While there’s plenty to see and do in Kyoto, there are also some historical temples and buildings—some built as early as the 8th century—outside the city center that are worth taking the time to travel to. See our suggestions below.
Uji is on the outskirts of Kyoto, and is the site of The Tale of Genji by Lady Shikibu Murasaki, which follows the royal intrigues of the Heian court. Considered the first novel in the world, there are some 400 characters, it ends mid-sentence, and it was probably written in phonetic Japanese letters (rather than the Chinese symbols that are used today). Nearly a millennium later, it’s still a very interesting book, even for a modern audience, and gives us a rare glimpse into the customs and beliefs of the Heian court at the time.
Of particular note is the fact that Heian aristocratic women were allowed to be educated and hold land, and indeed, the royal line was traced through matrilineal descent (with some claiming descent from the Sun Goddess herself). Still, even though they enjoyed privileges that women in many other parts of the world did not, they were not officially allowed to hold political posts, and much of their happiness was to be rooted in their husband's happiness, if we're to believe anything written in The Tale of Genji.
Additionally, there’s a Buddhist temple called Byodo-in in Uji that has a beautiful rock garden and Shinto shrines. Phoenix Hall, constructed in the 11th century, is considered a National Treasure, and the entire temple is a World Heritage Site. Since you’re likely to be walking around most of the day, you might consider a lightweight day pack to carry all your belongings.
Also on the outskirts of Kyoto is Nijo Castle, which was built in the 1600s for the Tokugawa shogunate (the last Japanese military government of the feudal era). It’s obvious where a lot of Japan’s money was invested at the time: into the government’s quarters! The architects actually created wooden floors that would creak so the inhabitants would know when there was an intruder. The moats and rock walls were extensive as well. Some of the paintings, painted with actual gold flakes, are still preserved to this day.
Finally, take a stroll over to Heian Shrine, the famous shrine that is dedicated to the Imperial Family of the Heian Era. It has a huge orange torii at the entrance, and you’ll feel quite humble next to it. It also boasts a renowned garden along with several turtle ponds.
Todai-ji is a famous temple complex that hosts several of Japan’s National Treasures. It is a very old complex, having been built in the 700s, and its Buddhist monks were extremely influential in the government during that time period. The Daibutsu, nearly 50 feet tall, is an impressive bronze statue of the Buddha, and there are many statues depicting Buddhist guardians defeating enemies as well.
Todai-ji is located in Nara, which is known for its deer that wander the streets. They are also considered National Treasures so no one is allowed to harm them. Some of them walk down the street, hang out in front of temples, and try to eat from the food stands. You can even pet them!
The second temple in Nara worth visiting is Yakushi-ji, which houses the largest and olden wooden structure in recorded history. This one was also built in the 700s, and contains Buddhist paintings and other works of art. The Eastern Pagoda is an ancient building made of muted blues and whites, and stands in contrast to the nearby modern orange and gold pagodas across from it. All of them offer unique architectural perspectives that reflect the history of the area.
If you’re missing American food, you can check out Mos Burger, which is a popular fast food restaurant that serves hot dogs and burgers, some with an Asian twist. You can also get melon pop and matcha lattes. Tip: Bring along a clip stash so all your Yen coins are organized and easy to access.
Random thoughts: What’s always been amazing to me is that humans have managed to create languages that look nothing like other ones (in terms of actual text), and yet contain similar sounds like “mi” and “ya.” But then there are others sounds that are very difficult for non-native speakers to imitate, such as the Japanese “tsu” and rolling Spanish “r.” And possibly the most beautiful thing of all is that even if we don’t understand one another’s language, we try to.
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