Kyoto and Kansai region

Kyoto and Kansai region

Kansai is one of the regions in Japan with the richest legacy. Its location had certainly the main impact on it. It is in the centre of the archipelago with access to three seas (the Sea of Japan, the Pacific Ocean and the Seto Inland Sea). The region is connected by numerous plains, with fertile soil. Kansai is also the cradle of Japanese civilization.  Nara and Kyoto have been imperial capitals for over 1000 years, so the number of monuments is stunning. It is also the second-largest industrial centre in the country. There is also more than 20% of the entire population of Japan lives here (this percentage is still growing due to the region’s high attractiveness). Kansai is also one of the most prosperous areas for baseball in Japan.

Why Kyoto?

Kyoto is in sixth place in terms of population in Japan. It was in the past and is still now an important point on the tourist map. You can find here almost 1600 Buddhist temples, 400 Shinto shrines and more than 200 gardens. To see it all … best to leave here. During the three-day visit, there is no way to be able to see all of this, half of it or see just the most important places. There are nearly 20% of all Japanese National Treasures located in Kyoto. There are also about 20 objects listed on the World Heritage Sites of UNESCO.

The added value of this place is the fact, that for more than 10 centuries Kyoto has served as a capital. It has also avoided earthquakes, and (based on the US government level decisions, and final agreement between US President H.S. Truman and his advisers), bombing during World War II. Kyoto was then considered a city of high cultural significance for Japan and the rest of the world. That was the reason why the final destination for the atomic bombing (almost at the last moment) was changed from Kyoto to Hiroshima and Nagasaki (Hiroshima source).

Kyoto today

Currently, Kyoto is considered a modern city, inhabited by 1.5 million people. In this city, you can find a mix of modernity – characteristic of thriving Japanese cities – with tradition. There are 37 universities in the city, making it fast-growing. Kyoto residents are more modern and less formal than in Tokyo, but many more of them can be seen wearing traditional kimonos. It is here that you can walk down the streets of the old and ancient district of Gion, where you can find the oldest okiya in the city (geisha houses), and ochaya (teahouses), where geishas entertain their guests.

The city can also boast of traditional and sophisticated craftsmanship. Besides, it is an important place on the political map of the world – as in 1997 the famous “Kyoto Protocol” was signed here. The Protocol is an international agreement linked to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which commits its Parties to set internationally binding emission reduction targets (source: UNFCCC).

In the below post, I will present those places we visited ourselves during our visit to Kyoto, but will not write about those places which should be seen. My advice – before you come to this place, please reflect first on what most you are interested in, and plan your trip accordingly. Do not plan your trip according to the “must-see” places list, just based on your wish list.

Main Train Station in Kyoto

The new railway station was opened in 1997, on the 1200th anniversary of the founding of Heian (“the capital of peace”, today’s Kyoto). The train station is now fully adapted to the requirements of modern and ultra-fast Shinkansen trains. It is also used by local trains and the metro. The new building surprises with its modern design, size, imagination and the greatness of the architect (Hara Hiroshi) who planned its shape. Its enormous dimensions, however, fit perfectly into the surroundings and history of the city. The huge atrium (27 meters wide, 60 meters high and 470 meters long) is the place where it is worthy to start your sightseeing tour of Kyoto, as it is an attraction itself.

To the top of the main hall, you can get through almost vertical escalators, which will take you up to the 12th floor. There is a garden and a glazed wall at the top of the roof, offering a great view of the city. On one side of the atrium, there is a luxury hotel, on the other side, there is a shopping centre and numerous restaurants. Strolling through the tunnel (“Skyway tunnel”), at the height of the 11th floor, is a pleasant reward for this tour. Glazed walls in the tunnel, guarantee the best views of the city and the opportunity to look closely at the “Kyoto Tower”.

The entrance to the tunnel is open between 10.00 a.m. and 10.00 p.m., and free admission.

update: from April 1, 2024, the name of Kyoto Tower has been changed to “Nidec Kyoto Tower“.

Gion district

Gion is the oldest district in Kyoto, inhabited by geishas and future geishas – maiko. In the best times (at the beginning of the 19th century), over 3 thousand geisha were working there, in about 700 tea houses. Nowadays, the streets are full of tourists – there are crowds and noise, but it is still worth visiting it because it is a fascinating place. The cobbled streets, old wooden tea houses and red lanterns are the main characteristics of the district. When strolling through the streets, you can spot many geisha, as well as residents wearing traditional kimonos.

