Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Temples Upon Temples

I've never been to somewhere that's so beautiful in the dead of winter. Despite the rain, the dreary skies, the dormant plants, Kyoto struck me as an immaculate and gorgeous place. As the historic capital of Japan for more than a millennia, and a center for Zen Buddhism, the city is incredibly well preserved. There are temples peeking around every corner, nondescript and nameless to foreigners, each one of them a masterpiece of balance, symmetry, and attention to detail.

There are so many UNESCO World Heritage sites that in my nine days in the city, I could only experience a handful. For example, Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Temple - such a stunning site when lit up by the slanting afternoon rays.

And Ginkaku-ji, the Silver Temple, surrounded by a lush zen garden, even in the middle of winter. I can't even begin to imagine how breathtaking the place must look in April, when all the famous cherry blossoms bloom. Part of the charm of these places is the immaculate attention to order and cleanliness. Each plant, each pathway, each flower is shaped and maintained to perfection. Workers sweep sand off walking lanes and shake dead leaves off of tree branches.  

I was also able to explore sites such as Nijo Castle and Kodai-ji Temple, all located within the city itself. It was amazing how I could walk down busy city streets, full of shops and small restaurants, up a few cobbled pathways, and find myself immersed in a completely different world of nature and silence. The temples are quite empty at this time of year, as it is in between peak seasons for tourism. I enjoyed the emptiness and the stillness. 

One of my favorite places that we visited was the Katsura Imperial Villa, a little bit outside of the city. We had to make a special appointment to book a tour, because the number of tours given per day and the size of the tour groups is limited. The officials there were quite strict about the visit, checking our passports and keeping all the tourists together. I think they were afraid of people disturbing any part of the natural and man-made beauty of the place. The scene felt like a blown-up version of a perfect little bonzai pot. 

Even coffee shops have their own zen garden courtyards! So much peace. Generally, I have found that everything is quieter in Japan, from the announcements in the subway trains to the conversations people have. Everything is a bit more muted, tranquil, and deliberate. Sounds are careful and intentional. 

The food and drink in Kyoto were also amazing, though they deserve a whole separate post! 


  1. A friend of mine went to Kyoto in July, 1994, almost 20 years ago. He still has fond memories of the visiting.

  2. I'm sure I'll remember my time in 20 years!