Kyoto: soul of Japan

KYOTO, JAPAN — Green. Everywhere green. The depth of green that you only notice after days in the concrete and steel and asphalt of the city. Kyoto — Japan’s ancient capital — is also its youngest: born every day anew in a layer of moss, reeds, bamboo.Arashiyama river

Traditional dress Komichiwa!Perspective

At peaceAfter a week in the megatropolis that is Tokyo-Yokohama-Chiba, we needed to evacuate to fresh air, space, quiet. Flying south on the Sakura Shinkansen — one Japan’s famous bullet trains — Kyoto was only a four hour ride, but a complete world away.

Until the Meiji restoration in the late 1800s, Kyoto was the heart and soul of Japan. In fact, even when the Shogun moved the capital to Edo, they renamed that city in respect to Kyoto’s legacy (“Tokyo” literally means East of Kyoto). Today, it’s still the storehouse of Japanese culture, with hundreds of shrines, temples and monuments snuggled in the valley between the Higashiyama and Arashiyama mountains.


Arashiyama streetcar lineKyoto is shaped like a long, deep bowl, with the living population centered in the bottom along a wide river and the eternal population of gods, ghosts and monkeys residing in the mystical hills on either side.

Our first stop was the western Arashiyama highlands: dry, rolling hills that are sliced apart by the rapid-fueled Katsura-gawa river and accessed by a turn-of-the-century wooden street car.

Dotted along these western hills are a number of quiet palaces, shrines, temples and resting places. This is the wild west of Kyoto, where the green Arashiyama templesof bamboo and ferns overgrow the brick and stone of man-made endeavors.

We explored some of the loveliest temples, wandering through calm gardens, by the trickle of man-made streams and wondering at the perfection of lovingly cared for flower gardens.

The explorersGardens




FlowersCherry blossomsIn the groveArashiyama is the home of one of the most unique ecosystems in the world.

The Arashiyama bamboo garden is acres of old growth bamboo that seem to swallow sound, light and visitors into its depth — nearly like being under water with the diffused light and muggy humidity. Located in the hills around the Tenryu-ji Temple, this grove reaches hundreds of feet into the Kyoto sky — a natural juxtaposition to Tokyo’s glass and steel skyline.

We strolled in silence through the deep green glow, exiting on the far side of the mountain near the banks of the Ōi River. There on the riverside, we relaxed in the dying sun, sipping cold Kirin and watching the long outboard motor longboats transporting locals home from work — again, quite a different type of “rush hour” than you find in the frenzied, overfilled capital.

Arashiyama bamboo groveMosa bamboo

Bamboo lovers

Up close

Bamboo grove Looking over the Oi Rush hour on the Oi Sundowners on the Oi riverPerfect spot for a sundowner On the river

Night falls on Arashiyama

Have Geisha, will travelThe next day it was off to the other side of the bowl. Higashiyama, on the eastern slopes, is where the city’s most famous and important temples sit on the cliffs looking down on civilization.

Kiyomizu-dera is an ancient Buddhist temple built of huge timbers in the trees above the city — the incense smoke from its inner temple floating down through the leaves.

Before you enter the temple proper, a common excursion is to enter the “womb of the Bodhisattva” — a pitch black underground realm where you (blindly) follow the 100m path to a center temple with the softest glowing light on a massive stone, representing the birth of the world.It’s an experience completely unique unto itself.

Out in the sunshine, we explored this massive Swiss-Family-Robinson-like complex, enjoy a meal of cold Soba looking over the ravine. Then it was down the slope, following the pilgrim’s path through the neighborhoods of Ninen-saka and Sannen-saka: traditional quarters where Geisha still roam.

Incense for the gods

Temple proper High in the trees Explorer School trip Temple shrineReady for Soba!Soba date Great spot Om nom!

Sappora time

Geisha district Local celebrity

Heading north, we wandered through the modern Maruyama-koen park, before diving back into the highlands protected by Nanzen-ji.

Nanzen-jiOne of the most important Buddhist temples in the world, the massive complex is dominated by the largest wooden gate in Japan. From its roof, you can look down on the entire city below. But the true splendor isn’t the complex’s massive structures; it is its most diminutive and understated.

In the foothills above the temple, there’s a tiny path that runs under an ancient aqueduct that supplied the monks with fresh water all year long.

You can follow the dirt trail past a quiet cemetery and up into the hills, where eventually you come to a small clearing with a tranquil temple and 100m high waterfall.

With no one around besides the calling birds and splash of the water, this is truly place where you can feel closest to nirvana. It may be the single most peaceful place on earth.

Nanzen-ji gate Touch the sky Selfie at the gateTravelers at the gate Secret waterfall Secret path Come on in The secret path begins Cemetary Shrine Route to the secret shrine

Waterfall Ancient shower Color The guardian of the shrine Selfie at the shrine Exploring

Quiet and full of thought, we made our way back into the world of the living. Kyoto city has the same energy and wonder as does every Japanese city, but without the frenzy that you find in Tokyo, Osaka, Fukuoka. In fact, it’s most touristed locations are the several “Geisha districts” — tiny alleyways that lead through the city offering tiny bars, sushi stalls and of course homes where the Geishas entertain their guests.

It’s here that we ended our few days in this amazing city: following the blood red lanterns and flashing neon that — try as they might — couldn’t erase the memory of green that was stained into our minds and souls.

Lanterns Fresh and ready SushiGoodnight Nighttime shrine Streets of Kyoto by night


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