From Kyoto’s main railway station, you can get to Gion by Keihan line train (two stations), but it takes about 20 minutes (1.2 km) to get there on foot. On the way, there is the Kamo riverbed – in springtime, with cherry blossoms growing on both sides.

On the spot, you should have a map or GPS device, because finding a theatre building takes some time and it is easy to get lost.

Theatre “Gion Corner”

The “Gion Corner” theatre organizes shows for tourists (including Japanese tourists), where you can learn about seven areas of traditional Japanese art. The show takes place in Yasaka Hall, next to Gion Kobu Kaburenjo Theater, in the heart of Gion. Performances are organized by the Kyoto Traditional Musical Art Foundation “Ookini Zaidan”.

Shows are held twice a day, at 6.00 p.m. and 7.00 p.m., the admission fee is 3150 yen (about 28$), but on the theatre website you can get discount coupons, so then the entrance fee will cost 2500 yen (about 23$). The show lasts 45-50 minutes, and it is allowed to take pictures during the entire time.

Program. During the show you will find out about the following:

  • Chado

Traditional tea ceremony. The custom of making tea and its tasting – was born in China, in the 8th century. To Japan, this custom was brought by Buddhist monks in the 12th century who used it to prevent drowsiness during their long hours of meditation. The popularity of tea drinking among the people began in the early 14th century.

  • Koto

The Koto, a thirteen-stringed instrument (kind of harp), was imported from China about 1300 years ago. Currently, the koto instrument is also used in contemporary music.

  • Kado

Art of flower arranging. In Japan, people have put flowers in bottles or vases ever since the 6th century, around 1500 years ago, when Buddhism first came from China. There has been a custom of using flowers for decorating statues of the Buddha and graves of the ancestors. In the Meiji Period (19th century), the Moribana style was newly added and developed as one of the traditional arts.

  • Gagaku

Gagaku is called also “elegant music” or court music. These words also describe classical dance, singing and traditional instrumental music. This art was born in China between the 7th and 9th centuries when China was the cultural centre of all Asia. In Japan, it arrived in the 8th century. In China, this type of music has not survived, in Japan, it was played at the imperial court banquets and sacred rites in shrines and temples. Over time, the music has been modified and adapted to suit the taste of the Japanese people, as a result, is now truly a Japanese classical art form.

  • Kyogen

Kyogen is a kind of comic drama play performed as an interlude for Noh plays and spoken in the everyday language of the time. Noh is a specific form of Japanese theatre. It uses simple but very specific tools of stage art: gestures, movement, costumes, facial expressions and sometimes masks. The characteristic of this theatre was that only men could play in it. During the show, actors often speak in traditional Japanese poetry language, which is incomprehensible to the Japanese themselves. However, the show is very impressive and funny. Before the show, there is a program distributed, where this show is described, so it is worth reading before the show begins.

  • Kyomai

Kyoto-style dance. There are two types of Japanese dance. The first one is called Odori and dates back to the Edo era (17th century). It was used mostly in kabuki theatre. It was started in 1603 by a woman – Izumo no Okuni, who began performing and presenting a new style of dance art in the dry riverbed of the Kamo River. Over the centuries, kabuki theatre has undergone many changes to survive in contemporary art. In 2005 the kabuki theatre was declared a masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, and in 2008 was placed on a non-material heritage of UNESCO list, which currently has 90 such masterpieces from all over the world.

The second dance is called Mai, and what distinguishes it, is the place where it is presented. This art was part of the Noh Theater and was played primarily in small private rooms rather than on the stage. Kyomai – the Kyoto style, was born in the 17th century and was developed mainly at the imperial court banquets, as an elegant and dignified kind of art. Currently, this dance is performed mainly by maiko dancers and by geisha themselves.

  • Bunraku

Japanese puppet play. During the performances, the narration is enriched by the accompaniment of the shamisen (Japanese three-stringed musical instrument). Bunraku’s art was born in the 17th century in Osaka and was mainly displayed on the street. It has gained popularity because of the high availability of merchants and sellers of this form of art, and because of the simple message. The spectacles presented simple and easy-to-understand stories, using illustrations. Over time, the illustrations have been replaced by dolls that are now quite large (up to 4/5 height of an adult male).

