city of emperors
Kyoto, with its overabundance of temples and shrines, fantastic food scene, and a wide array of small artisan shops filled with intricate handcrafted wares, is widely considered Japan’s most tourist-friendly city. Our first 24 hours in Japan felt more stressful than relaxing. It wasn’t until we checked into our AirBnB in Kyoto, took a stroll around our neighborhood, and immediately stumbled on a covered arcade lined with cute shops and hole-in-the-wall restaurants that we felt like our vacation had truly commenced.
S’s online research and informal polling of our friends suggested that fellow travelers’ most common regret was not spending enough time in Kyoto, and it’s not hard to see why. Japan’s imperial court sat in Kyoto for 11 centuries, leaving an indelible imprint on its cultural patrimony. We stayed in the heart of the city and were able to string together a good walking tour of some of the top sites in Kyoto’s central and eastern neighborhoods. Though we covered a lot of ground, we barely scratched the surface of the cultural heritage and culinary delights the city has to offer.
For starters, Kyoto is home to some 2,000 temples and shrines. There are the obvious attractions, such as the famed Golden Pavilion – a resplendent Zen Buddhist temple covered in gold leaf that is one of the city’s 17 UNESCO world heritage sites. We made the trek there, but it was too hectic for our taste. Viewing the Mona Lisa at the Louvre is a comparable experience, with roughly five percent of one’s mental space occupied by the grandeur of the experience and the rest overwhelmed by the crush of other tourists.
Not surprisingly, our two favorite temples were a bit off the beaten path and likely wouldn’t crack most visitors’ top ten list. One, Kennin-ji, is located just outside Gion – Kyoto’s famed and well-preserved geisha quarter. It features a nice rock garden, elaborately painted sliding shoji screens, and two sprawling dragons that were added to the ceiling of one of the buildings in 2002 to mark the temple’s 800th anniversary.
The other, which was also our kids’ clear favorite, is called Otagi Nenbutsu-Ji. It is tucked away in a corner of Arashiyama – the Western neighborhood of Kyoto where the Golden Pavilion is located. A few decades ago, amateur sculptors across the country carved more than one thousand stone figures of Rakan – the disciples of Buddhism’s founder – and donated them to the temple. Some of the figures depict ordinary meditation or prayer, but many feature animated expressions or whimsical accessories. One stands on his head, another holds a video camera, a third wears boxing gloves, while a fourth sports a tennis racket.
Even if one were to stick exclusively to Kyoto’s most famous historic monuments, one would need several days to do the city justice, as they are scattered throughout this large and bustling metropolis. More to the point, even at the sites we visited, we only attained a surface appreciation for what we were seeing. Many of the temples and surrounding gardens are aesthetically designed and contain a rich cultural heritage of which we were and remain utterly ignorant. Outside of a graduate class D took on the historiography of Zen Buddhism, our knowledge of Japanese history and culture is quite limited.
If we had been alone and had had time to sit and contemplate the entrancing tranquility of rock gardens or hire a guide to explain the historical importance of the sites we visited, we likely would have gotten more out of our time in Kyoto. For now, such diversions fall into the realm of wishful thinking for us. Instead, we got a lot of exercise trying to contain our small, energetic children – a topic to which we will return in greater detail.
Even spending a few days in Kyoto was eminently enjoyable, however, and the upside of barely scratching the surface is that we have a wide array of unexplored sites and experiences on tap for a return visit.