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What to See and Do in Kyoto

Posted by Ashley Atkinson-Leon on 14th Apr 2016

Kyoto is a beautiful city in Japan with an ancient past. If you appreciate seeing firsthand how the foundations of a culture were laid as well as centuries-old architecture, you can’t miss it.

Probably the easiest and most cost-effective way to get to Kyoto from Tokyo is to take the Shinkansen (high speed train). Along the way, you’ll be rewarded with sights of the famous Mt. Fuji (known affectionately as Fuji-san in Japan) and the sprawling countryside. Honshu – which is the biggest island of Japan, and consists of prominent cities like Kyoto, Tokyo, and Hiroshima – seems like such a small island, and yet the people of Japan have managed to preserve green spaces throughout the area, making it a real treat when you travel between urban centers.

If you want to experience what it’s like to live in a traditional Japanese house, you should consider staying at the Tani House. Complete with thin sliding doors and tatami mats, you can choose between sleeping in traditional beds or on futons. It does lack central heating so if you’re going in the fall or wintertime, you may need to pack extra layers.

Many of the individual rooms (like the bedrooms and living area) have small heaters, which turned out to be very necessary when we stayed there in December (when the weather was in the 30s-40s). It still never seemed worth it to get up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom because I would practically freeze to death as soon as I slid open the door! However, if you bring along an Immersion Heater, you can always warm up in the morning with some hot tea.

Still, you can’t beat the location. For example, just a few minutes’ walk away from the house is the Daitoku-ji temple complex. Built in the 1300s, you can see where one of the first founders of the tea ceremony lived, and you’ll also find lots of beautiful statues and orange torii (gates that spiritually purify the individual after they have walked through) scattered throughout. It’s an exhilarating but also spiritual place.

Also nearby are onsen (public baths), which we used every night because the Tani House didn’t have a working bathtub at the time. However, this turned out to be an onsen that many of the locals clearly thought should only be for their use, and the older women there very critical of every move we made.

They glared at us even if we did everything right (i.e. thoroughly washed before going into the hot tubs, didn’t bring a towel into the bathing area, dried our feet before walking around, didn’t shave, rinsed after going into each sauna, spoke in a quiet voice, put our clothes into the designated basket, didn’t stand in front of the lockers, etc.). It was hard to enjoy the rejuvenating effects of the public baths when we felt like we couldn’t even take a shower correctly. However, not all onsen are like this. It should also be mentioned that the men in our group didn’t have the same issues on their side.

Of course, a visit to Kyoto isn’t complete without seeing the Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion), which is one of the most famous Buddhist temples in Japan, and just a stone’s throw from the Tani House. Certainly, pictures can’t capture the monumental presence or the architectural expertise of the Golden Pavilion. The grounds are meticulously cared for and beautiful enough by themselves to say nothing of the actual building itself. The pond on which the Golden Pavilion rests reflects the shimmering golden exterior and seems to absorb and magnify the rays of the sun. On the way out, don’t forget to buy charms from the miko (Shinto priestesses) which are supposed to bring “good health and long life” to their owners.

I would also recommend seeing the Sanjusangen-do (House of the Lotus King), which is simply astounding in its breadth and design. The temple is primarily dedicated to Kannon, who is better known in Western cultures as Kwan Yin, the Bodhisattva of compassion. We saw thousands of statues of her eleven heads and multiple outstretched arms, some of which were larger than life. One statue in particular was created over 800 years ago, and is considered a national treasure. You’ll also see statues of Chinese-inspired guardian deities.

In regards to Kannon’s multiple arms and heads, the story goes that when she tried to encompass the world’s suffering, her arms shattered, and when she tried to listen to all the sounds of humanity’s suffering, her head shattered. In both instances, the Buddha took mercy on her and granted her extra arms and heads. As a side note, we were advised not to take pictures due to the religious sanctity of this temple.

Finally, if you want to try to catch a glimpse of modern-day geiko (geisha), stop by Gion, the district in which they traditionally serve their clients. Even if you don’t see one, you’ll still get plenty of chances to go shopping (you’ll probably want to buy a coin purse or wallet so you can keep track of all of your Yen – many of which are coins).

While I was there, I bought a blue fan that shows a white bunny running towards the moon (so kawaii!), as well as a stuffed Hello Kitty plushie and a Catbus lantern (of My Neighbor Totoro fame) for some friends. Also, we ate this kind of spongy French chocolate that tasted delicious. You also have to take advantage of the purikura (photo booths) and take lots of pictures with stickers and fun backgrounds with your friends. Be careful, though, they’ll go so fast that you’ll just want to keep taking more and more!