel of kaolin, harmoniously raked over, on which are skilfully arranged 15 stones, so that the scenery change entirely when you move. You can't see all the stones at the same time. One of them is always hidden, which is a particularity of this garden. The gravel stands for ocean and the rocks for mountains. This garden teaches us that there are plenty ways to look to something and that no one can see everything.
It is often said that these stones stand for the steps of a family of tigers but it is not the only interpretation. You have to imagine and decide yourself the significance of each object in the garden, and then try to find your own story and sharpen your mind. The garden delivers a message only to those who try to watch with their heart rather than with their eyes.
Do not forget to check the stone basin behind the building (small pool of ablutions). Square shaped, it represents the kanji "kuchi" which means "mouth" with four signs giving each time a new kanji associated to the mouth. We obtain the sentence "Ware tada taru wo shiru", which means "I only know satisfaction."
Learning to be satisfied with what we have, we can become spiritually rich, even being financially poor. Otherwise, we can not become spiritually rich, regardless of our economic wealth. This is the precept of Zen.
Since 2010, the Ryoanji temple houses six paintings of the 17th century, painted on sliding doors, sold 115 years ago and returned to the temple after a long journey. The temple uncovered them in the Christie's auction, an American adjudicative company, and recovered them for 73 800€. They were given back to the public in December 2010. It seems that an artist of the Kano clan, a family of painters, had made these paintings upon the construction of the temple Seigen-in in 1606, in the Ryoanji temple. The four paintings are part of the "Gunsen-zu", a series of twenty sliding doors using the model of Chinese hermits. The two others are called "Kinkishoga-zu." Ryoanji temple, suffering from financial difficulties during the abolition movement of Buddhism in the late 19th century, these paintings had been sold in 1895 through another temple, to Ito-Den-emon, nicknamed the Chikugo's King of coal, one of the former southern departments. Subsequently, these paintings have been sold several times within the country.
This Zen temple is located in the north of Kyoto city. Within this temple with a tranquil atmosphere, there are about twenty buildings. You can walk freely and as in other Zen temples, visit the small monasteries (tacchu) that is interesting because each of them have a specific garden. Koto-in Temple is wellknown for its relaxing scenery. You can enjoy there the different seasons.
In the temples Ryogen-in, Daisen-in or Zuiho-in, you can see dry gardens (kare-sansui, kare = dry, san = mountain and sui = water), made of white sand representing water currents and rocks representing the ground. Called "Zen garden", that kind of garden is actually a feature of Zen temples, which give importance to sobriety. The arrangement of stones follows an abstract idea bringing people to contemplation or meditation. It is quite possible to freely create interpretations from the objects arranged in the gardens. The garden of Ryogen-in is the oldest tacchu of Daitoku-ji. It is a good example of dry garden for its simplicity.
Another type of Japanese garden is the borrowed landscape called shakkei. It uses the natural topography as a background of the garden. To see some good examples, visit Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion), Ginkaku-ji (Silver Pavilion) or Tenryu-ji in Kyoto.
Access to Daitoku-ji temple: take the buses 101, 204, 205 or 206 and get off at Daitoku-ji mae. The temples Daisen-in, Koto-in, Ryogen-in and Zuiho-in are opened to the public all year round.
Kyoto inhabitants love the Kiyomizu-dera temple since 1200 years. In the 8th century, the monk Enchin was looking for a pure waterfall in the mountains. Having found it, he installed there a statue of Kannon (Goddess of Mercy) and a cabin. This is the origin of the Kiyomizu temple. A few years later, the military Sakanoue-no-Tamuramaro came to the mountains to hunt deers. Indeed, he believed that deers' blood could facilitate his wife's delivery. By chance, he met Enchin who explained the cruelty of his actions and preached the virtue of Kannon. Tamuramaro was sorry about killing animals. He and his wife became believers and built a temple to honor Kannon.
In the past, many people have jumped from the terrace to gain courage because it is said that if one survives to the fall, his wishes will be realized. The height of the terrace is 13m. According to documents from the temple, among the 234 people who have jumped, more than 85% survived. If you die, you will be saved by the Goddess. This custom was banned in the late 19th century.
Moreover, there is a phrase in Japanese that says "jump from the terrace of Kiyomizu." That is to say, to do something at the peril of one's life.
Behind this famous building is another shrine called "Jishu", which means "owner of this place" in Japanese. In Japan, it is not rare to find a Shinto shrine inside a Buddhist temple.
Before building a temple, permission has to be requested to the god of earth, to benefit from his protection. This is also the case when constructing a building or a house. It is customary to ask a Shinto priest to pray for safety before beginning construction. That way, we ward off misfortune (accident or building collapse due to earthquake).
In the Jishu Shrine, there are two stones of love. For singles, be aware that if you can walk from one stone to another, eyes closed, you will find love.
