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Kyoto Journal

Surrounded by mountains on three sides, Kyoto is at the top of any visitor's list of favorite sites in Japan. While the center of town feels like many modern Japanese cities, Kyoto is also home to over 2,000 shrines and temples and 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites. This is the place to find Japan's most striking traditional architecture and sublime moss gardens. Kyoto was home to the Imperial family until the capital was moved to Tokyo in 1868, and their exquisite palaces and villas remain to be explored. It is a city that encourages wandering. In the quiet side streets and in the temple gardens, you can find elements of quintessential Japan: wooden houses with bamboo detail, perfectly pruned pine trees, a stone basin with dipping ladle, a small shrine to honor the deities. Kyoto is the center of cultural Japan, and a favorite destination for Japanese of all ages. We recently spent a week in this magical city, and left knowing we would return to explore even more of its compelling sites.

Fushimi Inari Shrine - Fushimi Inari is one of Kyoto's most distinctive and popular shrines. As you walk to its entrance, your see the festival atmosphere created by the vendors selling souvenirs and treats to the mostly student visitors. The buildings are painted in traditional bright vermillion red and hint as to what is to come. The fox is the 'protector' of the shrine and you see its image in different areas. While we were there I saw two young ladies in official dress walking across the courtyard in perfect precision. Look at how their identical posture and gait. And they weren't doing this for tourists. Amazing.

Ryoan-ji Temple and Gardens - If you visit Kyoto, Ryoan-ji Temple will certainly be on your list. It is home to Japan's most famous rock garden, designed in the 15th century. Fifteen rocks are set in a bed of raked gravel, surrounded by 3 ancient clay walls and a wooden veranda perfect for contemplative viewing. If only it weren't one of the popular attractions, one could meditate on the meaning of these rocks for a very long time. I first visited Ryoan-ji with my mother in 1986, and it brought her to tears. We were there in the early morning, without anyone else, and in the quiet you could feel the spirit of the place. It's a little more difficult now, as it is overrun by visitors wanting to see this amazing site. I don't blame them. It is still well worth the visit.

I also love the interior spaces, which are open to the outside, as are all temples, with only deep roof overhangs protecting them from the elements.

The other wonderful features about Ryoan-ji are its beautiful mossy forest and water lily pond. The trees are carefully supported by wooden crutches so they can continue to be part of the forest's beauty. As we walked past the pond, I couldn't help but think of Monet's Garden in Giverney, outside of Paris. Monet loved Japanese woodblock prints and had a large collection in his house. When he designed his own garden, he constructed a water lily pond with a Japanese style bridge and wisteria and willows. While he never traveled to Japan, he got it right. They are essentially one and the same in spirit.

Vintage Obi Sashes for Sale at Toji Temple Flea Market - There are two great flea markets in Kyoto held on the 21st and 25th of EVERY month. We timed our visit to coincide with these markets, and on the 21st, we set out for Toji Temple. I've been there twice before, so I knew what to expect. Lots and lots of low priced antiques, bric-a-brac and anything else you might wish for, set on the grounds of an otherwise nice quiet temple.

The number of booths is overwhelming, and each has really interesting antiques or hand made items. We didn't have time to spend the whole day, but chose instead to wander through the aisles, capturing the spirit of this special place. Scattered among the vendors, the kimono sellers. It's astonishing to see piles of silk kimonos priced at $10. each. I'm in heaven...

Gion - Tucked between the temples and downtown is Gion. This is the famous geisha district where traditional wooden houses have been turned into discreet entertainment enclaves. But to get there, you have to go through the typical chaos of postwar electric wired Kyoto. The contrasts are always striking.

Udon at Omen - Just outside of Eikando begins the Path of Philosophy, named after a famous scholar took his strolls along the cherry tree-lined path to supposedly contemplate big ideas. In the early spring, the trees are clouds of pink blossoms. So we wandered up the path, contemplating where we should eat lunch. Fortunately, Omen was in sight. It serves only udon noodles, no soba, so we were in for a treat. Though entirely different from soba noodles, udon noodles are just as delicious.

Nanzen-ji Temple in the Northeast Hills - Most of the temples are located on the edge of the city, and conveniently within walking distance of each other. On our last day in Kyoto we visited a number of temples and sights in the northeast area of the city. The first stop was Nanzen-ji temple. It was originally built as a retirement villa around 1200, but was later turned into a temple. Demolished in 1460, it was quickly rebuilt and now is one of the more important temples as it is home to the Rinzai sect of Buddhism.

