Saturday, February 27, 2016

Kyoto's 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites

It took me more than three years but I finally managed to complete visiting all of Kyoto's 
17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Save for one, all are temples (identified by the suffix -in, -dera or -ji) or Shinto shrines
(identified by the suffix -jinja).   All are easy to get to and most are within the city limits,
accessible by bus, subway  or train.
The easy way to take the bus is to go to Kyoto Station where you can find bus stops marked in english for the most popular tourist destinations.
And dear reader, I googled so you wouldn't have to and have included bus, train and subway information in this post.


Here is a map that I found in the Welcome to Kyoto web page.  (
that shows 16 of the 17 sites.   Enryaku-ji in Mt. Hiei is  the only one that is not shown as it is in
the northeast part of Kyoto, almost at the border of the prefecture.

1. Kiyomizu-dera

Kyoto has many mountains and on top of one of them is the temple Kiyomizu-dera.  It is most famous
for the wooden balcony that juts out from the main hall, giving you an astonishing view of Kyoto.
From this balcony,  you will see masses of cherry blossoms during spring and red maple leaves during fall.  Don't miss a stroll through the picturesque streets of Ninen-zaka  and Sannen-zaka 
after your visit to the temple.
To get to Kiyomizu-dera, take city bus #100 or 206 in front of Kyoto Station and get off at Gojo-zaka  or Kiyomizu-michi bus stop. 

2. Ryoan-ji

This has to be the most photographed and famous karesansui or "dry landscape" garden not just
in Kyoto but perhaps all of Japan.  This peaceful and serene Zen temple with its rock garden is conducive to meditation, as long as you visit very early, before the tourist buses arrive.
I suggest you visit Ryoan-ji together with Kinkaku-ji as the two World Heritage sites are just a 20 minute stroll away from each other.

3. Kinkaku-ji

Tourist guides say that Kinkaku-ji, also called the Golden Pavilion is one of the " Big 3" 
must-sees in Kyoto.  Painted with rich gold leaf, it sits in the middle of a pond,  its mirror image
on the still green water,  burning its image on your mind's eye.
To get to Kinkaku-ji, take bus #59, 100 or 205 from Kyoto Station for the Kinkakuji-michi bus stop.

4. Tenryu-ji

Tenryu-ji is a Zen temple in Arashiyama.  Most of the temple's buildings from the 1300s have 
been rebuilt because of fire, earthquakes and other calamities but its gorgeous garden featuring 
all the beautiful elements of the traditional Japanese landscape garden has survived in all its 
quiet elegance.
To visit Tenryu-ji, take the JR Sagano Line and get off at  Saga - Arashiyama station.  The temple
is a ten minute walk away.  While you're in the area,  take a walk through Arashiyama's famous 
bamboo forest,  which is just behind the temple.

5. Ginkaku-ji

Lush greenery and gardens surround the simple but splendid wooden pavilion of Ginkaku-ji 
also called the Silver Pavilion.  Located in the hills of Higashiyama,  you can catch a glimpse
of the city below when you climb up the winding wooded path.  A visit to Ginkaku-ji is best
paired with a leisurely meander along the Philosopher's Path, one of Kyoto's prettiest walking
areas. Take  bus # 5, 17 or 100 to Ginkaku-ji,  and the temple is a 5 minute walk from
Ginkakuji-mae bus stop.

6. Nishi Hongwan-ji

There are two temples beside each other called the Hongwan-ji -- Nishi and Higashi.
The main attractions are the immense wooden buildings, the Goei-do and the Amida-do.
Both temples are just a few minutes walk from Kyoto Station.  From the station's front entrance, facing Kyoto Tower, just walk straight through to Karasuma-dori and turn left at Shichijo.

7. To-ji

This Shingon temple has deep connections to my favourite Buddhist saint Kobo Daishi who
used to be the temple's abbot.  The towering five story wooden pagoda is the tallest in Japan and
can be seen from various areas of Kyoto.
To-ji also hosts a monthly flea market on the 21st (the day of the saint's birthday) where I find all sorts of irresistible stuff  (or "dust gatherers" as my husband calls them).  
From Kyoto Station, To-ji is a leisurely 30 minute walk (2 kilometres) or a quick 10 minute  ride on bus #202, 207 or 208. You will get off right at the temple entrance. 

