Kyoto – the cultural heart of Japan
This past weekend I revisited Kyoto for the second time, Japan’s cultural capital. With more than 2000 temples and shrines, Kyoto is a city that has withstood the test of time and the over mondernizations that often plague historical cities. Although urban cities such as Tokyo and Osaka are exciting for their glitz and their suffocating population density, cities such as Kyoto are a reminder of how long Japan’s history dates back. On this most recent visit to Kyoto, my trip coincided with two annual festivals, the Jidai Matsuri (Festival of the Ages) and Kurama-no Himatsuri (Fire Festival). The Jidai Matsuri is a 5-hour parade held every year on October 22. The festival was introduced in 1895 to mark the cities 1100th anniversary. Kyoto was once the capital of Japan from 794 AD to 1868 AD and this parade is a celebration of its rich history. The parading participants are all dressed in traditional costumes from the various periods in Japan’s history. The grand procession through time take place in reverse order, as the Meiji Restoration is first represented, concluding with the Enryaku period. Although extremely crowded, I managed to get a nice viewing spot of all the action. Later that evening, we set off for the Fire Festival, located in the small town of Kurama. From Kyoto station, the trip to Kurama takes almost 1-hour. However, a round-trip on the day of the festival can take up to 5-hours. A lesson I learned the hard-way. Once finally arriving at the small town of Kurama, it was immeidately evident this small town could not handle the overwhelming popularity of their own event. The festival started in 940 AD when Yuki Jinja shrine was moved from Kyoto City to Kurama. Since then, the locals have continued to build long rows of bonfires from flaming torches carried from the local temple and popular shrine.
With an endless amount of temples, castles and shrines in Kyoto, the following is a list of the most notable I’ve personally visited and my recommendations when traveling to Kyoto:
Kiyomizudera ("Pure Water Temple") is one of the most celebrated temples of Japan. It was founded in 780 and remains associated with the Hosso sect, one of the oldest sects within Japanese Buddhism. In 1994, the temple was added to the list of UNESCO world heritage sites. Easily recognizable for its large wooden terrace and beautiful city view.
Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion) is a Zen temple. In 1397 construction started on the Golden Pavilion as part of a new residence for the retired shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu. Kinkakuji was converted into a Zen temple after Yoshimitsu’s death in 1408. The Golden Pavilion functions as shariden, housing sacred relics of the Buddha and is covered in gold leaf. The present building dates from 1955 as the pavilion was burnt by a fanatic monk in 1950.
Ginkakuji (Silver Pavilion) is a Zen temple at the foot of Kyoto‘s Higashiyama ("eastern mountains"). In 1482, shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa built his retirement villa on the grounds of today’s temple. A few years later, the Silver Pavilion, modeled after Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion), was constructed. Plans to cover the pavilion in silver were never realized. The villa was converted into a Zen temple after Yoshimasa’s death in 1490.
Sanjusangendo is a temple in eastern Kyoto which is famous for its 1001 statues of Kannon, the goddess of mercy. The temple was founded in 1164 and its present structures date from 1266. The main hall, which houses the statues, is with over 100 meters Japan’s longest wooden structure. In its center sits one large Kannon, flanked on each side by 500 smaller statues, standing in neat rows side by side, each as tall as a human being.
Nijo Castle (Nijojo) was built by Tokugawa Ieyasu, founder of the Edo Shogunate, as the Kyoto residence for himself and his successors. This is a nice place to visit if you’re interested in history associated with the samurai culture.
Byodoin Hoodo features the most beautiful of Japan’s few remaining Pure Land Gardens, a garden type which was popular during the Heian Period. The Phoenix Hall was built in 1053 by a member of the Fujiwara clan. It is one of Japan’s most famous temple buildings and shown on the 10 Yen coin. A little far for most tourists, but worth the time just to say you’ve been to the place on the back of the 10 Yen coin, which makes for good conversation.
Note: See Japan Festivals album and Kyoto album for more pictures.
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