Bamboo Grove at Tofuku-ji Temple - We wanted to visit some temples in the southern part of Kyoto, so we took a bus to Tofuku-ji Temple (ji is the Japanese word for temple). Kyoto is a rather small city, neatly laid out in a very accessible grid. It has an efficient subway system and its bus service is fantastic. The routes are easy to follow and because tourism is so important to this city, all the busses clearly show their destination, including whatever temple(s) may be on the way. There's even a regular bus #100, called the Raku bus, that passes so many temples it has an English recording, pointing out the sights.

There are more than 2,000 temples and shrines in Kyoto, 17 of which are World Heritage sites. Most of the temples are on the outskirts of the downtown area, nestled in the surrounding hills, but a few are in close by neighborhoods. I had never been to Tofuku-ji before, and it turned out to be one of my favorites, perhaps because there were no crowds and it was the perfect mix of impressive buildings, beautiful rock and moss gardens, and an incredible Japanese maple forest. And just outside the grounds was an impressive bamboo forest.

Water Basin - It's the small things you remember. The mossy enclave, the quiet courtyard, a simple stone basin of water with a bamboo ladle for drinking.

A Kimono with Vibrant Colors for a Summer Outfit - Right across the street from the market is Takashimaya, an up-scale department store catering to Kyoto's discerning clientele. We found the kimono department and the sales ladies were kind enough to let me drool over and photograph their wares. These are not tourist costumes by any means. These are for special events and parties though they also had everyday ones and men's kimonos for those who want to wear traditional dress on a regular basis. I've always loved how the ladies put the kimono and obi (sash) together. Never matching, yet in perfect harmony. The prices? Starting in the low thousands (each one!) and up to $15,000. The kimonos are still unsewn, and the fabric is simply basted together.

Finding Kyoto Culture: The Nishiki Market - The minute we arrived in Kyoto we felt we were in another world. While Tokyo is all sleek, modern and professional, mixed with crazy high energy chaos and pockets of ancient tradition, Kyoto is all about refined Japanese culture. The markets sell fancy hand crafted foods and anything else you might desire and you clearly feel you are in the center of Japan's textile industry. Upon our arrival in Kyoto we took the subway to the center of town to visit Nishiki market. The vendors there sell the best of everything Kyoto has to offer. Here is the typical packaging of fine foods.

Katsura Imperial Villa - One afternoon we had an appointment to visit Katsura Imperial Villa. The villa and its gardens were constructed in 1624 by the emperor's brother and is considered to be the finest example of traditional Japanese architecture and landscape gardens. The buildings themselves are made with natural materials: thatch, bamboo, stone and every detail was carefully thought out: the contrast of one kind of wood next to another, the way a fence post is tied, the slope of the roof. This is a study in precise detailing, yet everything looks so perfect in nature. The gardens are also designed with extraordinary thought. As you stroll along the path, every turn brings a different iconic scene that is complete harmony and balance. The trees have been planted and pruned to be the most perfect accent or complement to their surroundings.

You need special permission to visit, and the one hour tour is highly chaperoned. We visited Katsura on our last trip, and I was excited to see it again. I was even more thrilled to learn their no photography rule had been lifted, so I took as many pictures as I could. It was a privilege to see this amazing place and I hope to revisit again in the future. Almost all the visitors were Japanese, and the tour was in Japanese, but audio guides were provided. We walk on perfectly laid stones along the same paths and bridges of the Imperial family four centuries ago.

Tofuku-ji Temple - Each building at the Tofuku-ji site was different, serving various purposes. I love the strong graphic quality of the temple's architecture.

A Gardener at Nanzen-ji Temple - Most of the temples are located on the edge of the city, and conveniently within walking distance of each other. On our last day in Kyoto we visited a number of temples and sights in the northeast area of the city. The first stop was Nanzen-ji temple. It was originally built as a retirement villa around 1200, but was later turned into a temple. Demolished in 1460, it was quickly rebuilt and now is one of the more important temples as it is home to the Rinzai sect of Buddhism. Here, as at almost every temple we visited, were gardeners in traditional outfits meticulously caring for the mossy grounds.

