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Kyoto is often referred as the heartland of Japan. It's said that you won't know Japan without knowing Kyoto. Just check out its resume and you'll agree: 1200 years of history; the capital of Japan from 794 to 1868; incubator of ancient Japanese culture; countless of palaces, temples, shrines, and other historical structures you can find in almost every street corner, among which 17 have been listed as World Heritage Sites. In fact, these historical sites saved Kyoto from bombing during the World War II. With a population of 1.5 million, Kyoto is probably not a "big" city in Japanese standard, but the natural beauty, historical buildings, and cultural atmosphere make it the most interesting place I've been in Japan.
The Japanese Railroad (JR) is fast and user-friendly. It only takes a bit more than an hours from Maiko/Kobe to the Kyoto Station. Across the street from the Kyoto Station is the Kyoto Tower, the city's landmark. You can enjoy the night light at the top of the tower. But that's about as much as what I want to say about the modern Kyoto. Next I'll just dive into the 1200 years of culture.
The first place to go has to be the Imperial Palace. It's the Japanese Emperor's residence until 1868. It's located inside the spacious Imperial Park, with private shrine, garden, and forest. As we'll see later, Gray Heron, Carps, and Turtles are commonly seen in Japanese temples. My understanding is that heron, crane, and turtle are symbol of longevity, so they're good things to have. In terms of carp, I'm not sure if it has to do with the Chinese myth of carp evolving into dragon.
The Imperial Palace is located at the northern half of the Imperial Park, within these yellow walls.
The buildings in the palace are plain but elegant, compared to the Forbidden City, although the style suggest influence from China.
Take a closer look. Very neat.
The curvy eaves and fastigiums.
Kinkakuji Temple, or the Golden Pavilion Temple. This is one of the most famous temples in Japan, obviously owing to its luxurious display. Probably not that many people remember its real name, Rokuon-ji Temple, or the deer's garden temple, anymore. It was originally built in 1397 by some powerful Shogun's (Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, if you care) as his showy mansion, which make sense. Then this place was turned into a temple, which doesn't make sense. I personally think the temple is a bit overrated. It's not much more than an old building covered with gold foil next to a pond. Yeah, I agree it's impressive and all, but I'm sure someone can build another one in Las Vegas : ). Feel bad for the emperor though, he supposedly lived in the same city, but didn't get anything closed to this fancy in his palace.
Ginkakuji Temple, or the Silver Pavilion Temple. The story goes on, now in 1482, the grand son of the Yoshimitsu who built the Golden Pavilion, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, still a powerful Shogun, went on to build this Silver Pavilion. He did plan to cover the building with silver, but no one know if he's out of cash or just too busy, he never actually did it. However, he did get the chance to build a nice garden around the pavilion, which make the visit rather pleasant. It's less crowded too, thanks to its golden brother. Interesting sand work.
Philosopher's Path is a 2 kilometer-long walkway along an old canal. Favorite walk of Japanese philosopher Kitaro Nishida, who made it famous. It's quite and refreshing, especially in such a hot summer day. A number of temples and shrines, including the Silver Pavilion, are along the way.
Nijojo Castle. Built in 1603 by Ieyasu Tukugawa, then the most powerful man in Japan, as his residence. His successors expanded the castle into almost a palace today. Outside, a canal runs around the castle for defensive purpose. Near the entrance is the famous Ninomaru, or the Secondary Castle.
Inside residence. Ancient paintings by famous artists along the wall. Guess in those days if you're the shogun, you can get whatever you want. The floor and sliding doors are squeaky to alert the host of unexpected visitors. The taller building is the Honmaru, or the Main Castle, which was added later by the grandson of Tukugawa
Gardens, ponds, and canal in the castle.
Toji Temple, or Eastern Temple. Built in 794, when the Japanese capital was moved from Nara to Kyoto. It's thus the oldest temples in Kyoto. The 5-story tower is considered another landmark of Kyoto -- it's the tallest wooden tower in Japan. It's summer time, blooming lotus make a scene.
Inside the temple. It seems like pilgrims can donate a certain amount of money to have their name posted here in the temple.
The Heian Shrine. Built in 1895 to celebrate the 1100 years of Kyoto history, the Heian Shrine certainly distinguishes itself from the rest of dark older building with vivid orange color. Although partially a copy of the Imperial Palace, it looks so brand-new compared to the rest of the old town. It seems to be a popular place to pray for peace and happiness. Inside the shrine are two fountains, guarded by a dragon and a tiger, from which you can wash your hand and drink with provided ladles. How considerate!
Beautiful garden in the shrine. Look at those cute Japanese girls in their colorful traditional Kimono. There's a different kind of soft-shell turtle (that's supposed to be a delicacy in China :p) here in the garden.
Kiyomizu Temple, or Clear Water Temple. Founded in 798, it's one of the oldest temple in Kyoto. Its famous mountain spring, from which the temple got its name, is said to has magical power that can give you better health and intelligence. That sounds good, so I waited in line and had a taste of the magic used a stainless steel ladle. I don't know if I got any smarter, but the delicious spring water certainly did satisfy my thirst.
Nanzenji Temple, or the South Zen Temple. Built in 1264 as a villa for the emperor, then turned into a temple when the emperor died. Nanzenji temple has very high statue in Zen Buddhism. What impressed me are the arches, a more western architectural element, which I rarely see in Japan.
HigashihonganJi Temple. Only walking distance from Kyoto Station. Most of the temples above are dedicated to Zen buddhism, which is the more famous branch of the religion that emphasizing on meditation and soul-searching to achieve nirvana. HigashihonganJi Temple, however, belongs to the Pure Land Sect of Buddhism, a more down-to-earth sect for the common people. It believes that nirvana can be eventually reached by constant prayer and chanting the buddha's name, which sounds like a better deal. So you can consider this one as the temple for the ordinary people.
Pigeons are frequenters here. Pilgrims praying inside the hall -- seems like this is the only temple I saw serious group worship. The temple is so close to the Kyoto Station, the Kyoto tower and the pavilion in the same frame make a sharp contrast.
The rest are an infinite number of small shrines, which you can find in almost every street. Some of them are just as nice as those famous places above.
Already had a good dose of Japanese culture? This is only about half of Kyoto. I'm pretty sure I want to be back here some day.
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