Sightseeing shouldn’t be a marathon race. Sometimes, in between exploratory days to just see what can be found by chance, on errant walks, it can be nice to check off the must-see places.
It was actually by chance that I ended up doing a sweep across Kyoto, from one famous temple to the next, during just one day…
Fushimi-Inari Taisha – Sanju-sangen-do (- Yogen-in) – Kiyomizu-dera – Ginkakuji – Kinkakuji – Ryoan-ji – Ninna-ji (- Nishi-Hongwan-ji)
The Travel Vlog
Fushimi Inari Taisha
For the first nights I spent in Kyoto, I stayed at Maison Fushimi in the Fushimi district. Somewhat south of the major sights (and city center), it was quite close to Uji and even closer to the popular Fushimi Inari shrine.
Perfect for an early morning visit; and I definitely visited in the early morning: I got there before 6 a.m., before sunrise and all but a handful of other people. Not the way one usually sees any of these places…
Torii at Dawn
Fushimi Inari Shinto shrine, famous for its pathways of torii gates, is particularly attractive at such times.
First, lights shine on some of the gates, making them stand out. Other paths are hidden in the darkness, but then dawn light breaks and gives it all an otherworldly glow.
Few people are around so that one has a chance of taking it all in peacefully. I’ll admit, I also rushed a bit, along the Fushimi Inari Trail, to get up one of the hills there – Fushimi Inari Mountain – for the view over Kyoto at sunrise.
The Lookout on Fushimi Inari Mountain
The lookout point there was the only spot where I ever quickly let my DJI Spark drone fly up a bit, for a look down at some torii and the sunrise-view over Kyoto.
It was of questionable legality to fly there, but didn’t disturb or threaten anybody – and of course, just as I had mentioned to an interested visitor that I couldn’t quite understand some of the rules around all that, given how quiet the Spark and how loud ubiquitous leaf blowers were… leaf blowers started up in the distance.
Down again a bit of a different path.
Here, the “plus” about temples I saw on that day starts in at least two ways:
For one, exact person as I tend to be, I want to point out that Fushimi Inari Taisha is a taisha, a (grand) shrine, not a temple. Strictly speaking.
Secondly, there is a collection of shrines here, not just the one. On the way back down, for example, I went past Araki Shrine with its kuchi-ire “dolls”…
The kuchi-ire are “matchmakers” meant to help with finding the right partner or job; they offer one of those little chances for finding something that is obviously fascinatingly special, “exotic” on the surface, but all the more interesting when you think about it a bit more: What type of animal are they, exactly? Why that? Where does it come from that these “kitchen gods”-like figures come in a set of three, husband, wife, and attendant?
On northwards, not even a kilometer away, finds the Buddhist temple of Rengeō-in, the Hall of the Lotus King.
As so often with Buddhist temples, this official name is much less known than its popular name deriving from some major feature. In this case, the “thirty-three spaces between columns” of this hall.
Even just on the outside, this longest wooden hall in Japan is an imposing structure. I had been here before those twenty years ago that I had my one-and-only previous chance to go to Japan, and wondered if I should even come again, little memory as I had retained of that (except for having visited). Couldn’t have been that impressive, could it?
Well, I’m glad I came back, with a bit more understanding.
Walking the length of the hall outside, thinking of how one of the famous duels of Miyamoto Musashi (famous samurai warrior and author of the Book of Five Rings) is supposed to have taken place here, considering the archery tournament that has taken place here since the Edo period, is an experience.
Enter the hall, walk past the hundreds of Thousand-Armed-Kannon statues made of wood and covered in gold leaf, past the guardian deity statues in front of them, past the main Kannon in the middle… and imagine how the knowledge of these religious figures made it from India via the Himalayas across China and into Japan. All originally in the 8th century, with some of these statues from the original temple built in the 12th, many “only” the ones rebuilt after a fire destroyed the original temple – rebuilt in the 13th century.
Nobody goes just across the road, in comparison. You wouldn’t even know that there are temples there if you just looked at Google Maps and didn’t go there yourself.
There is at least one temple that I found accessible – after a fashion – though: the Yogen-in.
You can only enter into this temple on a tour, and tours are only offered in Japanese. That is what makes things a bit peculiar and less touristy. And again, no photos or videos are allowed inside the temple.
It is a fascinating place, though.
Not very big, it still holds several old paintings that are of quite the cultural-historical importance. If you know what they are about, anyways.
Maybe more interesting, story-wise: The ceiling of the main hallway is made of wooden boards that used to be the floorboards of Fushimi Castle.
Fushimi Castle was conquered, its defending samurai had to commit seppuku (ritual suicide)… and the bloodstains left by their dying bodies are still visible on what is now known as the “blood ceiling.”
