August 3, 2022
Kyōto, city, seat of Kyōto fu (urban prefecture), west-central Honshu island, Japan. Gently sloping downward from north to south, the city averages 180 feet (55 meters) above sea level. Kyōto fu is at the center of Kinki chihō (region). The city is one of the centers of the Keihanshin Industrial Zone, the second largest urban and industrial agglomeration in Japan. The capital of Japan for more than 1,000 years (from 794 to 1868), Kyōto (literally, “Capital City”) has been called a variety of names through the centuries—Heian-kyō (“Capital of Peace and Tranquillity”), Miyako (“The Capital”), and Saikyō (“Western Capital”), its name after the Meiji Restoration (1868) when the imperial household moved to Tokyo. Kyōto is the center of traditional Japanese culture and of Buddhism, as well as of fine textiles and other Japanese products. The deep feeling of the Japanese people for their culture and heritage is represented in their special relationship with Kyōto—all Japanese try to go there at least once in their lives, with almost a third of the country’s population visiting the city annually. Several of the historic temples and gardens of Kyōto were collectively added as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1994. (Cary, O. (2021, February 15). Kyōto. Encyclopedia Britannica.)
Fushimi Inari Shrine
Fushimi Inari Shrine (伏見稲荷大社, Fushimi Inari Taisha) is an important Shinto shrine in southern Kyoto. It is famous for its thousands of vermilion torii gates, which straddle a network of trails behind its main buildings. The trails lead into the wooded forest of the sacred Mount Inari, which stands at 233 meters and belongs to the shrine grounds.
Fushimi Inari is the most important of several thousands of shrines dedicated to Inari, the Shinto god of rice. Foxes are thought to be Inari’s messengers, resulting in many fox statues across the shrine grounds. Fushimi Inari Shrine has ancient origins, predating the capital’s move to Kyoto in 794.
Our next part of the tour is walking through old town Kyoto beginning at Kiyomizudera. Kiyomizudera (清水寺, literally “Pure Water Temple”) is one of t
he most celebrated temples of Japan. It was founded in 780 on the site of the Otowa Waterfall in the wooded hills east of Kyoto, and derives its name from the fall’s pure waters. The temple was originally associated with the Hosso sect, one of the oldest schools within Japanese Buddhism, but formed its own Kita Hosso sect in 1965. In 1994, the temple was added to the list of UNESCO world heritage sites.
The Higashiyama District (東山) along the lower slopes of Kyoto’s eastern mountains is one of the city’s best-preserved historic districts. It is a great place to experience traditional old Kyoto, especially between Kiyomizudera and Yasaka Shrine, where the narrow lanes, wooden buildings, and traditional merchant shops invoke a feeling of the old capital city. Recent renovations to remove telephone poles and repave the streets have further improved the traditional feel of the district.
Yasaka Pagoda, the last remnant of Hokanji Temple, is one of the most visible and recognizable landmarks in the Higashiyama District. The interior of the pagoda is occasionally open to visitors, which is a rare opportunity as most pagoda can only be viewed from the outside.
Ishibe Alley is a must-see in Kyoto. As you walk through the alleyways you feel like you’ve stepped into a movie set, only it’s real, because the establishments in Ishibe are not just for display.
A lot of the establishments still function as tea houses, salons, restaurants, and houses filled with the muffled sound of families behind closed doors. Unlike Hanami koji, Ishibe Alley is undiscovered. It is like being alone with Kyoto.
This historic alley hasn’t changed much in years and the government has made a good job of preserving this place in its traditional form. Finding Ishibe alley isn’t hard as its just a few steps away from the entrance of Kodai-ji Temple.
Kodaiji (高台寺, Kōdaiji) is an outstanding temple in Kyoto’s Higashiyama District. It was established in 1606 in memory of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, one of Japan’s greatest historical figures, by Hideyoshi’s wife Nene who is also enshrined at the temple.
Kodaiji belongs to the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism. Its main buildings were constructed in the lavish style of the era of Japan’s unification with the financial support of Hideyoshi’s successor Tokugawa Ieyasu. They feature richly decorated interiors and are surrounded by beautiful Zen gardens.
Maruyama Park (円山公園, Maruyama Kōen) is a public park next to Yasaka Shrine in the Higashiyama District. In the first half of April, when the cherry trees are in full bloom, the park becomes Kyoto’s most popular and most crowded spot for cherry blossom viewing parties (hanami). The centerpiece of the park is a tall shidarezakura (weeping cherry tree), which gets lit up in the night.
Yasaka Shrine (八坂神社, Yasaka Jinja), also known as Gion Shrine, is one of the most famous shrines in Kyoto. Founded over 1350 years ago, the shrine is located between the popular Gion District and Higashiyama District and is often visited by tourists walking between the two districts.
Our final stop on the walking tour will be Gion. Gion (祇園) is Kyoto’s most famous geisha district, located around Shijo Avenue between Yasaka Shrine in the east and the Kamo River in the west. It is filled with shops, restaurants and ochaya (teahouses), where geiko (Kyoto dialect for geisha) and maiko (geiko apprentices) entertain.
Gion attracts tourists with its high concentration of traditional wooden machiya merchant houses. Due to the fact that property taxes were formerly based upon street frontage, the houses were built with narrow facades only five to six meters wide, but extend up to twenty meters in from the street.
Nijo Castle (二条城, Nijōjō) was built in 1603 as the Kyoto residence of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun of the Edo Period (1603-1867). His grandson Iemitsu completed the castle’s palace buildings 23 years later and further expanded the castle by adding a five story castle keep.
After the Tokugawa Shogunate fell in 1867, Nijo Castle was used as an imperial palace for a while before being donated to the city and opened up to the public as a historic site. Its palace buildings are arguably the best surviving examples of castle palace architecture of Japan’s feudal era, and the castle was designated a UNESCO world heritage site in 1994.
Alternate Activities in Kyoto
Dress in a Kimono or Yukata and take pictures while in the Kiyomizudera area. You can rent/purchase from a local shop or bring your own and let them dress you up! Hair styling is provided at an additional cost. Shops have kimono and yukata for both men and women.
Enjoy lunch at the Nishiki Market. Nishiki Market (錦市場, Nishiki Ichiba) is a narrow, five block long shopping street lined by more than one hundred shops and restaurants. Known as “Kyoto’s Kitchen”, this lively retail market specializes in all things food related, like fresh seafood, produce, knives and cookware, and is a great place to find seasonal foods and Kyoto specialties, such as Japanese sweets, pickles, dried seafood and sushi.
Small Katana forging Experience
Create a small knife under the watchful eye of a master using the same process & materials as a traditional sword. Visit the only remaining sword forge & swordsmith in Kyoto.