Friday, February 13, 2015

My Kyoto UNESCO World Heritage Sites Bucket List

The first time I visited Kyoto I came completely under her spell.  That unique blend of tradition, heritage and culture is captivating.  There is so much to see, feel and experience.  
Even if I moved to Kyoto (and that thought did come to mind),  I would never be able to see all that she has to offer within one lifetime.
But -- there is something definable and within my reach.  
Within its roughly 850 square kilometre area,  Kyoto has 17 UNESCO World Heritage sites.  
I know that I can visit each and every one at least once -- and that is a bucket list that I have partially fulfilled. 

1. Kiyomizu-dera Temple

The first time I visited Kyoto was in September, 2012.  Since it was just a week-end side trip from a business meeting, I did not know how much I could see of her treasures.   
I had seen photos of Kiyomizu-dera, perched high up on a hill and knew that I just had to see it.  
I did not even know that this very famous Buddhist Temple was a UNESCO World Heritage site until I got there.  This photo does not do Kiyomizu-dera any justice at all. 
It is simply too stunning to be properly photographed by an amateur like me.

2. Ryoan-ji Temple

During this same trip, I had earmarked specific must-see places.  
I had read about a karesansui or dry landscape Zen rock garden in a temple in  Japan where  
there are 15 stones but no matter where you sit or stand, you will never see all of 
them at the same time.    In Buddhism, the number 15 stands for completeness so not seeing all fifteen stones is an insight unto itself.  
Ryoan-ji Temple is another UNESCO World Heritage site.  
Seeing the raked sand and rock garden, even in the presence of other visitors was an emotional and deeply moving experience for me.   
Also, in Ryoan-ji, Buddha made me cry.

3. Kinkaku-ji - The Golden Pavilion

Happily, Kinkaku-ji is a 20 minute leisurely stroll or a 5 minute bus ride away from Ryoan-ji so I was able to visit another UNESCO World Heritage site in the same afternoon.  I call Kinkaku-ji the poster child of Kyoto.  With its stunning gold leaf paint,  it is unarguably also the most photogenic.

4. Ginkaku-ji - The Silver Pavilion

My next visit to Kyoto came six months later, in April 2013.
It was still spring but we were too late for the explosion of sakura or cherry blossoms that line the area near Ginkaku-ji Temple also known as the Silver Pavilion.
Originally created as a villa by the grandson of the nobleman who built Kinkaku-ji
it became a Zen temple and later on was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
This simple wooden pavilion is set amidst beautiful gardens, ponds and paths that take you up the hills of Higashiyama
Ginkaku-ji is not silver coloured so why call it the Silver Pavilion?  
They say that moonlight casts a silvery glow on the dark wood of the pavilion on a night when there is a full moon.  That would be quite a sight to behold.

5. Tenryu-ji Temple

I did not even know about the existence of Tenryu-ji Temple in Arashiyama - we were in the area to see the famous bamboo groves.  Because it is a UNESCO World Heritage site, my good friend Meiko san suggested that we go see it too.
Tenryu-ji  is actually one of Kyoto's five great Zen Temples.  It means "heavenly dragon temple"
and there is an impressive painting of a huge dragon on the ceiling of one of the main halls.  
Unfortunately, photos inside the hall are not allowed but photos are encouraged outdoors, to capture the beauty of the temple's sand garden surrounding this lovely pond.

6. Hongan-ji Temples

My next visit to Kyoto was Christmas,  2013.  We stayed in a hotel right inside Kyoto Station and the Hongan-ji Temples were just a short walk away.  Above is a photo of the Goeido, part of the Higashi Hongan-ji or east temple.  The Goeido is the biggest wooden structure in Kyoto.
Beside the Higashi Hongan-ji is the Nishi Hongan-ji or the west temple.
Both belong to the Jodo-shin sect of Buddhism and together are designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

7. Toji Temple

Ever since I visited Koya-san and learned about the Buddhist monk Kobo Daishi who established Shingon Buddhism in Japan, I have become a fan of this monk, his many outstanding accomplishments and his simple but profound teachings.
Kobo Daishi was Head Priest at Toji Temple during the 9th century and was responsible for many of the wooden structures that are still standing in the temple grounds today.  
It is a UNESCO World Heritage site and also hosts one of Kyoto's major flea markets held on the 21st of each month.

8. Ninna-ji Temple 

I finally caught the sakura on my next springtime visit to Kyoto in April 2014.
Ninna-ji Temple boasts of a stunning garden of late blooming cherry blossom trees called omuro sakura.   Cherry blossoms aside,  this temple is a UNESCO World Heritage site and also an
Imperial temple as it was established by the Emperor in the late 9th century.
The most impressive sight in the temple grounds is the Goten, former residence of  the Head Priest.  The photo above shows the Goten's  beautiful sand garden that abuts a reflecting pool.  

9. Enryaku-ji Temple on Mt. Hieizan

Our  April 2014 visit coincided with Holy Week so on Good Friday, we decided to explore a non traditional spiritual path and paid a visit to one of Buddhism's holiest sites. 
Enryaku-ji, located at the top of  Mt Hieizan is one of the most important temples and monasteries in Japan and is the headquarters for the Tendai sect of Buddhism.  
Aside from the main hall called Kompon Chudo, shown in the photo above,  there are several other beautiful buildings within the temple grounds that are designated as "important cultural assets" of Japan. 
Enryaku-ji is one of Kyoto's 17 UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Historically, the mountain  is also the site of Nobunaga's well known massacre of the "warrior monks".   

10. Kamigamo-jinja Shrine

Our most recent visit to Kyoto was this December 2014.
By this time, I had a tally of my UNESCO World Heritage site progress and I was excited by the fact that I had passed the halfway mark.
The photo above shows the huge torii which marks the entrance to the Kamigamo-jinja shrine.
The oldest Shinto shrine in Kyoto is even older than the city itself.  It is near the banks of the Kamogawa river and Wake-ikazuchi or the God of Thunder is enshrined in this place.
What struck me particularly about Kamigamo-jinja was its huge open spaces -- a wide expansive lawn leads to the main shrine.  While it is a UNESCO World Heritage site, it is not as frequented by foreign tourists and seems a bit off the beaten tourist track.

11.  Shimogamo-jinja Shrine

This is the twin shrine to Kamigamo-jinja.  Together they are two of the oldest Shinto Shrines in the city and each one is a UNESCO World Heritage site.  The Shimogamo-jinja where the deity Wake-ikazuchi is also enshrined, is at the junction of two rivers -- the Takano and the Kamogawa.
It is a ten minute bus ride from the Kamigamo-jinja.
Shimogamo-jinja is inside one of Kyoto's oldest forests, the Tadasu-no-mori so you walk among centuries-old wooded paths as you go through the shrine's grounds.

12. Byodo-in Temple

Perhaps it was fitting that  I visited Byodo-in Temple towards the end of my visit last December.
Located in Uji, a suburb of Kyoto, it was the perfect way to cap off my latest Kyoto vacation.
Byodo-in's most famous structure is the majestic Phoenix Hall that rises like a vermillion mirage in the middle of a reflecting pond.  The image of the Phoenix Hall is also captured for all posterity
on Japan's 10 yen coin.
Inside the Hall is a statue of the Amida Buddha, compassionate comforter of souls as they pass from this life to the afterlife.
Aside from being in awe of its breathtaking beauty,  I felt  peacefulness of mind and spirit during my visit.
Namu Amida Butsu.

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