Monday, April 26, 2010

36 Hours in Kyoto

Yesterday's New York Times Travel section carried an article by Jaime Gross on how to spend 36 hours in Kyoto. It confirms something I said in an earlier post...that the city offers something for everyone. Interestingly, Gross does not send readers to the Kyoto must-sees: the Golden Pavilion, Ryoan-ji, Sanjyusangen-do, etc.

I cannot comment on Gross's restaurant or hotel recommendations because I've had no personal experience with any place he suggests. I have had lunch at the Hyatt Regency Hotel's Touzan restaurant; it was elegant and not expensive. The hotel is close to both Sanjyusangen-do (the 33-bay temple) and the Kyoto National Museum.

I second Gross's suggestion for walking around the Gion to obtain a taste of what traditional Kyoto nightlife was like. He does not mention, but Gion Corner offers tourists—primarily foreign tourists—a taste of traditional cultural arts: an hour of dance, tea ceremony, Edo-era comedy, puppet theater, and koto music. (The picture above is from a Gion Corner performance.) It is the closest most of us will get to the real thing.

Gross suggests visiting Maruyama Park...and if you visit the Gion you are practically there. It is an oasis of tranquility when it is not cherry blossom season. During cherry blossom season, when the Yasaka Shrine and the trees are lit at night and throngs of Japanese are partying under the blossoms it is a carnival.

All of this is to say that with planning, one can have an exceptionally full and rewarding weekend in Kyoto...or week...or month...or more.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Where to go in Kyoto III

The Ryoan-ji in Kyoto is the most famous rock-and-sand garden in the world, and as a result it is usually mobbed with tourists. (The first time I saw it, in the mid-1950s, I was able to sit on the veranda for an hour virtually undisturbed by another person; those days are long gone.)

The Ryoan-ji, however, is not the only rock-and-sand garden in Kyoto. The Zuiho-ji has a number of such gardens...and I have never found it crowded with tourists.

A daimyo (feudal lord), Sorin Otomo (1467-1568), founded the Zuiho-ji as a family temple in 1535. Otomo was the family name; he took the name Sorin when he became a lay Buddhist monk in 1562.

Otomo inherited the domain of Funai, on Kyūshū, from his father. Over twenty years of warfare and rebellion, he unified much of Kyūshū under his control and secured a significant gain in his clan's power and prestige, Otomo is significant as one of the daimyo to meet personally with the Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier in 1551, one of the first Europeans in Japan. Though Otomo converted to Christianity 1562 (the same year he became a Buddhist monk), he probably saw this as a politically strategic move and was not religiously motivated. Jesuit records refer to Otomo as the "King of Bungo" (one of the Kyushu fiefs). He sent political delegations to Goa in the 1550s, and the Tenshō embassy to Rome in 1582.

The Zuiho-in is a sub-temple of the main temple of Daitoku-ji, a major Zen temple located in northern Kyoto. The focus of the Zuiho-ji is its rock garden. The main garden is a combination of moss and rocks and an acclaimed example of a dry landscape garden-karesansui. Behind the main hall is the Garden of the Cross (with rocks laid out to form a cross). There is also a Tea house Ansho-ken within the precincts.

My picture does not do the temple or the gardens justice, but there are many exquisite photos of the temple at this site. The Zuiho-ji is one of Kyoto's hidden gems.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Where to go in Kyoto II

Recently I wrote about the must-see sights in Kyoto. The problem with these famous sights in the ancient capital is that virtually every visitor who visits Kyoto wants to see them, and because around 5 million tourists visit every year (the city population is only around 1.5 million), the popular sites can be mobbed.

Fortunately, Kyoto has so much to see, it is possible to have a rewarding experience without fighting the crowds. One special spot I've found is the Shisen-do (the House of Poet-Hermits).

One Ishikawa Jozan (1583-1672) built it in 1641 as a retirement villa. Although the city now surrounds the grounds, it was countryside when Ishikawa built the home; what is now the villa's parking lot was a rice paddy. Once you pass through the ancient gate, you have no sense of the modern city beyond.

Ishikawa, born in a samurai family, became a personal attendant to Tokugawa Ieyasu who eventually became Shogun. After Ishikawa disgraced himself in a 1615 campaign (he rushed into battle, killing several enemy, thereby violating military discipline which prohibited the Shogun's attendants from fighting), he became a scholar and eventually retired to Kyoto's northeastern hills, designing both the house and the gardens. He spent his last years writing poetry, tending his garden, watching the moon and the changing seasons. The main room is decorated with portraits of the 36 most famous ancient Chinese poets.

The building is now owned by the Soto sect of Zen Buddhism. The portraits are now reproductions. But the villa and the garden are, I believe, almost the same as they were in Ishikawa's day. I have always found the Shisen-do to be a lovely, tranquil spot...and uncrowded.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

What to see in Kyoto

A friend asked what she should see on her first, and short, trip to Kyoto. The only honest answer is, I don't know. One could (and I have) experience a number of different Kyotos--a Buddhist Kyoto, a Shinto Kyoto, a garden Kyoto, a museum Kyoto, a tourist Kyoto, a craft Kyoto...but you get the idea. I once stopped with my group at an exhibit of model homes a contractor had built and we all had a wonderful time going through them.

There are, I am afraid, a number of famous things to see. These are the things that if you don't visit them, people say, "You were in Kyoto and didn't see...." So let's start with those:

Kinkaku-ji, The Golden Pavilion. Perhaps the most famous temple in Japan, but the grounds are mobbed and the last time I was there you shuffled along pressed by the mob behind even though they do not show up in the picture above.

Sanjusangen-do. An extraordinary building filled with more than 1,000 statues of bodhisattvas and a central Buddha. Go very early to beat the crowds.

Kiyomizu-dera. A temple complex on the Eastern hills above Kyoto. From the platform high above the ground, you can look over the city. Water from a sacred spring gives you health, longevity, and success in studies.

Nijo Castle (the gate above) was the shogun's villa when he visited Kyoto. The scale, art, and grounds were designed to impress the Kyoto aristocracy. They impressed me, and the thing is big enough that I've never felt crowded.

Ryoan-ji. The temple with the world-famous dry garden...five groups of stones in raked white sand. The first time I saw it, I was able to sit on the veranda undisturbed for an hour. Today it is mobbed and the experience does not lend itself to contemplation. Go, but don't be disappointed by the bustle.

Next post, I'll talk about some of my favorite places.