I was in Japan for a week over work.
The Sakura trees were in full bloom! A good 10 days early.
Tokyo was resplendent with the most amazing trees all over. I went to Sakura Zaka ie Sakura Slope and stared in amazement at the beauty of the trees. The 5 km walk around the Imperial palace, the palace gardens, city parks, everywhere one looked it was cherry blossoms. Locals sitting under the trees, picnicking. In the night the trees all lit up with a pink and white glow against the sky, all made up for a most enchanting experience.
And this happens only for ONE week in the whole year, and I was in Japan !
I was in luck.
I decided to spend a day in Kyoto. Ideally one should spend at least 3 days there to enjoy the beauty and splendor of the city.
Given I had only a day I decided to make optimum use of it.
A brief history of Kyoto will tell you that it was the capital city before Tokyo. And before Kyoto it was Nara.
Now there’s a lot to see in Kyoto – from the famous UNESCO temples, to the Geisha District, to Kamo River , to the Bamboo Street , to Fushimi Inari, to the Museums housing original screens and furniture from the Edo period. The city is full of old shrines, quaint shopping streets and the famous tea houses. Not to mention the restaurants that boost the most amazing Japanese food.
Here is a link to some of the most popular sites to visit in Kyoto :
Kyoto is a world heritage city and one of the only Japanese cities that wasn’t bombed in WWII.
A lot of people had described it to me as the ” Firenze of the East”, and Florence is one of my most favourite cities to visit.
I was very excited to experience Kyoto.
I took the 6 am Nozumi Shinkansen express train from Tokyo Central that gets you into Kyoto Central in 2 hours 12 mins. For those who not aware, Shinkansen is the super fast bullet express trains that run from Tokyo to Shin Nagoya, Shin Osaka and even upto Kyushu. They were launched in 1964 when there were the first Olympics in Tokyo. Today they ply at a speed of 240km /.hour. Earlier this journey used to take 7 hours which I did in just over 2 hours. The anticipation to see the city kept me wide awake, while my co passengers were all asleep at the time.
As you arrive at the station, one needs to take the Hachijo exit into the main Street.
I had decided on seeing 4 temples, and the Nijo Castle and the Imperial palace
There are various options that one can use. Buy a day pass and one ticket that gets you entrance into all the sites. Take a taxi and walk around. Or take the local trains and walk around. I would recommend the latter. If you are pressed for time, the way I was, I would recommend a tour bus – open deck or closed ones. They take you to some of the key sights before they close. All sites close at 5pm.
If you want to beat the crowds , then one should start at 6 am when the sun has just risen. And walk at leisure at the sites, walk by the Kamo River, eat at one of the many restaurants by the river, go for a tea ceremony at one of the famous tea houses. Alas, I only had the one day.
I got into Kyoto at 8:12am and decided to take a tour bus that was covering all the sights that I wanted to see in my first trip.
First stop was Nijo Castle.
A world heritage site, this historical castle was completed in 1603 under the orders of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder and first Shogun. He announced his appointment as the Seii- Taishogun in this castle and it was his residence when he visited the Imperial palace.
The 400 year old buildings of the Ninomaru- gotten palace, the Kara-mon Gate and the Ninomaru Gardens are unique survivals from one of the golden ages of Japanese architecture and design – the early Edo Period that is known for its ornate architecture and interiors.
We walked through the Kara-mon Mon Gate into the Ninomaru- Goten palace and visited all the rooms in the palace. There are over 3600 murals in the palace. The screens are all replicas ( originals in the Kyoto state museum).
We got a glimpse of the Ninomaru Garden. If you have more time, please visit the Seiryu-en Garden which is a fusion of Eastern and Western styles. Built in 1965 it boasts of 2 tea houses, the Koun-Tei and the Waraku-An.
It was time now to drive to the famous Kinkaku-ji Temple.
A world heritage site, Kinkaku or the Golden Pavillion is a wooden structure covered by thin layers of pure gold and is surrounded by a beautiful pond. The pavilion is part of a temple that is formally named Rokuon- ji Temple.
We just had time to do the customary walk around the pond and take photos. It tends to be very crowded, so would recommend going before the bus tours start. The cherry blossom trees are not that prevalent in this site. The best time of the year to visit Kinkaku-ji would be the autumn where the trees around the pond would have the orange brown leaves.
We were heading now to the Kyoto Imperial Palace.
This palace was used as the official residence of the Emperor till 150 years ago. We saw the famous Carriage Porch or Palenquin Porch which was reserved for the exclusive use of the envoys of the Shogun or high ranking courtiers.
We walked past the beautiful Oukeniwa Garden – it is a strolling garden with a large pond and on the right side you can see the famous Keyakibashi Zelkova Bridge.
I was suitably famished now. If you do a bus tour, normally lunch is included. I would recommend strolling around the city streets near the Tamo River and going into one of the many restaurants there to staple the local food.
There is a wonderful place called Toriyasa by the Kamo River. One needs to book in advance to get seating in this historic restaurant.
So half my day was done, and I still hadn’t experience the magical, enchanting Kyoto which I had heard so much about. The three sites that I had seen were beautiful, without being glorious. They left me wanting more. I was waiting to be spellbound.
