Kyoto is an amazing city. We were here once before, celebrating after the 2008 election, and were enchanted then with a visit of just a couple days. This time we had five nights – a welcome relief after the series of one-night stops on the bike trip – and we loved pretty much every minute of it.
For over 1,000 years Kyoto was the capital of the Japanese empire; it was only in the mid-19th century with the Meiji Restoration that ended the shogunate and returned power to the emperor that he moved the capital to Tokyo. As a result of that history the city is filled with ancient temples, beautiful shrines, and remarkable gardens and ponds. Of course, much of Japan’s historic legacy was destroyed during the bombings of World War II, and the U.S. military considered Kyoto a prime candidate for one of the atomic bombs it was preparing to drop. Secretary of War Henry Stimson, though, insisted repeatedly that it be taken off the list; ultimately he went to President Truman directly to insist that Kyoto be spared. Why? He said that it was too important culturally and was not a military target. But neither Hiroshima nor Nagasaki were particularly important militarily, either. Instead, historians suspect that Secretary Stimson spared Kyoto for distinctly personal reasons: it was where he had spent his honeymoon while he was Governor of the Philippines. And thus a stunning cultural heritage was preserved.
Pretty much everywhere you turn around the city you find big temples and green spaces. There are 17 sites in and around the city listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, fully one in five of all Japan’s sites. That’s a lot of history and a lot of beauty. Even with four days and five nights, we couldn’t do more than scratch the surface of all Kyoto has to offer. Of course, truth be told, we didn’t need to see all of the UNESCO sites. To Western eyes like ours, at least, they all kind of look the same. I often wonder if Asians traveling in Europe get bored with all the cathedrals, thinking they all just look the same. At any rate, it was a treat seeing some of the temples but we didn’t kill ourselves trying to see them all.
Instead, along with poking around our neighborhood in the northern part of the city, we headed a bit out of town to see some of the further-flung sites. One day we caught a train maybe an hour away to Nara, Japan’s first “permanent” capital. Until the 7th century, on the death of an emperor the new emperor chose a new capital. In 710, though, the emperor decreed that Nara would be Japan’s permanent capital. As the capital quickly developed its own inbred bureaucracy that threatened imperial power, though, after just 75 years the capital was moved to Kyoto where it lasted a lot more than 75 years.
The legacy, though, remains. In pre-Buddhist times, deer were considered messengers of the gods, so there are hundreds of tame deer rambling about the area, looking for handouts from tourists and, well, taking stuff if it’s not offered. More impressive is Todai-ji, a massive temple with a giant Great Buddha. When I say massive, I mean massive: it is claimed to be the largest wooden building in the world. We were inclined to be unimpressed. I mean, who really cares if it’s the biggest or the third biggest or whatever, right? Walking through the gate, though, was a truly “Holy shit!” moment. That was one big building. And the Buddha inside stands (OK, sits…) at some 50 feet tall consisting of well over 400 tons of bronze and nearly 300 pounds of gold. Impressive indeed.
Then there was the day trip to Kurama and Kibune, this time just a 30-minute train ride north of the city. You take the train to Kurama and hike up to the mountain temple. Then you continue on to the mountain peak (it’s really just a big hill) and down to Kibune, an impossibly cute little town with lots of little inns and ryokans and restaurants and cafés built along a cute mountain stream with its cool rushing waters. The temple itself was, well, kind of like all the other temples, but the hike in the woods – what Lonely Planet calls old-growth Cryptomeria, a cypress tree – was something close to heaven.
Then there was Fushimi Inari-Taisha, the #1 Kyoto Highlight in Lonely Planet. Simply put, this put the awe into awesome. The site is spread out up a big hill over many acres and consists of some 10,000 torii gates – those classical orange gates that signal the entrance of a Japanese Buddhist site. OK, I call it orange, but apparently it is officially vermillion, a word I had to look up since I only know it as a huge lake in Northern Minnesota. But vermillion it is, a reddish-orange. I was skeptical that there were really 10,000 until we started walking up and up and up … and up. The crowds were heavy near the bottom but as we climbed, and climbed, and climbed the crowds thinned and the sights became more ethereal and the experience more calm and beautiful. I wasn’t sure we’d ever get to the top but we did and then got to walk down, again through all those torii gates. Stunning.
And finally, much closer to home, was the Path of Philosophy, a walk along a tiny canal just a mile or so from our hotel. Peaceful, calm, quiet, beautiful … it had everything going for it. Mark & I walked it our first day in Kyoto, then I walked it on my own a day or two later, and then Mark went back up and did it yet again. It was like having a tiny, elegant village right in your back yard.
So that was Kyoto, for us. Morning runs along the Kamo River, a night tour of the geisha district, some good food, beautiful walks, historic sites. Kyoto really is one of those places in the world you just have to get to know so I suspect we’ll be back in a few years. First, though, we have to get back to Europe for the summer so we’re taking a train up to Tokyo and then a flight to Paris on Thai Airlines via Bangkok. The only tragedy is the prospect of going to Bangkok and not spending a few days!