Finding Kyoto Culture: The Nishiki Market - The minute we arrived in Kyoto we felt we were in another world. While Tokyo is all sleek, modern and professional, mixed with crazy high energy chaos and pockets of ancient tradition, Kyoto is all about refined Japanese culture. The markets sell fancy hand crafted foods and anything else you might desire and you clearly feel you are in the center of Japan's textile industry. Upon our arrival in Kyoto we took the subway to the center of town to visit Nishiki market. The vendors there sell the best of everything Kyoto has to offer. You can also buy traditionally made fans for everyday or formal use.

Fushimi Inari Shrine - Fushimi Inari is one of Kyoto's most distinctive and popular shrines. As you walk to its entrance, your see the festival atmosphere created by the vendors selling souvenirs and treats to the mostly student visitors. The buildings are painted in traditional bright vermillion red and hint as to what is to come. The fox is the 'protector' of the shrine and you see its image in different areas.

But this is what we come for: The 10,000(!) stunning vermillion gates that wind through the forest and up the hill. The beloved, ancient shrine is dedicated to the goddess of agriculture and prosperity and the arches were paid for by the thankful.

Mr. and Mrs. Sushi - Upon our arrival in Kyoto, we were on the hunt for sushi. In the downtown area is Pontocho, a popular restaurant/entertainment area that tourists and locals visit. The hard part was deciding which place to choose. Many of the restaurants were large and seemed to cater to tourists or businessmen on expense accounts, which was not our style. So we wandered through the narrow streets until we came upon a very small sushi place, and sat down for our supper. The owner was the chef and his wife the waitress. A few local folks were at the counter, talking to them as if they were old friends. A good sign, we thought. So with great anticipation, we ordered our meal. It was brought one or two items at a time, and as we finished, we ordered more. We're not hardcore sushi eaters (no sea urchin for us) but we do love the basic ones. It was a wonderful experience for our first Kyoto dinner.

Japanese Pine - Japanese gardens are unmatched in their attention to detail. Every tree is trimmed to perfection, and even large pines take on a bonsai quality.

Where to Buy Your Kimono - Right across the street from the market is Takashimaya, an up-scale department store catering to Kyoto's discerning clientele. We found the kimono department and the sales ladies were kind enough to let me drool over and photograph their wares. These are not tourist costumes by any means. These are for special events and parties though they also had everyday ones and men's kimonos for those who want to wear traditional dress on a regular basis. I've always loved how the ladies put the kimono and obi (sash) together. Never matching, yet in perfect harmony. The prices? Starting in the low thousands (each one!) and up to $15,000. The obi sashes were even more expensive, as many were embroidered with precious metal threads. There was even a traditional tatami mat alcove for trying on these beautiful outfits.

Lotus Basin - A quiet moment. A simple pottery basin, this time with lotus.

Vintage Fans for Sale at Toji Temple Flea Market - There are two great flea markets in Kyoto held on the 21st and 25th of EVERY month. We timed our visit to coincide with these markets, and on the 21st, we set out for Toji Temple. I've been there twice before, so I knew what to expect. Lots and lots of low priced antiques, bric-a-brac and anything else you might wish for, set on the grounds of an otherwise nice quiet temple.

Ryoan-ji Temple and Gardens - If you visit Kyoto, Ryoan-ji Temple will certainly be on your list. It is home to Japan's most famous rock garden, designed in the 15th century. Fifteen rocks are set in a bed of raked gravel, surrounded by 3 ancient clay walls and a wooden veranda perfect for contemplative viewing. If only it weren't one of the popular attractions, one could meditate on the meaning of these rocks for a very long time. I first visited Ryoan-ji with my mother in 1986, and it brought her to tears. We were there in the early morning, without anyone else, and in the quiet you could feel the spirit of the place. It's a little more difficult now, as it is overrun by visitors wanting to see this amazing site. I don't blame them. It is still well worth the visit. I also love the interior spaces, which are open to the outside, as are all temples, with only deep roof overhangs protecting them from the elements.

Traditional Lunch - It's easy to find traditional Japanese cuisine in Kyoto. The ingredients change with the seasons. This was a simple lunch we had after visiting Ryoan-ji and the Imperial Palace.

Gion - Tucked between the temples and downtown is Gion. This is the famous geisha district where traditional houses have been turned into discreet entertainment enclaves. The exquisite architecture shows a reverence for wood.

