Rock Gardens, Golden Temples, and Cultural Overload in Kyoto

Kyoto: simply mentioning the name evokes endearing images of kimono-clad, white-faced geisha using their colorful parasols to protect both their complexions from the sun and their modesty from the stares of those on the street, of leisurely strolls through an endless parade of vivid-orange torii gates gently winding their way up a sloping hillside, of the austere and contemplative nature of minimalist gardens that require no more adornment than a bed of raked sand and a few choice stones, or of the solemn whispers of prayers, fragrant incense smoke, and occasional sound of three claps that one is greeted with upon crossing the cedar threshold of a local temple.  Kyoto is a convergence point that encapsulates much of the history, spirit, and essence of that which we know of as Japanese — where even the Japanese come to learn about their own culture.

Yet while all of the above sentiments can certainly be found within this city (though you’re exceedingly fortunate if you chance upon one of few remaining geisha), it is still easy to forget that Kyoto isn’t merely a remnant of the past, a living history museum maintained for the visitors and travelers to gape at in awe, but that in fact, it is a very modern, vibrant city that continues to march forward into the present, bringing with it all of the shopping arcades, fashionable cafes, tourist shops, fast food restaurants, and designer brand merchandise that that moniker entails.  Rounding the next corner, you’ll as likely to encounter the neon-lit cacophony of a pachinko parlor echoing the momentum of commerce as you are the tranquility of a lantern-lit shrine still clinging to memories of deities nearly forgotten.  The traditional side is present, but it does take a more dedicated search than many of the guide books and travel shows would have you belive.  That’s not to say that it isn’t without its own charms, however:

The streets of the Kyoto aren’t quite the image of tradition that I had expected

View over the Kamogawa River

The sun sculpture adorning the front of the Oike Koto Building

Most streets and intersections are as draped with what is a veritable Gordian’s Knot of power lines as the peaceful temples are with a thick coat of moss

The interior of Kyoto Station (Bus and Train Terminal)

Vendors selling their edible wares in the Nishiki Food Market

The Tokgetsukyo Bridge near the Arashiyama Area of town

The view of Kyoto as seen from Kyoto Tower. The area is shaped like a huge bowl, where the city lies in the center and the temples and shrines dot the mountainous ridges encircling it

There are still a few streets and neighborhoods within the city limits that take on the historic feel of years past, however, so a visit to Kyoto certainly doesn’t doom one to a fate of disappointment and despair:

The Gion District still maintains the traditional feel of the Geisha Houses, complete with slatted windows and reed screens shielding the inhabitants from prying eyes

Shimbashi Street, one of Kyoto’s most beautiful

A view along the Tetsugaku-no-michi, also known as the Path of Philosophy: a pleasant 30-minute walk alongside a canal, the perfect place to collect your thoughts

In the Southern Higashiyama area, you’ll find the quaint and charming streets of Ninen-zaka and Sannen-zaka

Tradition aside, the same quiet streets of the Gion District take on a new perspective once the sun sets, as the area transforms into a popular spot for a night out on the town

The attractions of Kyoto that draw in visitors from faraway lands don’t consist of simply tranquil streets lined with tea houses and shopping plazas decked out with the latest fashions.  The city boasts one of the largest concentrations of both Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines found anywhere in the world, let alone in Japan.  Add to that the bounty of gorgeous gardens and manicured temple grounds, many of which are remnants from the over 1,000 year period that Kyoto served as the nation’s capital (until the late 1800’s, when it was moved to Tokyo), and it’s easy to understand why Kyoto is always a favored destination for folks of any culture.

