Ancient wooden temples, palaces and pagodas, geisha culture, shogun history and exquisite Zen gardens make Kyoto one of Japan’s most intriguing cities. Kyoto and nearby Osaka (a cruise port), and Nara, where Buddhism came to Japan, encompass the country’s most historic area.
Because it was the imperial capital of Japan for more than a thousand years, Kyoto is rich in traditional architecture and culture. Among Japanese, it’s known as “Nihon no furusato, „ or “home of the heart.” Over several visits, Kyoto has won my heart, too.
While Tokyo is dazzling, and many cities in Japan merit exploring, Kyoto is the one place every foreign visitor ought to experience. Don’t expect a quaint museum village, though. It’s a living city of nearly 1.5 million people that has its share of urban grit. While Kyoto is not particularly beautiful as a whole, it’s dotted with pockets of astonishing beauty.
Among these are some of Japan’s most iconic sights. Kinkaku-ji, the gorgeous Temple of the Golden Pavilion, is often photographed with its mirror-perfect reflection in a large pond. Ryoan-ji is a temple with a famous rock garden that’s a mecca for contemplation. Nijo-jo (Nijo Castle), a palace built by a shogun, was ringed by a moat. Kiyomizu-dera, a hilltop temple built near a waterfall, overlooks a sea of cherry’’ and maple trees that are striking, respectively, in spring and fall.
American author Arthur Golden’s historical novel Memoirs of a Geisha (1997, Alfred A. Knopf), made into a 2005 film, is set in Gion, Kyoto’s oldest section and most . prominent geisha district. (Both the book and the movie were subject to some criticism for perpetuating Western stereotypes of geishas.) Pocket-sized shops, inns, restaurants and teahouses line the narrow lanes.
If you’re lucky, you may glimpse a geisha or maiko (apprentice geisha) in a beautiful kimono. Of course, not everyone in a kimono is a geisha. For special occasions some Japanese women still dress in these multilayered garments made of fine silks and elaborately hand-painted, -dyed and -embroidered. During a recent visit to Kyoto with Japanese friends, the)’’ told me many of the young, kimono-clad women being photographed at the Golden Pavilion and other sites were actually Chinese tourists in rented costumes.
Ryoan-ji, Nijo-jo and Kiyomizu-dera are among the “Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto” inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Illustrating what a treasure trove of history Kyoto is, this single UNESCO listing covers 17 component parts with 198 buildings and 12 gardens, most built or designed from the 10th to the 17th centuries.
The UNESCO inscription reads: “Built in A.D. 794 on the model of the capitals of ancient China, Kyoto was the imperial capital of Japan from its foundation until the middle of the 19th century. As the center of Japanese culture for more than 1,000 years, Kyoto illustrates the development of Japanese wooden architecture, particularly religious architecture, and the art of Japanese gardens, which has influenced landscape gardening the world over.”
Moreover, the buildings and gardens “retain high levels of authenticity,” according to UNESCO, and “the rigorous respect for the original form, decoration and materials that has prevailed in Japan for more than a millennium has ensured that what is visible today conforms in almost every detail with the original structures.”
All this history can mean it’s easy to get overwhelmed by Kyoto if you have only a day. And since it’s not right next door to a port, there’s transportation and travel time to consider. These are good reasons to book a cruise line shore excursion that focuses on a handful of highlights. Most tours stretch a full day, 9.5 or 10 hours.
Kyoto is located in the central part of the island of Honshu, 319 miles southwest Continued on next page
of Tokyo in an area called Kansai. By cruise, it’s usually accessed from the port of Osaka, a 90-minute drive by motorcoach, or from Kobe or Maizuru.
Lines like Silversea Cruises shave the transfer time by using the bullet train (Shinkansen). From Osaka port, this entails a 45-minute drive to the Shin-Osaka station, where the high-speed train whisks riders to Kyoto in a breathless 15 minutes.
It’s possible to get to Kyoto and back from Tokyo or the port of Yokohama on the bullet train, but that would make for a very long da}’ and the risk of being late for your ship, so I don’t recommend it. (From Tokyo, the bullet train takes more than two hours one-way.)
For the independent-minded, Princess offers a “Kyoto on Your Own” tour from the port of Maizuru. An English-speaking guide travels with the bus on the 2.5 -hour transfer to provide narration and suggestions for sight-seeing. Participants are dropped at a central location and have 4.5 hours to explore on their own before the bus ride back to the port.
Kyoto itself is easy enough to navigate. It’s built on a grid system, safe and tourist- friendly. The excellent Tourist Information Center in the Kyoto Station concourse, open daily from 8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m., is a good starting point for independent travelers.
Hiring a private car and driver is an option, too, and can be arranged through some cruise lines. Though it seems pricey, this option for two couples may work out to be about the same, or less than, the cost of full-day excursion tickets for four. Private cars in Japan typically provide excellent, (literally) white-glove service, and the savvy drivers know the best times to visit key sights to miss the crowds. Lines like Silversea can arrange a private van for up to six people.
There’s a lot of walking in Kyoto. For those who prefer little or no time on foot, Princess offers a shorter (approximately 5.5 hours) excursion from Osaka that gives a scenic overview and photo opportunities from the motorcoach plus a stop at Kyoto Handicraft Center.