Again I went on, a bit farther north and east yet, to walk to Kiyomizu-dera.
This Temple of Pure Water lies up another one of Kyoto’s hills (like Fushimi Inari Taisha), offering a great view over the city. Its pagoda, hall and “stage” (wooden terrace) are fantastic wooden structures built without nails, making for fantastic views together with a fantastic look – at least when, unlike this time of my visit, it is not partly hidden under construction scaffolding for renovations.
From the veranda/terrace, one can also see down to the three channels of the Otowa waterfall. Drinking from (one or the other of) these is said to grant wishes. First wish may just be for the line there not to be quite so long, though…
Next up, I went down the very touristy Matsubara Dori road from Kiyomizu-dera to the next bigger road and bus stop, took a bus further north yet to the Philosopher’s Path and Ginkaku-ji.
Officially Jishō-ji, “Temple of Shining Mercy“, this “Silver Pavilion Temple” is a Zen temple that was meant to mirror the design of the “Golden Pavilion” Kinkaku-ji but was never finished (covered in silver) as originally planned.
The real Silver Pavilion, the Kannon-den (Kannon Hall) is a bit of a letdown if one expects an obviously outstanding structure. It is representative of Japanese aesthetic principles, however.
Together with the perfectly designed and strictly maintained garden of trees and mosses, the pond and creeks, and the sand garden, it is perhaps the best – and least accessible just from strolling through it without much knowledge – examples of Japanese religious architecture – including nature.
A bus west right across town leads to the example on which the Silver Pavilion was built, the Golden Pavilion: Kinkaku-ji.
Getting to this most obvious and ostentatious example of Kyoto architecture in the middle of the day was not particularly recommendable. Actually, even as there was a thronging crowd of visitors, getting to the ticket counter, in and through the temple grounds, was not half as difficult and time-consuming as it threatened to be.
Kinkaku-ji is definitely a must-see when one gets to Kyoto; it is truly remarkable – but it is also just too popular a sightseeing spot and too gaudy.
From a historical and cultural standpoint, the tea house on the Golden Pavilion Temple’s grounds is rather more impressively hidden in plain sight. Or maybe that’s just me, always looking for the overlooked, by now.
Still, nice as it is, I think it serves the greatest purpose as a lesson when seen in between Ginkaku-ji and Ryoan-ji, which are that much more austere in comparison.
Walking southwest on Kinukake-no-michi, the “Road Draped with Silk” along the foot of Mt. Kinugasa, first provided a new story.
The road has its name from an order given by 9th century Emperor Uda, to let him see a snowy landscape. In summer.
Ostensibly, his wish was fulfilled by draping the entire mountainside in silk…
From such extremes, the road leads somewhere completely different: to Ryoan-ji.
The Zen temple is famous for its stone garden, the pondering of which has led many a visitor to deep contemplation – busy as it has become, too.
Actually, I’m more impressed by the paintings on the paper screens, but anyways…
Ninna-ji (Omuro Imperial Palace)
Kinukake-no-michi goes on yet further, to another place that is a world cultural heritage site, another of the “Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto” – but much less visited than most of the prior temples.
The Ninna-ji is a rather unusual complex in type and extension. The garden is – or at least feels – even more spread out than that of the other temples; there are several buildings that are of importance, none that are as peculiarly outstanding as the Silver or Golden Pavilion.
As I visited, the Kannon-do hall was only just being restored (to be completed in spring 2018), adding to the slight feeling of desolation that the cherry grove with its famous late-flowering trees gave in the autumn weather.
The Kondo main hall, a national treasure, was there but did not look particularly appealing, closed and little-visited as it seemed. In the midst of the grounds stands the Ninna-ji’s pagoda.
There is also the Goten area which gives Ninna-ji more of a feeling of an old Imperial Palace. (It was also known as the Omuro Imperial Palace.)
One needs an (extra) ticket to go into this palace complex of various halls connected by raised and covered walkways, meandering along the Dantei (South Garden) and Hokutei (North Garden).
The paintings (Fusuma-e) on the walls of these halls and on at least one of the wooden doors, the construction of the entire halls, the raked pebble gardens and manicured trees – this was the place I had heard nothing of, hardly expected anything from, and was most happy I went into that day, quite on a whim.
It was an experience, and truly impressive.
Ending the Day…
My day did not end there; I strolled south through a residential neighborhood that offered nothing special, meaning it had the most fascinating insight into ordinary life in Kyoto to give.
From Hanazono station I went back into Kyoto (to Kyoto Station), walked up north past soon-to-close (for the day) Nishi Hongwanji…
… and on to Nishiki for a look at food and other stores there. It was searching for ‘spice’ in Japan that had led me back to this country, after all.