Kinkakuji Temple, otherwise known as the Golden Pavilion

The Twin Dragons painting on the ceiling of the Kinninji Temple

A peaceful walkway through the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove

The entrance to the Kiyomizu Temple

Coi, or goldfish, swimming around the pond at the Tenryuji Temple

The Okochi-sanso Garden

The five-tiered pagoda of the Ninnaji Temple

One of my favorite perspectives: the walkway leading to the entrance of the Daitokuji Temple

Reflections of the Heian Jingu Shrine

Detail of a painted screen within the Shoren-in Temple

View from the Tea House in the Okochi Sanso Gardens

A personal favorite destination of mine was the Fushimi-Inari Shrine, a relatively normal temple on the face, but one that conceals one of the most photographed and familiar images in all of Japan.  Once past the initial shrine and main hall — to which many merchants and manufacturers worship for success, as Inari is the god of rice, meaning in today’s age that he is seen as the patron of business — you’ll come to a pathway leading up the hillside, only instead of a simple walkway, this one is lined with thousands upon thousands of red-orange Torii gates, creating an atmosphere like nowhere else I’ve ever been.  The best part is that although it is easy to think that the Torii-gate-encrusted pathway is only a few hundred yards, as might be expected, it actually extends for several miles up the hillside, the whole pathway also being littered with stone images and tributes to the fox spirits, seen as messengers of the gods.

The entrance to the Fushimi-Inari Shrine

The many Torii gates form a colorful tunnel around the walking path the entire way up the mountain

The oft-photographed split in the path, where the trail leads in two different directions

Even the prayer boards that are common at most temples are slightly modified here to reflect the presence of the fox spirits

Having traveled through Kanazawa already, I’ve gotten a pretty good feel for the aesthetic of Japanese Gardens.  Arriving in Kyoto, however, was a quick eye-opener that not all gardens follow the same style, utilizing moss carpeted greenscapes dotted with elegant willow trees and pleasing-to-the-eye bridges crossing the deliberately located streams.  Here, a new style of garden has taken over the reins: that of the minimalist kare-sansui style, in which the only other objects besides the sand or small pebbles used as a base (often with a pattern raked into them) is that of a few thoughtfully placed stones to anchor the abstract landscape:

The kare-sansui style of garden as seen at the Ryoanji Temple

The moss and foliage is still ever-present, however, even at the Ryoanji Temple

The two asymmetric piles of sand near the entrance of the Honen-in Temple. Additionally, the design on the tops of the piles regularly changes, left to the discretion of one of the temple’s monks

Detail of one of the sand piles at the Honen-in Temple

The zigzagging walkway that takes visitors through the Nanzen-ji Temple Gardens

The wave pattern raked into the sand at the Nanzen-ji Garden

A pond overlooking the Ginkaku-ji Temple grounds, where some of the most unusual garden creations are on display (see below)

Looking over the grounds of the Tenryuji Temple, where there is a blending of styles

Finally, as you may have noticed, up until now I’ve neglected to describe any of the food options that are present in Kyoto.  The reason is three-fold: one, having been in Japan for close to a month now, I’ve burned myself out trying everything in sight (and my budget is basically a big ball of flames to boot); two, I have Osaka coming up as my next destination, where I know I’ll be indulging in every inventive creation know to the Japanese culinary scene; and three, I was ultimately saving up to indulge in one particular style of eating that Kyoto excels at while I’m still here: that of Kaiseki.  This indulgent (and expensive) experience takes the diner through a carefully prepared, multi-course meal designed to appeal to all five senses, where each dish is served in its own unique and carefully chosen plate or bowl, the setting often overlooks a small garden or aesthetically pleasing space, and the entire theme reflects nature through the changing ebb and flow of the seasons.  So with that in mind, I’ll leave you off with a few of the dishes that the chef prepared for me on this occasion:

The opening foray: hagi dumplings, orange sweet potatoes, edamame, a red pepper creation, and Barracuda Sashimi

A light Matsutake mushroom soup served in a teapot

Red Snapper, Toro (Fatty Tune) and Prawn Sashimi

Taro stems soaked in vinegar and topped with a creamy tofu mixture (or at least, that was my best guess)

