Disclaimer: I am pretty sure I read in a guidebook that Kyoto is the self-professed temple capital of Japan. Whether it actually has 1001 temples and shrines, I don’t know. What I do know is that a common affliction suffered by eager visitors to Kyoto is the insidious “temple burnout”, in which all temples begin to blend together into a ginormous blur (a super holy one, no doubt) and the sufferer is afflicted with utter apathy at the notion of seeing one more sacred spot. The likelihood of contracting temple burnout is greatly increased by prior exposure to Japan’s myriad temples and shrines prior to arriving in Kyoto. The only cure to temple burnout is to fastidiously avoid the temples and shrines for a few days, enjoying the city’s ample other charms, chased with a healthy dose of doing not much of anything at all.
I don’t know whether Tony & I were experiencing temple burnout when we arrived in Kyoto. Actually, I think we were experiencing a more generalized form of it‚ “travel burnout‚” given the breathless pace at which we had been speeding through Japan. The symptoms of travel burnout are similar to temple burnout except they are not limited to temples, and instead encompass pretty much any tourist-oriented activity you can think of. So, when we arrived in Kyoto and realized we had slated a whole week there, the sheer number of temples, shrines, parks and day trips gave us pause: even at the top of our game we would never be able to see them all. Kyoto is clearly a city that demands to be slowly savored, and I have no doubt that one could quite happily spend an entire year, if not an entire lifetime, exploring Kyoto and its rich cultural traditions and history.
So, we did what any sane people would do and gave up the ghost: we realized that there was only so much we could do, even with a week in Kyoto. Rather than making ourselves miserable running around all willy-nilly trying to see all the things, we quickly decided we would much rather pick a few key things that we really wanted to see and spend time enjoying them and leave the rest to chance and whim. Crazy, I know! The rest would simply have to wait for another trip. And another trip there surely will be, because it didn’t take us very long to realize that although Kyoto seems forever overshadowed by the obvious glitz and glam of Tokyo, this was the city in Japan we would return to see again and again.
Consequently, I am sorry to report that I don’t actually have a breakdown and photos of 1000+ things for you to see in Kyoto (or do I?!? Read on to find out!). Instead, here are the temples and shrines that we deemed unmissable in Kyoto, travel burnout or no. Remember: quality not quantity!
Although not as popular as some of the other temples, Sanjusangendo is certainly worthy of your time. It boasts 1000 hand carved statues of the goddess of mercy, Kannon, plus one 6-foot tall statue of Kannon in the middle of the hall. (Hey what do you know! We did see 1001 sacred things in Kyoto!) Additionally, interspersed amongst the statues are the 28 Japanese deities who are believed to protect the Buddhist universe. It’s truly an awe-inspiring site to walk into the hall and see these statues stretch out in row upon row, almost as far as your eye can see. Alas, no pictures are allowed in this sacred space, but I doubt that a photograph could capture the majesty of them all regardless.
It was hard to believe that the imposing and magnificent building we shuffled through in our socked feet had been originally constructed back in the 10th century! The temple was first completed in 1164, but was largely lost to a fire (of course! This is Japan after all!) in 1249, only to be rebuilt in 1266. Approximately 120 of the statues date back to the original temple, and the remainder were commissioned in the 14th century. Whichever way you slice it, the statues and the temple are old, and walking through the hall is akin to entering a slightly higher plane.
As you can imagine, any complex housing that many religious icons is not only an incredibly reverent place, but must also be ridiculously large.
The hall with all the statues stretches 120 meters (393 feet) in length, and the temple’s name was taken from the fact that there are 33 (or in Japanese: san ju san) bays between the pillars within the hall. The length of the hall is so impressive that back in the olden days, the outside walkway was the site of an archery tournament where competitors would shoot from one end of the building in order to hit a sacred cloth target pinned at the other end. The goal was to hit the target as many times as possible within a given timeframe, with the longest period lasting an entire 24 hours!
On our trip to Sanjusangendo, we also picked Tony up a special souvenir for our time in Japan. At many temples throughout Japan you can purchase a book called a goshuin, which is essentially like a little passport that you bring with you to shrines and temples. You can then pay a small amount (generally 300 – 500Y) to have a person at the shrine/temple notarize your book, indicating the date of your visit. These goshuin were traditionally the mark of pilgrims as the seal in the book provided proof that you had indeed visited a given temple or shrine and made an offering there. Although we are not religious, given Tony’s love of artisanal books and calligraphy, this was the perfect souvenir for him (though of course the completist in him rued all the temples and shrines we had visited prior to purchasing a goshuin). Ah well, I suppose this is as good an excuse as any to return to Japan!