Something you should see in Kyoto is probably maple trees, in Japanese "momiji". In the isolated temple Iwakura, named Jisso-in, you will be amazed by the beautiful gardens, but also by the reflection of maple trees on the varnished floor, called yuka-momiji. The floor of the room Taki-no-ma, literally "room of the waterfall" seems to change with the seasons.
There is a solemn portal at the entrance. This Buddhist temple of the Tendai sect was founded in 1229 in Murasakino, a northern district of Kyoto. It was then moved to the northeast of the Imperial Palace and the children of the reigning families have learned Buddhism there. It was installed in its current location during the Onin War (1467-1477) to avoid damages. From the 17th century, the relationship between the temple and the court is growing. Fortunately, the Jisso-in temple, in 1720, was able to use some buildings of the Omiya-Gosho, one of the Imperial Palace of Kyoto. In Japan, where the buildings were still in wood, it was common they were dismantled, moved and rebuilt elsewhere, to protect them during conflict or highlight them more. From this time, successive father superiors of this temple being descendants of the imperial family, the temple flourished with their support. The endings "ji" and "in" both mean "Buddhist temple" but the latter generally concern the imperial family.
Currently, it has several sliding doors, called fusuma-e, painted by Kano school artists, a clan known for paintings. Photos aren't allowed inside. Paintings evoke the appearance of the temple of that time.
On the east side of the temple, there is a large garden of white sand. In the past, nobles were playing kemari, a kind of Japanese football.
In the 19th century, Iwakura Tomomi, rented an accomodation in this temple. This politician, descendant of a noble family, has played an important role during the Meiji Restoration, certifying the importance of the imperial family.
If you like secret places and want to see the red maple leaves in autumn, you should visit this temple.
In the foothills of the Mount Higashiyama, that shows the kanji "ho", there is the Matsugasaki-Daikokuten temple. Daikokuten is the name of one of the seven mythological gods that bring happiness. If you touch the statue, you will receive good fortune. The ho mountain is one of the five mountains of the fire festival on the 16th of August.
The seven mythological gods of Japan are:
If you have a weekend holidays, visit the Buddhist monastery Nobotoke-an, one minute walk from the Shisendo villa. It is a beautiful and unknown place. Walking on stepping stones, you will see various nobotoke, that are Buddha statues. In this monastery, you'll be offered matcha tea and you'll overlook all the mountains of Kyoto, the so called Higashiyama sanju-roppô (range of thirty-six mountains in the east).
Open on weekends.
Founded 400 years ago, the Higashi-Honganji temple is one of the largest temples of Kyoto, a city with more than 1,600 Buddhist monuments. It is five minutes walk from Kyoto Station and the access is easy through the pedestrian subway even when it rains.
Higashi-Honganji and Nishi-Honganji represent the two sides of the Shin Buddhism after it splits off in 1602. Those temples are located on either side of Kyoto Station. They are the mother houses of the Jodo-shinshu school, the Lotus Buddhism, which number of believers is estimated at ten million people throughout Japan.
What is special about this school? Since the foundation of the city in 794, the oldest forms of Buddhism like Tendai-shu and Shingon-shu dominated in Kyoto. However, both tantric and nebulous teachings were difficult to practice for people who had only the bare minimum to live. Thus, this ancient Buddhism spread only in the imperial court and among the aristocrats and religious. Nevertheless, from the 12th century, a new style of Buddhism spread. Without punishment or penance, those new spiritual movements, such as Jodo-shu, Jodo-shinshu, Rinzai-shu and Soto-shu, became popular among people. Moreover, as temples had also inherited the role of district council, many temples were built from that time. These practices contrast with the previous period when the construction of temples was not authorized by the Court, except Toji and Saiji temples, which were the guardian temples of the ancient capital.
The teachings of Jodo-shinshu consist in Akunin-shoki-setsu, literally "charity ordered to criminals", a principle suggested by the great Shinran, founder of this school. The word akunin, which usually means thief or criminal, here means people who can't practice every day the teachings of Buddha. Fortunately, according to this doctrine, they only have to pray with hands clasped together and say Namu-amidabutsu (which means "hello sir Amida" = Buddha) as they have their own daily tasks. If they follow this guideline, then, they will be saved by Buddha, who will bring them to the world of Jodo, the Pure Land, after their death. This simple teaching is appreciated by everybody. Often, there is a large chapel within the temples of that school so that people can pray all together without discrimination. The interior decoration, in gold, evokes scenes of the Pure Land.
Originally, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598), shogun of the 16th century, gave lands to this school to build the Nishi-Honganji. Buildings being oriented to the east, the scenery should have been wonderful over the eastern mountains, called Higashiyama sanju-roppô (range of thirty-six mountains in the East).
