Highlights of Kyoto

The first view a tourist gets of modern Kyoto is likely to be very disappointing.   As the first real imperial capital, Kyoto was founded in 794, and it wasn't until 1868 that the capital was moved to Tokyo.   Kyoto is still considered to be the major cultural center of Japan, and the fact that it was deliberately not bombed during World War Two because of that cultural significance might lead you to expect a city dominated by temples and old houses, with people still living as they did hundreds of years ago.   Instead, you'll arrive at the huge and ultra-modern train terminal, with the mildly unattractive Kyoto Tower directly across the street.   You look around at the power poles, the traffic and the unromantic commercial buildings and homes, and you could be forgiven for thinking that you just made a bad mistake.

Dig a little deeper, however, and you'll find what you're looking for.   Walking through even ordinary looking streets you'll find that the shrines and temples are still there, even if they are sandwiched between ugly, utilitarian structures.

Go just a little further out to the fringes of the city and you'll even find ancient shrines with large classical gardens like Kinkaku-ji "The Golden Pavilion", originally built in 1397 as a shogun's retirement villa and covered, as its name suggests, with gold-leaf.

Near Kinkaku-ji is the Zen Buddhist Ryoan-ji temple, with its world famous "dry landscape" rock garden.   Fifteen rocks float in apparent random order upon a raked sea of sand, meaning everything, nothing, or whatever your mind makes it out to be.   Don't Ask, Don't Tell, and for goodness sake, Don't Walk on the Garden!

East of the Gion district, which is one of the few places in Japan you're likely to see a genuine geisha walking the streets, you'll come to Chion-in temple, built in 1234.   The temple grounds are entered through San-mon, the largest gate in Japan, and there's a 74 tonne bell, also the largest in Japan, which needs 17 monks to ring it.   If you're lucky as I was, you'll even see a genuine Buddhist service in progress in the main building, reminding you that this is a working temple, like many others in Japan, and not just a tourist attraction.   The main building's roof decorations are delightful.   Other buildings on the grounds house statues of Buddha and other seemingly less benign beings.