Kyoto, the cultural capital of Japan

Now that Thanksgiving is behind me, I am ready to continue my blog thread on Japan.  Today’s article is on Kyoto.  Kyoto is located in central Honshu (the big island in Japan), a three hour bullet train ride from Tokyo.  We spent four days in the Kyoto area.

Kyoto is the perfect foil to Tokyo.  Maybe that’s why they share the same letters in their names? 🙂  While Tokyo is a ginormous, bustling metropolis of 30 million people, Kyoto is a cozy, slower-paced city of 1.5 million.  While Tokyo is modern, high-tech, and innovative, Kyoto is traditional and conventional.  Tokyo may be Japan’s political/economic capital, leading the charge into the future.  Kyoto is Japan’s cultural capital and the link to its past.

The first thing we noticed in Kyoto, after taking the train from Tokyo, was the absence of skyscrapers.  Tokyo is immensely dense and built up.  Although Kyoto may still be dense compared to most American cities, it is dramatically less dense than Tokyo.  Almost everything in Kyoto is low-rise.  The Kamo River runs through the middle of the city.  Quiet paths lined with sleepy willow trees follow the river.  Kyoto is the perfect place for taking a romantic stroll in the evening.  To add to the atmosphere, you may see a Geisha or two walking around.

Kyoto is kind of divided in two halves, separated by the Kamo River.  Western Kyoto is the modern city half.  Most of the businesses are located there.  Lots of shopping and restaurants are on this side, near the river.  The first photo below is of an alley full of restaurants.  Eastern Kyoto is mostly residential, with temples and shrines scattered everywhere.  The second photo below is of a street in eastern Kyoto, located in a tourist area near some temples.

Temples and Shrines

To appreciate Japanese culture, religion, and history, you have to visit the temples and shrines in Kyoto.  The remainder of this article will discuss many the sites we visited.  Kyoto has over a thousand temples and shrines.  While most of these are small, some are just magnificent.  In fact, there are 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Kyoto.  That’s an amazing number.  If you aren’t interested in temples and shrines, you might just want to breeze through the rest of this article.  We. however, found the experience very interesting and rewarding.

Kiyomizu-dera (Pure Water Temple)

A huge and immensely popular Buddhist temple complex that sits atop a hill overlooking Kyoto. 

The temple is most well-known for its large terrace.  In addition, the Otowa Waterfall is located here.  Its “pure” waters (hence the name) are collected, and visitors may drink it for good luck.

Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion)

This magnificent pavilion was built in the late 1300’s, as a retirement place for a Shogun.  The shogun wanted to cover it all with gold.  He didn’t get too far.  What you see was re-built in the 1900’s, after the original building burned down a few times.  It is covered in pretty thick gold leaf. 

Fushimi Inari Shrine

This Shinto shrine is dedicated to Inari, the godof rice, sake, and prosperity.  Located in the suburb of Fushimi (a bit south and east of town), this shrine it was built in the 8th century.  It is well-known for the thousands of torii – small Shinto gates – lined up next to each other.  For a very expensive fee, you can get your own torii and inscription!

Ryoan-ji (Peaceful Dragon Temple)

A Zen Buddhist temple. Its most well-known feature is its Zen rock garden.  The photo below doesn’t really do it justice.  It’s better just to go there and contemplate.

Heian Shrine

Built fairly recently – in 1895, in honor of Kyoto being Japan’s capital many centuries ago. It has by far the largest Shinto torii in the city.

Tenryu-ji Temple and Arashiyama

Of the five great Zen temples in Kyoto, Tenryu-ji may be the greatest.  Located in the suburban Arashiyama district, this temple lies next to a mountain.  Apparently, this temple provides a remarkable view all year round, with each season showing off its own beauty.  We were fortunate enough to visit during fall color season.  Nearby are some beautiful Japanese gardens and paths, not to mention a bamboo forest (the one used in the movie Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon).

Philosopher’s Path

A beautiful, tree-lined path along a canal in eastern Kyoto.  There are a number of temples and shrines along the way.  In spring, cherry blossoms light up the path with white and pink.  The path gets its name from a Japanese philosopher who used to walk the path daily to contemplate.


This temple complex is a major site for the Rinzai, a Buddhist sect.  The complex is very large.  Consisting of 24 temples, it’s more like a village!

Chion-in Temple

Head temple for yet another Buddhist sect – the Jodo (Pure Land) sect.

Yasaka Shrine (Gion Shrine)

A Shinto shrine located in Kyoto’s popular Gion district (where our hotel was).  A big festival occurs here every year.

Ryozen Kannon Temple

A WWII war memorial shrine, featuring a ginormous Buddha statue.

In conclusion, Kyoto is a charming, rich place. You definitely get a glimpse of old Japan by spending time there. Not to mention, it’s a great break from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo 🙂

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