In the evening the geisha can be seen going to meet their dinner companions for an eventing of dining and musical entertainment. One night we were at a small sushi restaurant and a businessman arrived with his geisha, who was dressed to the nines in the traditional fancy regalia with the perfect kimono, makeup and wig. No one in the restaurant blinked an eye, except for me.

The Philosopher's Path - Just outside of Eikando begins the Path of Philosophy, named after a famous scholar took his strolls along the cherry tree-lined path to supposedly contemplate big ideas. In the early spring, the trees are clouds of pink blossoms. So we wandered up the path, contemplating where we should eat lunch. The path is about a mile along a quiet stream.

Tofuku-ji Temple - Each building at the Tofuku-ji site was different, serving various purposes. Japanese gardens have a lot of symbolism in the choice and placement of materials. Trees and shrubs are carefully pruned with traditional methods, so that man controls nature, creating a perfect setting.

Inside one building was a quiet rock garden with hills of moss and on the other side, a famous checkerboard moss garden designed by a monk hundreds of years ago. The floors were worn smooth by slippers-only footsteps.

Vintage Obis For Sale at the Toji Temple Flea Market - There are two great flea markets in Kyoto held on the 21st and 25th of EVERY month. We timed our visit to coincide with these markets, and on the 21st, we set out for Toji Temple. I've been there twice before, so I knew what to expect. Lots and lots of low priced antiques, bric-a-brac and anything else you might wish for, set on the grounds of an otherwise nice quiet temple.

The number of booths is overwhelming, and each has really interesting antiques or hand made items. We didn't have time to spend the whole day, but chose instead to wander through the aisles, capturing the spirit of this special place. Scattered among the vendors, the kimono sellers. It's astonishing to see piles of silk kimonos priced at $10. each. I'm in heaven...

Tradition in Gion - As we wandered the narrow streets, we came across several wedding couples that came to be photographed in this picturesque neighborhood. As with any wedding, there was lots of professional help to make the perfect photo for a lifetime of memories. I loved how important it was for these couples to be dressed in traditional outfits. And they all looked so cute.

Small Moments at the Toji Temple - In front of the temple, the tradition of paying respect continues.

Ginkaku-ji, The Silver Pavilion - Near the Philosopher's Path is the popular temple Ginkaku-ji. While referred to as the Silver Pavilion, it is not silver at all. The structure was built in the 15th century as a retirement villa, and was supposed to be covered in silver. It does have one of the most recognizable zen gardens though, with a large, truncated cone made of gravel, made to symbolize Mt Fuji. The verandas and paths throughout the garden were designed for tea ceremonies and views by moonlight. Imagine being part of Kyoto's aristocracy and invited to enjoy such a magnificent setting.

Of course, now you can share it with a few enthusiastic visitors. But there are moments when you can almost..just imagine.

While I roamed the garden a group of school girls asked if they could ask me a few questions for their survey. They were writing a report about visitors to Japan, and were thrilled to learn I was from the US, and in particular, New York City. And they were especially excited when I told them it was my 4th trip to Japan. As I left, they took my picture.

Katsura Imperial Villa - One afternoon we had an appointment to visit Katsura Imperial Villa. The villa and its gardens were constructed in 1624 by the emperor's brother and is considered to be the finest example of traditional Japanese architecture and landscape gardens. The buildings themselves are made with natural materials: thatch, bamboo, stone and every detail was carefully thought out: the contrast of one kind of wood next to another, the way a fence post is tied, the slope of the roof. This is a study in precise detailing, yet everything looks so perfect in nature. The gardens are also designed with extraordinary thought. As you stroll along the path, every turn brings a different iconic scene that is complete harmony and balance. The trees have been planted and pruned to be the most perfect accent or complement to their surroundings.

You need special permission to visit, and the one hour tour is highly chaperoned. We visited Katsura on our last trip, and I was excited to see it again. I was even more thrilled to learn their no photography rule had been lifted, so I took as many pictures as I could. It was a privilege to see this amazing place and I hope to revisit again in the future. Almost all the visitors were Japanese, and the tour was in Japanese, but audio guides were provided. We walk on perfectly laid stones along the same paths and bridges of the Imperial family four centuries ago.

Bamboo is used everywhere, and there are many styles of fences used, all rustic, but sophisticated.

