World Tour 2005: Japan
Continuing the 2005 world tour...
If you're looking for culture, Kyoto is the place to find it. If you're going to visit Japan, start here before you get all shrined out. Heck, there's so much to see that it's possible to get shrined out without even leaving Kyoto.
Getting around Kyoto is a mixed bag. The street layout is much more regular than Tokyo, but the subways aren't terribly useful and the buses are just confusing. Fortunately, the interesting sites tend to be clustered near each other.
Places to Go, Things to Do
The first thing you'll see on arrival is Kyoto Station — and what a sight it is. Some traditionalists regard this gigantic glass-and-steel building as a monstrosity, but I thought it at least makes an attempt to be beautiful. Which is more than most of the other buildings in Japan. Anyway, in addition to housing JR and Kintetsu train stations, Kyoto Station also houses office space, three shopping malls, a hotel, a theater, numerous restaurants, and a store devoted entirely to the works of Osamu Tezuka. Now that's awesome.
You need to get a permit to visit the Kyoto Imperial Palace, but it's worth the hassle. The historic palace and its grounds are absolutely fantastic. If you're not the permit-getting type, you might get more bang for your buck at Heian Shrine — a replica of Kyoto Imperial Palace which is open to the public, with some attached gardens that are ruly spectacular.
The shogun's primary residence in Kyoto was the Ninomaru Palace of Nijo Castle. As a security precaution, he installed a "nightingale floor" that squeaks when you walk on it — which is silly, because everyone knows ninjas crawl along the ceiling. But damn, is it fun to make the floor squeak.
The thirty-three bays of the Sanjusangendo hold some 1,000 statues of the Thousand-Armed Kannon. Seriously — this building is so big they hold archery contests in it, and the thousand Buddhas are extra-creepy.
The Kinkakuji is an amateur photographer's delight — as long as it's sunny, it's impossible to take a bad photograph of it. The Golden Pavillion's walls are supposed to encourage meditation, and I have to admit, the simplicity of the design makes it seem a lot less ostentatious than it should. If there's a sight in Kyoto you can't afford to miss, this is it.
Eastern Kyoto is full of beautiful sights — Gion, the Pontocho, the Kodaji, Yasaka-jinja — but the greatest of all are the spectacular verands of Kiyomizu-dera. Hiking up to the temple is arduous — but the spectacular view of Kyoto is well worth the effort.
Most guidebooks barely mention it — but the Fushimi Inari Shrine is well worth a visit. The paths that criscross the grounds are lined with hundreds of vermilion torii donated by the faithful from all across Japan. It's an excellent place to take an early morning stroll.
They may not be as impressive as some of the other sites on this list, but Nishi Hongan-ji and Higashi Hongan-ji are still worth seeing. The intense rivalry that used to exist between these two temples was the East Coast/West Coast rap wars of 17th century Japan. And if the thought of Buddhist monks engaging in rap wars doesn't entertain you, nothing will.
Here are some of my favorite photos of Kyoto, in the order in which they were taken.
Next: Everywhere else!