And that’s when the magic happened….
Next stop Heian Shrine.
This beautiful shrine was built to celebrate the 1100 year anniversary of the founding of the city of Kyoto.
We entered through the Red Orange gates of the Heian Jingu Shrine’s Shin-en Garden. The expanse of the courtyard is stunning with the shrine at the far end. And I fell in love with the colour.
Do not miss the characteristic Red Orange architecture of this shrine and it’s pagodas . The cherry blossom trees in full bloom against the Red Orange backdrop, the chanting of the prayers in the shrine, made it most magical.
I had barely absorbed the beauty of Heian and its gorgeous orange gate, when we were suddenly driving past the most enchanting cherry blossom trees on either side of the Kamo River, flashes of pink and white everywhere. Apparently approximately 50 pct of the cherry blossom trees in Japan are in Tokyo. And at full bloom, you don’t see a single green leaf on the trees. Driving past I was awestruck by the beauty.
There are scenic boat rides that one can do on the river – gliding past with rows of Sakura trees on both sides. But, if one has more time, I would recommend a visit to Najaragi- no Michi – it is a non tourist part of Kyoto, by the Kamo River, with the most incredible Cherry Blossom trees.
Now we had reached, which in my humble opinion, was the highlight of my trip. The phenomenal Sanjusangen – do. How do I describe this place. It is over 800 years old and it houses 1001 statues of the Buddhist deity, Juichimen senju-sengen Kanzeon, which is often referred to by the simplified name of “Kannon”. The famous camera Cannon derives its name from this.
The building itself is very simple. The original Temple building was built in 11d was lost in a fire and reconstructed in 1266. The structure has remained unchanged the last 800 years. One has to remove the shoes at the entrance.
As you enter the Temple Hall, there is a hushed silence. The hall itself is long, around 120 metres long, made in the Wayo ( Japanese ) style architecture, with 33 spaces between the columns, hence the name of the temple Sanjusangen-do ( thirty three spaces).
I wasn’t expecting what I saw next. Rows of 1001 life sized bodhautsav figures ( Kannon), all standing with hands folded, dating back to the 12th and 13th century. They are all made of Japanese Cypruss wood with lacquered faces and gold lacquer all over the bodies. 124 of the standing statues are 12 th century, whereas remaining 876 statues are 13th century. In the centre of the hall is a 5 metre tall gigantic seated bodhautsav statue. The beauty and magnificence of which is indescribable. All the 1001 statues are guarded by 28 guardian deities, inspired by Indian Gods. Their Sanskrit names were written there.
As I walked by the life size standing figures I was completely spell bound. I stood transfixed when I came by the giant seated by statue. The Xian terracotta warriors paled in comparison. Our guide mentioned that if we looked closely at the 1001 faces, we would find the face of our loved one.
I came out of the shrine in a daze. The historical significance, the spirituality associated with the place, the magnificence of the standing figures – it was unreal.
Somehow I managed to wear my shoes and head out towards another orange gate and to the bus.
We couldn’t take any photos inside, sharing a link which shows photos of the images, to give some idea of what they looked like.
We were soon heading to our last stop.
The Kiyomizu-dera Temple.
A world heritage site, it is built at a height. One can get amazing views of the city of Kyoto from here.
This is the site where the birth of Kyoto happened. Earlier Nara was the capital. A monk in the palace there had a divine vision, to go find a water fall near the Kyoto Hills. The shrine was built where the falls were found. And Kyoto city became the capital of Japan.
The walk towards the shrine is through a crowded historic shopping lane where you will find everything from Japanese souvenirs, green tea and food shops, to restaurants, to ice cream vendors.
We could see the famous red orange structure in the foreground as it is at a height. The climb up is not so steep. On the way we passed the Tsunami memorial built by the local people. Only one tree had survived the Tsunami. The locals built a beautiful Buddha statue out of the bark and built a temple in memory of the departed.
We soon reached the main shrine. Further up ahead we could see the famous orange pagoda – it looked most picturesque with the cherry blossom trees surrounding it. We decided to walk towards it and then walked back via the tiny water fall. Locals pouring water from it on them selves. There were local tea room shops around it. Lots of young girls dressed in rented Kimonos, enjoying the tea ceremony and/or taking photos against the backdrop of the Sakura trees.
We started heading back via the historic shopping lane, and had the customary macha softie ice-cream.
If you have time, would recommend staying around this area. One can sample delicious local food at the various stalls and restaurants that line this Street. And from this Street one can walk towards Gion which is the famous Geisha area, where you would see them either between 6-6:30pm or 9-9:30pm.
I didn’t have time to visit the famous Bamboo Street or Fushimi Inari or the Ginkakuji Temple or Nara to see the gigantic Buddha figure. That will have to be in another trip.
If one has only a few hours to spare in Kyoto, I would skip Kinkaku-ji and definitely visit Sanjusangen-do and Kiyumezu-dera temple.
It was time now to head to the station to catch the Nozumi Shinkansen express back to Tokyo.
It was a most enchanting day in Kyoto, made even more magical with the Sakura trees in full bloom.
Arigato Gozaimasu !