For those interested in geisha culture, Crystal Cruises offers a tour of the Gion where participants meet a geisha who describes her rigorous training in the arts, involving music, dance, singing and calligraphy as well as the art of conversation. Included is a performance by a maiko or a geiko (a full-fledged geisha).
If you’re on your own with just one day in Kyoto, must-see attractions include Nijo Castle. Built from 1603-1616 by a shogun, this complex was more of a palatial residence than a fortified defense. But besides the stone walls, moat and massive gates, a myriad of security features were built in, such as the “nightingale” floor that chirps when walked on, to alert of potential assassins. The painted paper screens throughout are incredible. Be sure to wander the palace grounds with their crane and tortoise islands. Parts of the 2003 Tom Cruise film The Last Samurai were filmed at Nijo Castle.
If you photograph one thing in Kyoto, or indeed all of Japan, it likely will be Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Pavilion. The top two floors of this elegant three-story structure are covered in gold leaf. Built in the late 14th century as a shogun’s retirement villa, it became a Zen temple, according to his wish, after his death. The structure has burned down several times, most recently in 1950 when it was set ablaze by a fanatic student monk. The current structure dates from 1955. Brace yourself for crowds on the narrow forest trails leading to the best photo spots. It’s not possible to enter the Golden Pavilion, but you can sit down and reflect at an outdoor tea garden.
In the wooded hills east of Kyoto, Kiyomizu-dera (Pure Water Temple) gets its name from the Otowa Waterfall, located at the base of the temple’s main hall and channeled into three streams. Each is said to bestow a different benefit. People line up to drink for longevity, a happy love life or-the most popular with throngs of students-success at school. (Drinking from all three is considered greedy.) I visited in the fall when the maple trees were ablaze in red, orange and yellow-an incredible sight from the temple’s viewing platform.
The path leading up to Kiyomizu-dera is lined with some 50 shops selling souvenirs, everything from paper fans, sweets, ceramics and kimonos to the local green tea, considered the highest quality in Japan. Kyoto is where tea was introduced from China more than 800 years ago. A few of the many varieties include sencha, hojicha (roasted) and matcha (the bright green powdered tea used in tea ceremonies).
When it’s time for a break from the bustle of touring, Ryoan-ji affords a respite, but also an enigma. This Zen temple contains Japan’s most famous rock garden. A rectangular plot of pebbles holds 15 rocks. The design is such that only 14 of them can be seen from any vantage point. Supposedly you need to obtain enlightenment to view all 15 at once. The temple grounds enclose a pond covered in lily pads and a leafy park where you can stroll in a set-ting as inspiring as Monet’s Givemy in France.
Be sure to leave some time in your one day to explore the Gion (Shijo dori is the main street) and, if you’re there in spring, head to Shirakawa Canal or Hanami koji dori (Flower Viewing Street) to be awed by the cherry blossoms.
Full-day cruise line tours include lunch, but if you’re on your own, you may want to try a small, traditional restaurant like Gion Kappa, with counter seats ringing the open kitchen. The wide menu includes a sushi platter, assorted tempura and a little of everything else, all freshly prepared before your eyes. Don’t expect a quiet meal; Gion Kappa is cramped and loud
Another bustling Gion spot with an open kitchen is Issen Yoshoku, which serves just one dish: okonomiyaki, a savory, grilled pan-cake filled with green onion, meat, shrimp and vegetables. Don’t be surprised if you have to share a table with other diners; it’s not unusual in Japan, where space is at a premium.
As a vegetarian, I love the wonderfully varied and elaborate shojin ryori Zen Buddhist monks’meals served at temples like Tenryu-ji. These feature rice, soup and perhaps half a dozen or more other dishes made of soy or sesame tofu, plus seasonal vegetables, fresh herbs and wild plants. (Reservations at the Tenryu Temple’s Shigetsu restaurant are required at least three days in advance.)
Just outside Tenryu-ji is another magnifi-cent Kyoto attraction that’s downright other-worldly: Arashiyama Bamboo Forest, where you walk through a tunnel of towering bamboo with just a sliver of sky visible overhead.
When it comes to shopping, Kyoto is known for Japan’s widest variety of traditional handicrafts. Kyoto Station is packed with interesting stores, and most temples and attractions have little shops. The Kyoto Handicraft Center, a stop on many excursions, is bursting with items like woodblock prints, paper lanterns, Japanese dolls, textiles, kimonos, yukatas (a casual summer robe worn by men and women), ornamental swords, pottery’, ironware and damascene (inlaid metals).
Twenty-two miles from Kyoto is Nara, another historic place that strongly merits a visit. There Buddhism was introduced to Japan, and Nara was the country’s first permanent capital, from 710 to 784, when Kyoto took over. At the impressive Toda-ji, where deer roam freely, the enormous main wooden temple houses Japan’s largest bronze Buddha. Located south of Kyoto is the wondrous Fushimi Inari Taisha, an important Shinto shrine known for its parallel rows of thousands of orange torii gates that you can walk through, like a passageway.
But for these places, you will need more than just a day in Kyoto.
Lines that visit Japan include Azamara Club Cruises, Cunard Line, Crystal Cruises, Holland America Line, Oceania Cruises, Princess Cruises, Ponant, Regent Seven Seas Cruises, Royal Caribbean International, Seabourn, Silversea Cruises, Viking Ocean Cruises and Windstar Cruises, Dream Cruises and Star Cruises, carrying mainly Asians, also call.