Kaiseki meals are often eschew any meats in favor of vegetables, but the heart of this particular meal came in the form of Sea Bream

Baked Hagi with steamed rice and a few veggies served in a thick, gelatinous goo

Throughout a Kaiseki meal, the diner will usually be served dishes using a variety of cooking methods (i.e. – one raw, one grilled, one steamed, etc.). This luckily also includes a fried dish — in this case, tempura enoki mushrooms and hot peppers

The rice (mushroom rice here), pickles, and miso soup that are common to most Japanese meals are served at the end in a Kaiseki meal

And finally, a seasonal desert to finish (though you’re guess is as good as mine as far as what was in this jelly like dish)

About andrewamiet

I'm a 29 (now 31) year-old former desk jockey who is now making my way around the world, experiencing all of the sights, sounds, tastes, people, and culture that the world has to offer.

19 Responses to “Rock Gardens, Golden Temples, and Cultural Overload in Kyoto”

  1. Wow! Love this post! I visited Kyoto in May this year and I went to all of the places you have been! Your photos are beautiful – I want to go back to Japan right now!

  2. Andrew…..I love love love the shots with the bamboo!!!! Definitely a must go destination!!! Did you find the food expensive ?

    • Oh yeah, the food was definitely expensive — even more so than in Tokyo, I felt (but that may have just been a factor of the specific places I went). There were ways that you could eat cheaply, but subsiting only only onigiri rice balls and gyudon beef bowls didn’t seem too appealing.

  3. Lovely photos and post!

  4. wow !! i wish it seems really like came out of a tale book !!! i ll be waiting for your next trip to Osaka ! as i have heard Osaka is prettier than Kyoto but let’s see 🙂 nice artcle! 🙂

    • I am pretty curious to see what Osaka looks like after having gone through the other two major cities in this part of Japan (Tokyo and Kyoto), both of which have their own unique charms. Plus, Osaka is known for their food, so I’m really excited!

      • i bet you are right about the food! i really enjoyed the colourfull foods in the photos as they looked pretty yumy i would also suggest you if you are interested in travelling and cousine to visit Greece…believe me you can leave at least 7 kilos heavier my friend! 😛 nice job with the article!

        • Arrrhhhh…I’m still disappointed in myself for not having swung through Greece when I was in Europe last year. Everyone I meet recommends it so highly that I have to put it back on my itinerary somewhere — hopefully sooner than later!

  5. Kyoto, one of the beautiful cities I’ve been and your photos perfectly capture it. Thanks!

    • Thanks, Dahlia! I will admit, though, that prior to hitting Japan, I did go back and read through your Japan posts to get a feel for what I was going to see. Thanks for giving me a little extra inspiration!

      • You actually gave me an idea/inspired me to write a completely separate post about this beautiful island. It’s so magical, as if the island just rose out from pages of books. I don’t know but I got that feeling.
        I especially like your 6th photo, the one with a girl in it. 🙂 Thanks again!

        • You hit the nail on the head as far as the island rising out of the pages of books. These last few posts have been some of the easiest of anywhere I’ve traveled — they almost write themselves.

          And I’m looking forward to potentially seeing another Japan post from you in the future!

  6. I just came across your blog and while thus far this is the only entry I have read I am very impressed. What an amazing experience this must be. I have a lot of reading to do. One thing, did you take these photos?


  1. A Two Day Teaser from Kyoto | Temporarily Lost - July 31, 2013

    […] I did already spend upwards of 10 days or so in Kyoto last summer — which you can read about here — meaning this time around, I skipped the temples, shrines, and gardens to simply enjoy […]

  2. Kumano Kodo – Part One: A Walk Through the Woods and a Soak in an Onsen | Temporarily Lost - August 7, 2013

    […] feasts that roughly follow along the guidelines of a kaiseki meal (again, see my previous Kyoto post here for a kaiseki primer) — although some do choose to serve all of the evening’s dish at […]

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