Kyoto, Japan

[ 0 ] November 4, 2012 |

Kyoto is a place you go to breathe, meditate and marvel. The wonders of this city have the potential to calm even tightly wound souls and to transform busy minds into places of peace.

As the well-preserved cultural capital of Japan, Kyoto was fortunate to be spared from massive destruction during World War II. Due to personal intervention by the Secretary of War, Kyoto was removed from the top of the target list for the atomic bomb. The Secretary had honeymooned in Kyoto and at least partially perhaps understood the cultural significance of the city.

Kyoto is home to a plethora of famous temples and shrines. Most of these also incorporate zen gardens into their footprints.

Zen Garden Walking Path

While I think the meaning of “zen” can be quite personal, a “zen garden” is a space decorated with sand, rocks, and other natural materials in lines or patters to create a meditative environment. They can also be called Japanese rock gardens.We visited quite a few of these peaceful temples and zen gardens. To describe a few:

A&P All Zen

Kinkaku-ji, the temple of the Golden Pavilion, is a three-story structure overlooking a large pond. The top two floors are covered in gold leaf. It was once the retirement complex of a military general or shogun. According to his will, the property was to become a zen temple after his death. Extensive gardens surround the main structure and pond.


Kinkakuji Grounds

Entrance Ticket to Kinkakuji

Nanzen-ji temple’s main gate, Sanmon, is a National Treasure of Japan. This is a large complex of temple buildings.

Sanmon- main gate

Up a hill and through a small gate in a bamboo grove, once the home of an ex-samurai, is Shisen-do temple. The gardens were originally laid out by the owner, Jozan, and remain in the same forms today.

Shisen-do Temple Entrance

Shisen-do Temple

Pillowy Bush

Shisen-do Gardens

One of the most famous gardens is the dry landscaped Ryoan-ji temple and zen rock garden. It is best known for its simple arrangement of gravel and rocks. No one knows who first laid the 15 rocks, but no one plans to change them. The minimalism of the space inspires contemplation and reflection. Just next to the garden is the main meditation hall.

Ryoan-ji Rock Zen Garden

Reflecting by the Garden

Meditation Hall

Peaceful Path

Moss Covered Grounds

Japanese Couple in the Garden

The Philosopher’s Walk, a cherry tree lined pedestrian walking path along the canal connects Nanzen-ji and Ginkaku-ji temples. The path gained this name because an influential Kyoto University professor and philosopher supposedly used this path for daily meditation. We enjoyed it as well.

Philosopher’s Walk

Taking in the Philosopher’s Walk

Just off of the Philosopher’s Walk the Honen-in temple is a calm space that enables you to slow down and think.

Honen-in Temple Entrance

Sand Garden

The Ginkaku-ji temple is known as the Temple of the Silver Pavilion. When the main temple structure was being built, the original plan was to cover the roof in silver foil. Construction was stopped during the Onin war, and when progress resumed that portion of the plan was never completed. The property also has a notable sand garden. The structured sand pile is said to symbolize Mount Fuji. The property’s wooded grounds are covered in multiple varieties of moss.


Silver Pavilion

Ginkaku-ji Treetops

Silver Pavilion Grounds

Mt. Fuji-like Sand

Sand Garden

Beyond temples and gardens central Kyoto is a vibrant city quickly developing with the times. The city is laid out in a grid pattern encompassing multiple districts.

The Gion district is an ancient gem surviving amid the modernity emerging around it.  This area is more commonly known as the famed geisha district. Most of Gion’s architecture consists of traditional wooden two story homes side by side. This district houses many very expensive restaurants and teahouses. It is common to see geisha’s in full makeup and dress walking around this area. While once thought of in less respectable ways, geisha’s today are extensively well-trained traditional artists. These Japanese female entertainers act as hostesses and perform arts such as classical music and dance.

Traditional Japanese Home

Streets of Gion

Gion Streets

Expensive Gion Restaurant

Ladies in Kimonos

We spent almost an entire day exploring the Nishiki Market. The food portion of this market covers five blocks in a narrow long covered shopping street. Almost all of the stores specialize in only one type of food, and everything sold is harvested or procured locally. The market sprawls beyond the one street to incorporate stores carrying everything from steel knives and fancy chopsticks to specialty matcha (green tea) and Japanese handicrafts. It was a lively market packed with people.

Nishiki Market



Japanese Steel Knives

Tiny Fish Garnish

Beautiful Mismatched Dishes

Kyoto in the Rain

Kyoto is famous for a number of culinary delights. We immediately became enthralled with Japanese food and stuck to eating it exclusively for our entire time in Japan. Never before have we seen fresh raw tuna sold out of a vending machine concept that was divine. We explored many local restaurants and shied away from anywhere that had an English menu. Regardless of what we were ordering, most meals came with rice, miso soup and a small pile of pickled radish or daikon. We did give in to crispy panko coated tempura dishes a few times, but more frequently we stuck with sushi. The term sushi officially refers to the rice used, but colloquially the term is now used to mean raw fish served on top of a finger-sized bed of rice. Chirashi sushi is a bowl or box of sushi rice topped with a variety of sashimi. Maki sushi is when the rice and fish/vegetable are rolled up in a seaweed wrapper (nori).  Nigiri sushi is the most common form of sushi with raw fish on top of a finger of rice stuck together with a dab of wasabi. Temaki sushi is a hand-roll or cone shaped seaweed wrap. Sashimi is simply raw fish served as it. Sashimi is obviously the most pure form of eating fish and the sushi chef (itamae) typically uses special cuts to enhance the appearance of the fish. Knowing this was the best of the best country to eat sushi- we tried more than a dozen types of fish. At a sushi bar one night, sitting directly in front of the itamae, we quickly built rapport using broken English, basic Japanese and gestures and left the fate of our evening meal to him. He graciously led us on a sushi journey that independently or without an expert’s nudge we never would have tackled. There was some serious peer pressure happening, but no bite left us disappointed.

Deliciousness out of a Vending Machine

Japanese Vending Machine

Japanese Fast Food

Our final night in Kyoto we stayed at a traditional Japanese inn, a ryoken. Our ryoken room consisted of tatami mats bound to the floor, a futon for lounging and a private bath. At night we placed our bedding, which was provided in a hidden closet, directly on the tatami mats. We each had a futon mattress (a slightly padded mat), a perfectly weighted duvet cover, and a heavy buckwheat pillow. The bathroom had a fancy toilet and a small, very deep soaker tub. We also traded our clothes for yukatas, loose cotton kimonos. It was one of the best nights of sleep we can remember. In the morning we had a Japanese breakfast that consisted of salmon, eggs, rice, soup, seaweed, pickled veggies, and tea. Sleeping on the floor never felt so good!

Ryokan Room Tatami Mats

Yukatas- Light Kimono

Ryoken Bedding

Japanese Breakfast



Tags: , , , , ,

Category: Alison's Blog, Asia, Blog, Destinations, Featured Posts, Japan

Leave a Reply