I’ve been in Kyoto for about 10 days in total so far, and I’ve seen enough of the city to understand why it’s so popular among foreigners and Japanese alike, and why it has such cultural significance. On another note, most of the photos below are from Kiyomizudera yesterday, a very famous temple in eastern Kyoto that is perched on a hilltop overlooking the city.
Part of Kyoto’s charm stems from its function as the capital of Japan during a highly cultured, refined and relatively peaceful period about a thousand years ago. Instead of warring, the capital and its aristocrats focused on aesthetic aspects of their world, and so began contributing to the many extravagant temples in Kyoto.
Around the 12th century though, civil war broke out between the two main clans of the day (the Taira and the Genji), and the subsequent fallout led to the establishment of the shogun (or military general), who mostly based their rule in eastern Japan, near Tokyo. They became the defacto rulers of Japan, and for a good few hundred years the country was in civil turmoil.
Still, Kyoto was left relatively intact throughout the warring periods, and even managed to dodge large-scaled bombings during World War II. As a result, many people view the city as a symbol of the refined qualities of old Japan, and even Japanese today coming from different cities are in awe at what Kyoto has to offer.
Enough history though. The reason I find Kyoto so appealing in today’s world is that it combines the cultural heritage of its temples and shrines perfectly with its modern surroundings. Kyoto is as advanced as any other big city, but it’s not overbearing like Tokyo and Osaka. In those two cities, you’re almost overwhelmed by the number of buildings, people, streets, shops, bridges, trains, etc. They have their own charm of course, something only metropolises can offer, but Kyoto is crowded yet calm, busy but not hectic.
It’s very easy as well to navigate around the city. Kyoto was built using the same grid-patterns used in old capitals of China, and the city itself is largely walkable. In fact, walking through Kyoto’s streets is the best way, in my opinion, to get a feel for the city. Not to mention you are bound to come across dozens of less-advertised but equally amazing temples and districts.
Regarding my visit yesterday to Kiyomizudera, I chose to go there on a whim at around 4:00 pm since the day was clear and I knew today would be cloudy with rain (and I was right…). It’s about a 20 minute walk, and wow was it packed with people. Tourist groups, families with kids, couples, elderly people, photographers, some women in kimono, school field trips (I think I’m cursed) all also seemed to have noticed the nice weather and headed to Kiyomizudera.
Again, I idled around for a bit waiting for sunset while hordes of people moved along the long wooden balcony, taking pictures of the main temple in combination with the autumn foliage and Kyoto city below.
The colors the sun throws out when setting honestly completely alters the scenery before you. Everyone there, including me, suddenly saw the temple and its background in a new way. It was great, and definitely worth a visit.
I’ve had so many different and rewarding experiences in Japan so far, but in the sightseeing and photographic-perfect moments category, I think Kyoto takes the cake so far.