KYOTO, Aug 17 – Did you know that before Tokyo was capital of Japan, the ancient city Kyoto held that honour for over a thousand years? That change of guard occurred during the 1868 Meiji Restoration but today Kyoto is still revered for its grand palaces, temples and pre-war townhouses (machiya), most of which escaped the bombings of World War II.
The historic city was saved thanks to nostalgia, as then Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson removed it from the atomic bomb target list. Kyoto, it turned out, was where he and his wife had their honeymoon.
As a result, the former homes of emperors, shoguns and monks are still preserved today, with 17 sites included on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. Not for nothing is Kyoto known as the City of Temples.
Here are five of Kyoto’s most resplendent temples, full of culture, myth and mystery.
The golden pavilion
Possibly the most striking of all temples in Kyoto is the Kinkaku-ji or Golden Pavilion. The highest two floors of this Zen temple are covered entirely in gold leaf, befitting its status as the retirement abode of the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu.
After he passed on in 1408, the villa was bequeathed to the Rinzai Zen sect. Known formally as Rokuon-ji, the temple overlooks a large pond and has survived both wars and a fire set in 1970 by a mad monk. How’s that for some theatre?
Next, walk pass the stately hojo, the former living quarters of the head priest. The fusuma or painted sliding doors are elegant designs hailing from Yoshimitsu’s days. You might spot a couple of statues that people throw coins at for luck; no harm in trying if you have change to spare.
At the end of the garden path are the Sekkatei Teahouse and a small tea garden. Enjoy matcha tea and sweets here while contemplating Anmintaku Pond, said never to dry up (or so legend has it).
Dance of the dragon
For those who are seeking blessings, look no further than Kiyomizu-dera Temple – its Japanese name translates as “Pure Water Temple” – near the Otowa Waterfall in hilly East Kyoto. Founded by the Hosso sect in 780, one of the oldest schools of Japanese Buddhism, the temple draws devotees and tourists looking for a sip of the fall’s pristine waters.
You get the best view of the stunning hillside from its large wooden stage that extends dramatically from its main hall. The cherry and maple trees below transform the landscape into pale pink and orange-red in spring and autumn respectively.
In summer, the countryside is a verdant sea of life. Interestingly, the stage was built without using a single nail, and still stands strong today.
Visitors during spring and autumn (mid-March and mid-September) can witness Kiyomizu-dera Seiryu-e, a ritualistic dragon procession dedicated to Seiryu, the sacred dragon god guarding the temple and its surrounding lands. Worshippers believe Seiryu is in fact the incarnation of a Buddhist Kannon, an enlightened being of compassion.
If it’s true love you are looking for, head to the Jishu Shrine behind the main hall. Dedicated to the deity of matchmaking, you will find two stones in front of the shrine, placed 18 metres apart. If you succeed in finding your way from one “love stone” to the other with your eyes closed, expect romance in the near future. Those who are already attached may not want to try this; at least not when your partner is watching.
There are three separate streams from which you can taste the blessings of the Otowa Waterfall. Use long poles with cups attached at the end and choose a stream. One is supposed to promote longevity; another improves your love life; the last success at school, which may explain the large number of students dropping by. One word of warning, don’t be surprised if you get stares from others if you drink from all three; it’s considered greedy to want it all.
The imperial palace
History can be a capricious, cruel master. Many great temples you see in Kyoto today have been ravaged by calamities, both natural and manmade, and it’s a wonder any of them survive. Ninna-ji Temple is one example of this enduring spirit.
Originally the Omuro Imperial Palace (its head priest was a member of the Imperial Family), none of the buildings from when the temple was founded by the Emperor in 888 remains thanks to a relentless series of wars and fires.
This hardly means that the current structure is new; the oldest buildings were constructed during the Edo Period in the early 1600s.
Take your time strolling along the wide pebbled path. From the Niomon front gate to the Chumon inner gate, there are different halls and even a five-storied pagoda to visit. Don’t miss out on the Goten, the former head priest’s residence that is built in the style of an imperial palace, with covered corridors and serene rock and pond gardens.
Zen and the rock garden
Fancy visiting a Zen rock garden? How about the most famous one in all of Japan? Ryoan-ji Temple originally belonged to a Heian Period aristocrat before being converted into a Zen temple of the Myoshinji school in 1450. Enter the hojo and choose a spot on its wooden viewing platform.
One of the rock garden’s most celebrated feature is how at least one of the rocks always remain hidden from view, as though to parallel the mysteries of the universe. Design-wise, the garden is rectangular in shape, its pebble plot studded with 15 rocks in small groups.
What is the garden supposed to represent? Some say it looks like a mother tiger carrying her cubs across a lake while others claim the rocks are islands in a tranquil sea. No one can agree and perhaps that is the best explanation: you are supposed to find a unique solution that means something to you alone. Whatever you come up with, expect the hours to drift by while you seek your answers.
Sanjusangen-do may look severe from the outside with its dark wooden columns and high shutters but those who look within will be in for a surprise. Officially known as Rengeo-in, this temple in eastern Kyoto is famed for its 1,001 statues of Kannon, the goddess of mercy. And these aren’t ordinary statues; each has a thousand arms!
At 120 metres, the temple hall is Japan’s longest wooden structure. A giant statue of the thousand-armed Senju Kannon carved from Japanese cypress sits in the centre, flanked on either side by 500 human-sized Kannon figures.
Those who are eagle-eyed will notice that the smaller statues only have 42 arms each. Apparently, you have to subtract the two “regular” arms and multiply the rest by 25 planes of existence to reach the final figure. However you choose to calculate the limbs, the spectacle is incredible.
Why so many arms? Many hands make light work of helping mankind overcome the suffering of the mortal coil (and the work is far from light). No photography is permitted inside the temple, which may dismay hardcore Instagrammers, but really, there is a time and place for reverence. I can think of no better opportunity for this, be it for worship or simply awe.
1 Kinkakujicho, Kita Ward, Kyoto, Japan
Open daily 9am-5pm
294 Kiyomizu 1-chome, Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto, Japan
Open daily 6am-6pm
33 Omuroouchi, Ukyo Ward, Kyoto, Japan
Open daily 9am-5pm (Mar-Nov); 9am-4:30pm (Dec-Feb)
13 Ryoanji Goryonoshitacho, Ukyo Ward, Kyoto, Japan
Open daily 8am-5pm (Mar-Nov); 8:30am-4:30pm (Dec-Feb)
657 Sanjusangendoma wari-cho, Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto, Japan
Open daily 8am-5pm (Apr-Nov 15); 9am-4pm (Nov 16-Mar)