From one of Kyoto’s most obscure temples we move to ostensibly its most famous, kinkakuji, or in English: the Temple of the Golden Pavilion. No trip to Kyoto would be complete without a visit to this stunning site. As fans of the Yukio Mishima novel that provides a fictionalized account of the mentally disturbed monk who burned the temple to the ground in 1950, this was one of the places in Japan that I was most excited for Tony to see. The current, perched in the middle of a picturesque pond, was rebuilt in 1955, and given its fraught past, the gold leaf that now covers it from peak to base seems almost as defiant as it is dazzling. Situating the pavilion within the pond is really a stroke of brilliance (pun intended?) as admires can enjoy the pavilion twice, marveling at the structure itself as well as its magnificent reflection upon the softly rippling waves of the water.
We managed to arrive at kinkakuji within minutes of it opening, so we thankfully got to experience the temple and surrounding grounds in relative peace and quiet. While the pavilion is obviously the star attraction, the surrounding temple grounds are some of the prettiest and most photogenic you will see in Japan.
Tony did feel a bit let down by our overall experience at kinkakuji. Unlike other temples where you have plenty of space to roam and can avoid the crowds if you wish, the path through this complex keeps you pretty tightly roped in, and at times it does feel a bit like you are cattle being herded through. Tony also felt ambushed by the pavilion, as you stumble upon it pretty much immediately after entering the complex. You enter the gates, turn a corner, and WHAM! There it is, sitting smack dab in front of you in all its glory. Given the way Mishima’s book romanticizes the temple, I suppose Tony was expecting a bit more foreplay before the climax. Still, there is no denying just how exquisite the pavilion is, and there is good reason why it remains one of the mandatory stops for any visitor to Kyoto.
Not far from Kinkakuji sits Roanji, a zen temple that is famed for its rock garden. Our friend L’Ell’s father calls this his favorite garden in all of Japan, and seeing as he is not a man who tosses his approval around lightly, we dutifully made our way there.
The rock garden at ryoanji is famous because it is comprised of 15 stones, about which many legends have been spun. Some claim that the scene depicted is of a mother tiger carrying her cub across a stream, whereas others say that the garden is meant to do nothing other than encourage thoughtful contemplation. So the story goes, if you are able to sit in one spot and view all 15 stones from that position, then you will have reached enlightenment (the garden has been designed so that from the seated position, you can generally only see 13 or 14 of the stones concurrently). These days, it is hard to imagine anyone reaching clarity of thought at ryoanji, because although the rock garden is very lovely and attempts have obviously been made to ensure the space is tranquil, the swarms of visitors make it anything but. Yes, there are signs telling people to turn of their phones, people talk SO MUCH while at ryoanji that it is hard to hear yourself think. Instead you are far more likely to enjoy the garden with a constant soundtrack of people trying their very best to count to 15. Perhaps if we had not paired ryoanji with kinkakuji on the same sightseeing day we would have better luck, as I suspect this is place that is best visited as soon as the gates open so that a few minutes of peace and quiet can be had.
All is not lost, however, because there is more to ryoanji than its rock garden. As everyone flocked there, we took some time to be charmed by the beautiful lily pond that sits near the entrance of the ground. It is exceedingly lovely and exudes the serenity that is hard to achieve at the rock garden, and the entire setting is very much like a painting brought to life.
I am pretty sure that the popularity of fushimi inari with foreign tourists can be traced back to the film Memoirs of a Geisha, in which the tori-lined pathways prominently featured and captured the imaginations of millions. To be honest, I don’t know how many people bother to actually make their way up the mountain to reach the shrine, as it seems most people (including ourselves) come merely to see the tori. The bright vermilion of these gates blazes against the forest that surrounds them, and each one is inscribed with the name of the individual or corporation who donated the money for it. The size of the tori is correlated with the amount of the donation, so it’s fair to say that several of the tori you pass under are staggering in more ways than one.
We had been finding our time in Kyoto to largely offer a respite from the pervasive humidity we had experienced almost everywhere else in Japan, but our luck ended on the day we visited fushimi inari. Even in the cool of the forest, the air was thick and sultry, and with the many visitors clogging up the torii like globs of fat in a hardened artery, the path felt far too close for us to make it all the way to the top. We wandered for about 20 minutes until the torii began to thin, and then made our way back down. Apparently those with the constitution to persevere to the end of the path are rewarded with an expansive view of Kyoto, but we contented ourselves by picking up some black sesame gelato topped with a swirl of tofu ice cream and called it a day!
This is definitely not an exhaustive list of temples and shrines to see in Kyoto; we know we missed some of the big boys like Nijojomae (we managed to try to visit during the one month during the year when it is closed on Tuesdays), Ginkakuji (Temple of the Silver Pavilion), along with dozens more. But given how we were feeling (and the fact that most temples in Kyoto have an admission fee, meaning temple overdosing can be harmful to the wallet as well as the spirit), we are happy with those that we did see, and now we have ample excuse to return one day. Plus, as you’ll see in our next few posts, we still managed to keep ourselves busy outside of the temples by simply strolling the streets of Kyoto, searching for geisha, taking a few daytrips to the outskirts of the city, and of course, eating plenty of food!