8. Ninna-ji

This Shingon temple was founded in the ninth century by a Japanese emperor who later abdicated to become a monk and then went on to become Ninna-ji's abbot.  Talk about a 
career shift!
Ninna-ji is popular during sakura season because of its late blooming omuro sakura.  
A view of the temple's pagoda framed by cherry blossoms is a sight not to be missed.
Ninna-ji is accessible via bus #59 (which also passes through Ryoan-ji and Kinkaku-ji)

9. Enryaku-ji on Mt. Hiei

The only world heritage site that is quite a distance from the city,  the temple complex of 
Enryaku-ji is located on Mt. Hiei, almost at the northeastern border of Kyoto prefecture.
Temple buildings are spread over the mountain with the main buildings located in the Todo area.
Be ready for steep climbs and long walks. 
We got lost on the way to Enryaku-ji so make sure you get on the right train.  The JR Kosei Line 
will take you to the Hieizan/Sakamoto station where you take a bus to go to the cable car that will take you up the mountain.
To go back to Kyoto, take the bus for a slightly longer but no-transfers-trip.

10. Kamigamo jinja 

Kyoto's oldest shrine is near the banks of the Kamogawa.  The entrance is marked by a huge torii which leads the visitor through a surprisingly wide expanse of lawn.  The clear and shallow
Omonoi stream flows serenely through the shrine grounds.
Bus #4 from Kyoto Station will drop you across at Kamigamojinja-mae and from there, you cross the bridge over the Kamogawa to get to the shrine.

11. Shimogamo jinja

Shimogamo-jinja and Kamigamo-jinja are known as the  Kamo shrines because of their proximity
to the Kamogawa or the Kamo River.  It is therefore convenient and efficient to visit both on the
same day.  The Shimogamo abuts an ancient forest right within the city.  It's an ideal place for a
quiet and peaceful walk.
To get to Shimogamo from Kamigamo-jinja, wait outside the shrine at the bus stop for bus #4 and
get off at Shimogamojinja-mae bus stop. 

12. Byodo-in

This magnificent  temple is depicted on the ubiquitous 10 yen coin. Gorgeous Phoenix Hall houses
a golden statue of Amida Buddha.  There is also a gem of a modern underground museum where
the temple's treasures are on display.
Byodo-in is located in Uji, a 15 minute ride away from Kyoto Station via the Rapid Express of the JR Nara Line.

13. Nijojo

Among Kyoto's 17 world heritage sites, only Tokugawa Ieyasu's castle is neither a temple nor a
shrine.   Aside from the very well maintained palace building (with its squeaking "nightingale
floors")  there is a lovely traditional garden and a moat that thoroughly surrounds the palace walls.  During sakura season,  Nijojo is a prime tourist destination for its shidare sakura or weeping cherry blossom trees.
To get to Nijojo, take the Tozai subway line and get off at Nijojo-mae station. 

14. Daigo-ji

The entrance to Daigo-ji is marked by masses of sakura trees which makes it a very popular springtime destination.  The temple grounds sprawl over an entire mountain -- with buildings
on the lower and on the upper parts.  Daigo-ji's very ancient wooden pagoda is Kyoto's oldest building and its main hall or Kondo is a National Treasure.
Like Nijojo, Daigo-ji is on the Tozai subway line. Get off at Daigo Station.

15. Kozan-ji

While many of the shrines and temples are located near or on mountains themselves, to my mind Kozan-ji is the perfect example of a mountain temple.  It exudes a primordial, peaceful air and seemingly blends in with the centuries old forest of Mount Takao. 
Interesting bit of trivia ... Kozan-ji is a "sister temple" of the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi,
reason enough to go out of your way and visit this place.
Kozan-ji is best accessed by JR Bus bound for Takao. Get off at the Toganoo bus stop, closest to
the temple entrance. It takes an hour from Kyoto Station to Kozan-ji by bus.

16. Saiho-ji  (Koke-dera)

This unique and certainly most expansive moss garden in Kyoto requires reservations 
made well ahead of your planned visit.   Visitors to the temple and garden are limited to just 100
per day so you are assured of a quiet and contemplative stroll through one of the most remarkable Japanese gardens you will ever see.
You can take bus #73 or 83 from Kyoto Station to Kokedera Suzumushidera bus stop. In normal traffic conditions, the trip takes almost an hour.

17. Ujigami-jinja

And finally, I saved the oldest for last.  The Honden of Ujigami-jinja is recognised as the oldest existing example of Heian type shrine architecture.  The shrine is simple, unostentatious and set
in a surprisingly small area -- many have remarked that this ancient shrine does not seem like a
world heritage site.
Ujigami-jinja is located in Uji, a fifteen minute train ride out of Kyoto Station on the JR Nara Line.
It is across the Ujigawa from Byodo-in and a visit to both world heritage sites plus a stroll around pleasant and picture-pretty Uji is a good way to spend a day out of Kyoto.

Just to wrap up this extraordinary experience, please indulge my attempt at a haiku --

Seventeen moments
Open the mind to reflect
Buddha's gifts of grace

And as they say in Nihongo ...

Owari (the end).

NB My favourites among these 17 sites are Byodo-in (loveliest),  Ryoan-ji (most thought provoking) and Kozan-ji (most austere).

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