In 2003, Bunraku was proclaimed a masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity and in 2008 was placed on a non-material heritage list by UNESCO.

In the theatre program, this Bunraku show is well described as well, so it is worth reading it before the show starts.

On the way back from the theatre, it is worthwhile to stroll through the evening streets of the Gion district, which, despite numerous pedestrians and dark streets, allows you to imagine how this place looked centuries ago and feel its atmosphere.

Toji Temple

The Toji Temple was built in 794 in the east of the city, for defensive purposes. Its whole complex has been inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

The most characteristic of this place is the Five-storied Pagoda, the highest in Japan (55 m/187 feet). The present pagoda was built in 1644, but the first one in this place was already in the 9th century. Unfortunately, the original pagoda has burned out four times, including once after being struck by lightning. But none of them was knocked down by an earthquake.

The vibrations caused by an earthquake are absorbed by the interlocked parts of the pagoda.  The force of the vibrations is gradually damped as they move to the higher parts of the pagoda. Also, each level moves independently of the others, in a motion known as the “snake dance”. This further absorbs and dampens the energy of an earthquake. Since the 17th century, it is a National Treasure.

Kondo and Kodo

The Toji complex is also home to the Kondo (Main Hall) building. The original building was already here in the 8th century, but it burned down in 1486. In 1603 there was a new building was built. Inside, there is a statue of Buddha, known as the Buddha of Medicine, and the status of two Bodhisattvas (of the Sun and the Moon).

The Kodo stands in the very centre of the precincts of the Toji. The original building was built around 835 according to records. Unfortunately, it was damaged by typhoons and earthquakes and has been repaired several times. The present building was built in 1491 and retains its original style of architecture. Inside, there are 21 statues, placed according to a mandala that is central to Shingon Buddhism. The statues are classified into four groups:

  • Nyorai, who are forms of Buddhas who have reached enlightenment
  • Bodhisattvas, who have put off enlightenment to save people with mercy
  • Myoo (Wisdom Kings), who lead people with austerity
  • Ten (Tenbu or guardians) surround and protect the Nyorai, Bodhisattvas and Myoo.

There are many magnificent treasures in the temple buildings such as statues, carvings, paintings and artworks.

The admission fee is 500 yen (4,5$), but during special religious events, the admission ticket can cost 800 yen (7,5$). The entrance is available daily, between 8.30 a.m. and 4.30 p.m. More info can be found on the To-ji Temple in Kyoto website (eng version).

Please note that within the temple – inside all the visited buildings taking pictures is not allowed!

On the 21st of each month, in the temple area and nearby park – there is a flea market, called Mieku, (Kobo-ichi market). You can buy new and used items here, including traditional kimonos, antiques, toys, clocks, sculptures, food and flowers. There is also a Garakuta-ichi – antique market, organised on the first Sunday of every month.

Kinkakuji Temple

Kinkakuji called as well as “Golden Pavilion“, is so beautiful that it seems to be almost unreal.  In 1397 the temple was founded, at the behest of the monk Rokuon, who became a monk, after years of being a shogun. There are three floors, two of which are covered with gold leaf. The “Golden Pavilion” stays on the shore of the lake, surrounded by a beautiful park and with mountainous summits. Although the temple survived the civil war, earthquakes and typhoons for centuries, in 1950 it was set on fire by a mentally ill monk and destroyed. The pavilion was rebuilt. On its roof, there is now a statue of a golden Chinese phoenix, symbolizing the rebirth of the temple from the ashes.

Kinkakuji is open daily from 9.00 a.m to 5.00 p.m. From Kyoto Central Station, take bus 205 (about 30 minutes), to the Kinkakuji-mae stop. Entry fee 400 yen (3,6$).

Please note, that the Kinkakuji temple is one of the most visited objects in Kyoto. There are crowds of visitors everywhere, so the place is cramped and loud. Taking a picture of the temple without people in the background seems to be a miracle. But please wait patiently for the right moment and try to take a picture.  You will notice, that the golden shades of the pavilion, reflected in the lake surface make every photo look like a million dollars 😊.

Ginkakuji Temple

Ginkakuji called “Silver Pavilion,” contrary to the expectations, is not silver. Despite the original plans, silver flakes were never added there. This two-storied pagoda is much smaller and more modest than the “Golden Pavilion” (despite being modelled on it). It does not impress as much and there are fewer tourists there.