However, after his death, the next shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542-1616) gave the lands between the temple and the mountains to the other side of the Jodo-shinshu school. He probably wanted to show his supremacy and have a better view on the mountains than the previous shogun. This is why these two temples are oriented to the east, while most Japanese temples have their main entrance facing south.
Another anecdote: there is a lotus-shaped fountain on the square in front of the Higashi-Honganji temple. Today, the square is surrounded by two roads: one straight and the other curved. Until September 30th 1978, the municipal tramway had run on this curved road. During the railway work in 1912, the people of the temple didn't want the rails to pass just in front of the gate of this temple because it would not only be impolite but also be dangerous for the millions of people attracted by the great ceremony that takes place here every fifty years. That's why rails were removed. The curved road still remains and lets us see the development challenges of the time.
Access to the Higashi-Honganji temple: walk 5 minutes north from Kyoto Station, passing in front of Kyoto Tower and Yodobashi-camera, a large electronics store. The pedestrian subway between the station and the southeast corner of the temple is recommended in case of rain.
Open every day until 5:00 PM. Admission free.
In the past, many coffins went in front of the Rokudo-Chinno-ji temple, located on the road linking the centre of the city and Toribeno, in the south of the Kiyomizu temple, where the funeral took place. People said that the well of the temple led to the realm of shadows and Enma, the god of hell who judge good and evil. Rumors claim that in the 9th century, Ono-no-Takamura, spiritual poet and erudite, was working for the court of the Emperor Saga during the day and for Enma during the night.
This legend came from his sentimental misfortune. Intelligent, quite tall for a Japanese man of that time (1.88m height) and refined, he had a half-sister whom he only met when he was an adult. The sister's mother wanted to marry her to a member of the imperial family and wanted Takamura to educate her. Despite they met through a sudare, a thin bamboo blind, they fell in love. One day, she became pregnant. A marriage with a member of the court can't be arranged anymore. The mother became angry and locked her daughter in a room. To repent, she fasted. Takamura asked after her. She was so emaciated that she died in his arms.
Despite his despair, he became Minister later. Rumors that he could go from this world to the Hereafter frightened his circle. However, he perhaps went there to meet his deceased half-sister...
The bell of this temple, called Mukae-gane, allow the spirit of the deceased to come, especially between the 7th and 10th of August. If you want to see a beloved person, you can ring the bell. Your feelings will surely reach him.
What are the temples you should visit in Kyoto?
It's difficult to answer. However, according to the classification of
Zen temples, set in 1410, here are the top five temples in Kyoto:
But another temple outperforms those five ones: the Nanzenji temple. Located in the foothills of the Mount Higashiyama, literally "the mountain of the east", its surrounding wall hide several buildings and a huge garden.
According to the memoirs of this temple, its origin go back to the 13th century when the Emperor Kameyama owned a villa there. He is a descendant of one of the two sides of the imperial family: the Daikakuji-to lineage.
The Emperor Kameyama was tormented by evil spirits who appeared to him every night. He asked several monks to banish them. Some recited the Buddhist canon, some others presided over a ceremony, some others prayed ... They did their best, but their efforts remained fruitless.
One day, a monk who came from the Tofukuji Temple finally managed to drive away evil spirits. His name was Daimin-Kokushi, father superior of Tofukuji temple, and he was already 70 years old in that time. He did nothing special to drive away evil spirits, just sitting meditation called "zazen". Meditation is the essence of the doctrine of Zen. This is an essential way to understand by yourself your own thought. However, this was forgotten by the other monks who preferred more formal rites. For this reason, they have not managed to drive away evil spirits. Therefore, the Emperor asked the monk Daimin-Kokushi to create the Nanzenji temple instead of his villa.
Since then, the monks of the temple practice an austere meditation, passed from generation to generation. Within the temple, you can feel the monastic atmosphere. In addition, surrounded by cherry and maple trees, it is very nice to walk there.
What's special in this temple is the great aqueduct Suirokaku. This bridge, made with red bricks, was built in 1890 and is located in the bottom of the temple. Isn't it disappointing such a building in a temple? Not at all! Indeed, the arc-shaped canal was built on the model of the ancient Rome aqueducts.
When they made that canal from Lake Biwa, the largest lake in Japan, crossing this traditional district (Higashiyama) was unavoidable. Kyoto inhabitants feared the impact on the scenery. Despite this, the temple did not hesitate to install it within its garden. The monks have tolerated it, hoping it would be useful to citizens. Today, this aqueduct is in perfect harmony with the temple, while setting a unique scenery.
Access to the Nanzenji Temple from Kyoto Station: take the metro at the train station, change trains at Karasuma-Oike towards Rokujizo and get off at Keage. 10 min. on foot.
©copyright 2014 - www.kotoguidejapon.com