The Magnificent Temples of Kyoto & Nara, Part 1

I didn’t know this until recently, but Kyoto is the former imperial capital of Japan (794-1868). Having been the country’s capital and the emperor’s home for more than 1,000 years, it is home to many important temples and shrines.

Our day in Kyoto was quite the adventure! Mainly trying to figure out which buses to take — it’s a fairly big city, roughly 1.5 million people, and the temples are spread out all over the city — but Will did a great job getting us where we needed to go. (Starting at the main bus depot at Kyoto Station, across from Kyoto Tower Hotel, which you can see below.)

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Train ride from Osaka to Kyoto, not bad at all.
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First, we visited the Kinkaku-ji Temple (aka Rokuon-ji Temple), a Zen Buddhist temple, to see the dazzling Golden Pavilion. Once you get over the hundreds of (let’s be honest) Asian tourists pushing you and getting in the way, you’re able to appreciate just how cool this place looks, and possibly take a selfie without someone’s bald spot getting in the way. It’s made with gold foil on lacquer, features a phoenix atop the roof, and inside houses relics of Buddha. You can’t go inside, FYI.

The rest of the temple grounds are nice. It’d be much more relaxing to stroll through without the crowds, and that day there were all these tent booths set up festival-style inside the temple selling tourists all kinds of crap. It almost felt sacrilegious. Oh well. That’s tourism.

Golden Pavilion at Kinkaku-ji Temple

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Zen garden

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We grabbed some ramen nearby and walked a couple miles to the Ryoan-ji Temple, known for Japan’s most famous rock garden. Made of 15 rocks, gravel, sand, and low earthen walls, the dry-landscape garden is by said by some to be “the highest expression of Zen art and teachings and perhaps the single greatest masterpiece of Japanese culture,” according to this site. Thankfully, this temple was much less crowded and more enjoyable.

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We left the Ryoan-ji and we went on a short walk to catch a train to get us to the bus we needed… you get the idea. But I loved this little walk. It took us through quiet residential areas, and even the local train station and the train itself were cute.

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Next, we took the bus to the popular Gion area and dropped by the Yasaka-jinja Shrine. It was ok. There seemed to be another festival or something going on, as there were many vendor booths on the shrine grounds….we didn’t linger.

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Evening was starting to set in, and we really wanted to see the next temple before it got dark. As you’ll see in the pics, we barely made it! The Kiyomizu-dera Temple is just breathtaking. It sits on the hillside, and if you think the colorful entry gate and the three-story pagoda you see upon your arrival are cool, wait until you go inside! The main hall is a huge, wooden structure that juts out 13 meters above the hillside. It offers great views of the temple grounds and especially of the city. We were there right at sunset and got to see the incredible nighttime views. By the way, there’s a cute little village near this temple that was lovely to walk through. It’s very touristy with tons of souvenir shops, but it was still cute.

Walking to Kiyomizu-dera Temple

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Kiyomizu-dera Temple entrance

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Main hall at Kiyomizu-dera Temple

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We ended our day in Kyoto enjoying some yakitori at a restaurant called Torisee. Pretty good. On our way to dinner, we came across a street performer playing the shamisen, which was fun. Here’s a short video below.

Cherry blossoms in Kyoto

Street performer playing the shamisen in Kyoto

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Selfie in pretty Kyoto

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Who am I kidding? I can’t keep these posts “short,” sigh.

Overall, I really liked Kyoto. Probably my favorite place we visited on this trip. Lots to see, not enough time, and worth another trip. More photos of our day in Kyoto here.

Up next: Nara’s temples…and wild animals. Huh? Stay tuned.

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