The temple was built in 1492 as a villa for the retired Shogun Yoshimasa Ashikaga (his grandfather built the “Golden Pavilion”). The pavilion was not adorned with silver, as the shogun was a propagator of a thrifty lifestyle. Ginkakuji has become the centre of the contemporary Higashiyama culture. It was a culture opened to ordinary people, available in parks and on the streets. Based on these assumptions, the art of tea ceremony, floral arrangement, Noh theatre, garden design, architecture and poetry has been established and developed.

After the death of Yoshimasa, in 1490, the function of the villa was changed to the Zen temple. The pavilion itself remained undamaged until today. Its bungalow survived all the dangers, but in 2010 it was completely restored and got a new roof. The structure of the building has been strengthened and adapted to the safety requirements during earthquakes.

Ginkakuji garden

Today it is worth visiting this place, although the interiors are not open to the public. In addition to the “Silver Pavilion”, there are also other buildings, a beautiful moss-covered hillside garden, a lake and a sand garden, called the “Silver Sand”. The sand garden every morning is carefully brushed and the cone sprinkled on its centre is shaped like a Fuji Mountain. The garden is quiet and peaceful.

At the end of the trip, you should climb to the top of the hill. The path leads through a bamboo forest, covered with moss. There are small bridges, streams and colourful flowers on the way. The mountain view at the end of the route extends not only to the Ginkakuji Temple but also to the city.

Ginkakuji can be reached by bus 204 (from the “Golden Pavilion” about 20 minutes). You can also get there from the main railway station by bus number 5, 17 or 100 (about 40 minutes), the Ginkakuji-mae stop. Open daily from 8.30 a.m. to 5.00 p.m., the entrance fee is 500 yen (4,5$).

Fushimi Inari

Fushimi Inari existed here long before the capital of the country was moved to Kyoto, more than 1,000 years ago. This is an unusual and very popular place of religious worship. The shrine sits at the base of a mountain (also named Inari), which is 233 meters high.  It includes trails up the mountain to many smaller shrines which span 4 kilometres. It takes approximately 2 hours to walk up. There are over 30 thousand of the Torii gates, standing on the hill road.

The Uka no Mitama no Mikoto (known as Inari), is the deity that inhabits this hill.  Its role is to take care of the rice and the fields. Since the 8th century, the faithful have donated the Torii gate to the goddesses. They were engraving torii with their names, hoping the goddess would save their family from hunger, and the crops will be abundant. Today all torii gates along the entire trail are donations by individuals or by companies. It is because, since early Japan, Inari was also seen as the patron of businesses, merchants and manufacturers.

Over time, the status of foxes appeared on the hill, believing that the foxes could protect rice stocks from rodents.

Fushimi Inari – sightseeing

To go for a walk up the Inari hill, you should take comfortable and suitable for this place shoes. The road to the hill is long and tiring. Along the way, there are several rest areas, with beautiful views of the city. It is also possible there, to buy something to drink or to eat. There are also several small cemeteries and shrines on the hillside. Some of them are in the middle of the forest, and some of them are on a mountain slope or by a lake. This place is magical, worth spending even a few hours here. There are also many people visiting this place during the sunset. If you are interested in it as well, please be aware that after dusk, it gets completely dark on the paths of the hills.  If you are there, you should be very careful when going down.

You need to know that the cost of buying and placing the torii gate on the hill is very expensive, but many people are willing to do that. The smallest torii gate cost is 175.000 yen (1,6k $), and the average cost is about 400.000 yen (3,6k $). The biggest one can be worth over 1.300.000 yen (almost 12k $).

How to get there? The easiest way is to use the “JR Nara” train (from Kyoto Central Station), 2 stops (5 minutes), Inari stop. Admission is free, and open 24/7.

Fox Families – Kuchiire Inari Okami

On the spot, there are offered to be bought Kuchiire Inari Okami dolls – Fox Families. Among the gods responsible for the harvest (Inari Okami), there are also the deities responsible for matchmaking and merging people. These deities have been worshipped here for centuries. People often come to ask for help in finding a business partner, a partner in a marriage or employment.

For those who pray, to make their wishes fulfilled, they need to pray to three deities: a doll representing a husband, a wife and a child. Then, they need to buy those three figurines and take them home. Once the wish is fulfilled – the figurines can be donated to the temple or kept at home as a souvenir. These figurines, which are returned to the temple after the wish is fulfilled, can be found here standing on stone boulders.

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