Highlights of an Imperial City
To stroll through Kyoto is to walk through eleven centuries of Japan’s history. Once the home of the imperial court, the city was also a center of Japanese religion, aesthetics, music, theater, and dance, and reached its height as a center for crafts during the Muromachi Period (1334-1568).
Spared by Allied bombing during WW II, the city is said to hold 20 percent of all Japan’s national treasures, including more than 1,700 Buddhist temples and 300 Shinto shrines, all dispersed, often hidden, amid its modem cityscape. Kyoto’s beauty can be elusive, but thoughtful visitors can still glimpse the Japan of the past in its temples and gardens, each a compound of several buildings, like a small village.
The two-story, pagoda-roofed Ginkakuji (Temple of the Silver Pavilion) is surrounded by gardens designed by a master landscape architect for meditative strolling; the nearby cherry-tree-lined, mile-long Path of Philosophy follows a narrow canal that is beautiful year-round.
The Ginkakuji was inspired by the 14th-century Temple of the Golden Pavilion, which was destroyed by arson in 1950. Today, a three-story replica built soon after anchors the moss-covered grounds of its former site. A lovely half-hour walk from here leads to the Ryoanji Temple, whose small garden of raked white gravel and fifteen rocks has become a symbol of the essence of Zen wisdom. The Kiyomizu-era temple, built on a steep hillside, offers sensational views of Kyoto from its wooden platform.
At one time, entire neighborhoods in Kyoto grew up around specific crafts; the country’s finest artisans worked in the city, serving the imperial court and the feudal lords. Today the workshops of their descendants can be found on the quiet backstreets of Kyoto’s historic districts, and the city’s wares – including woodblock prints, silk and textile goods, lacquerware, dolls, and paper goods – are still known for their refinement, elegance, and artistry. To this day, the prefix kyo– before a craft is synonymous with fine work.
There’s no better time to visit Kyoto than during any of its annual matsuri, or festivals. The three most important, the Jidai, the Aoi, and the Gion, are worth juggling your itinerary for and making hotel reservations well in advance. Proud Kyotoites by the thousands participate in the Jidai festival on October 22 – one of the newest, having started just over a century ago. A theatrical procession of costumes from the dynasties of the 8th through 19th centuries snakes its way through town, beginning at the Imperial Palace.
The cherry blossoms will be gone when the Aoi festival floats through town on May 15, but spring will still be at its loveliest as hundreds of participants wearing the costumes of imperial courtiers parade to the Shimogamo Shrine to pray for the city’s prosperity. The Aoi dates back to the 6th century and is believed to be the world’s oldest surviving festival.
On July 16 and 17, make way for thirty-one huge floats that make up the popular Gion festival, a procession that asks for the protection of Kyoto. It was first held in the 9th century, when the ancient capital was ravaged by a plague.