Textile Shop in Gion - Gion is the center of Kyoto's better antiques stores, and there were two next door to each other specializing in antique textiles. While I loved exploring the flea markets for textiles, the best of the best is all here. Both shop owners were extremely nice and allowed me to photograph their special wares. It was more than overwhelming. I left with a specimen or two, but it is the memory of the visit I will treasure.

The Imperial Palace - Right in the center of Kyoto is the Imperial Palace. Kyoto was the capital city of Japan until the mid 19th century when it was moved to Tokyo. This palace was built in the mid 1700's and has a magnificent presence. Because it was home to the Imperial family, we needed special permission and make an appointment to visit. The only tour available was in Japanese, but we didn't mind.

I love the Imperial Palace. The formality, huge scale, and the contrast of the black and white and vermillion structures is breathtaking. Every detail is planned, including how the openings in the walls perfectly frame the view in the distance.

On the Raku Bus #100 - Kyoto is a city filled with tradition. On the Raku bus #100, which follows a route close by many of its temples and shrines, we spotted monks wearing the traditional geta wooden shoes. These would be the same kind of shoes worn by the Imperial Family as they walked on their stone paths at Katsura Imperial Villa.

Katsura Imperial Villa - One afternoon we had an appointment to visit Katsura Imperial Villa. The villa and its gardens were constructed in 1624 by the emperor's brother and is considered to be the finest example of traditional Japanese architecture and landscape gardens. The buildings themselves are made with natural materials: thatch, bamboo, stone and every detail was carefully thought out: the contrast of one kind of wood next to another, the way a fence post is tied, the slope of the roof. This is a study in precise detailing, yet everything looks so perfect in nature. The gardens are also designed with extraordinary thought. As you stroll along the path, every turn brings a different iconic scene that is complete harmony and balance. The trees have been planted and pruned to be the most perfect accent or complement to their surroundings.

You need special permission to visit, and the one hour tour is highly chaperoned. We visited Katsura on our last trip, and I was excited to see it again. I was even more thrilled to learn their no photography rule had been lifted, so I took as many pictures as I could. It was a privilege to see this amazing place and I hope to revisit again in the future. Almost all the visitors were Japanese, and the tour was in Japanese, but audio guides were provided. We walk on perfectly laid stones along the same paths and bridges of the Imperial family four centuries ago.

Textile Shop in Gion - Gion is the center of Kyoto's better antiques stores, and there were two next door to each other specializing in antique textiles. While I loved exploring the flea markets for textiles, the best of the best is all here. Both shop owners were extremely nice and allowed me to photograph their special wares. It was more than overwhelming. I left with a specimen or two, but it is the memory of the visit I will treasure.

Tofuku-ji Temple - Each building at the Tofuku-ji site was different, serving various purposes. Japanese gardens have a lot of symbolism in the choice and placement of materials. Trees and shrubs are carefully pruned with traditional methods, so that man controls nature, creating a perfect setting.

Finding Kyoto Culture: The Nishiki Market - The minute we arrived in Kyoto we felt we were in another world. While Tokyo is all sleek, modern and professional, mixed with crazy high energy chaos and pockets of ancient tradition, Kyoto is all about refined Japanese culture. The markets sell fancy hand crafted foods and anything else you might desire and you clearly feel you are in the center of Japan's textile industry. Upon our arrival in Kyoto we took the subway to the center of town to visit Nishiki market. The vendors there sell the best of everything Kyoto has to offer, including fine foods. Here a vendor is selling dried fish displayed in traditional wooden containers.

Restaurant, near Nanzen-ji Temple - It's easy to walk through Kyoto's neighborhoods, and many of them have the traditional buildings with clay shingles, stucco and bamboo detail. Often a small courtyard is behind the exterior fence, and its trees and street side landscaping are an integral part of the structure.

Aah...Sushi - Upon our arrival in Kyoto, we were on the hunt for sushi. In the downtown area is Pontocho, a popular restaurant/entertainment area that tourists and locals visit. The hard part was deciding which place to choose. Many of the restaurants were large and seemed to cater to tourists or businessmen on expense accounts, which was not our style. So we wandered through the narrow streets until we came upon a very small sushi place, and sat down for our supper. The owner was the chef and his wife the waitress. A few local folks were at the counter, talking to them as if they were old friends. A good sign, we thought. So with great anticipation, we ordered our meal. It was brought one or two items at a time, and as we finished, we ordered more. Delicious.