Having spent some time in Osaka and Nara, I hopped onto the Kintetsu Rail and travelled a short distance inland to the city of Kyoto. I was excited to reach Kyoto, a city steeped in history, and home to many fascinating and photogenic attractions scattered around the metropolitan area. Kyoto is also renowned for being one of the best places in the country to see Japanese cherry blossom.
Previously the nation’s capital for around a thousand years, until Tokyo took over the honour in 1869, Kyoto has played an extremely important role in the development of Japan. As a result of its prominent position, some of Japan’s finest palaces, temples and other monuments were built in Kyoto. Collectively they have been made into a UNESCO listed World Heritage Site, and their importance was recognised by the US government. So much so, they avoided bombing the city during World War II.
After settling into my accommodation, and with four days ahead of me to explore, I set out to see what the city had to offer. My first stop was Arashiyama, a picturesque area on the western edge of the city. This is where the mountains meet the city, creating a beautiful natural landscape. The area is also home to bamboo groves, which was the main focus for my visit. After entering the grove along a footpath, you suddenly find yourself dwarfed by thousands of giant bamboo plants, stretching high up into the sky. There are so many, that once inside the bamboo grove you see nothing else. With their thin, smooth trunks, the experience is very different to that of any normal forest I’ve ever encountered. It’s best to visit Arashiyama bamboo forest early in the morning, when it’s less populated with tourists and at its most peaceful.
Next on my list of places to visit was Fushimi Inari-taisha – an extremely beautiful shrine dedicated to the god Inari. Inari is a Shinto god, and unlike Buddhism, Japan’s other major religion which was imported, Shinto is an indigenous belief system. The religion is only practised in Japan, and this particular shrine is one of the oldest in existence. There are a number of buildings within the temple complex, but in my opinion, the Torii paths are perhaps the most striking of all the structures. A common feature of Shinto shrines, gate like structures at their entrance mark the transition from the profane world to the sacred one. However, because there are so many at Fushimi, they are arranged in a row to form a sort of tunnel. It’s quite an impressive sight to behold.
After visiting a Shinto temple, I naturally wanted to experience a Buddhist temple too. And that meant visiting one of the country’s most famous – the Golden Pavilion or ‘Kinkaku-ji’. This three story building sits in the middle of a landscaped garden and overlooks a large pond. What’s most impressive however, is that much of its exterior is covered in gold leaf. I spent some time wandering around the picturesque grounds, taking photos of the sunlight reflecting off the temple walls, before moving on to another temple, Kiyomizu-dera. This UNESCO listed World Heritage Site, which was built in 778 AD, is located halfway up Mt. Otowa, one of the peaks in Kyoto’s Higashiyama mountain range. Kiyomizu-dera is nestled above a waterfall, and the locals believe the water has the power to grant wishes to anyone who drinks it. The main building – which is made of wood and constructed without using a single nail – overlooks the city and is surrounded by beautiful cherry blossom trees.
In Kyoto, you have the opportunity to experience many incredible buildings, and it certainly gave me a feel for the region’s rich culture. But my next destination is arguably the most impressive. The Imperial Palace was home to the Japanese emperors for centuries and it is as grand as you would expect an emperor’s residence to be. The monarch no longer lives there, and the complex has burnt down several times over the years. So what you see – although still a couple of hundred years old – is a relatively recent and largely ceremonial construction. But this doesn’t make it any less nice to look at however, and I spent a good few hours exploring. Afterwards, I took a walk through the palace gardens, an experience made even more delightful thanks to the abundance of pink cherry trees in full bloom.
All good things must come to an end, and my last day in Kyoto was spent in the Gion district. This neighbourhood is one of the oldest in Kyoto and walking its medieval streets makes you feel like you have stepped back in time. I wandered through the streets until I came to Yasaka, where I stopped to admire the ornate temple buildings and learn a bit more about the Shinto faith. I then continued on to Maruyama Park, which is located directly behind the shrine and, as I soon discovered, surrounded by a sea of pink, ground zero for cherry blossoms. Satisfied that I had spent my four days in Kyoto well, it was time to move on. My next stop was Tokyo, and that meant traveling on the Nozomi bullet train. Capable of reaching speeds up to 300 km/h, an opportunity to ride one of the fastest trains in the world was not to be missed.
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