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  • Writer's pictureDonna Zabel

Temples and Trials--a Day in Kyoto

Updated: Oct 26, 2020

No one would every suggest one day is enough to see everything in this city which the Japanese consider a “must do” for multiple visits. On a tight schedule, that’s all we had, and we made the best of it.

Our plans seemed to be reasonable—take the Shinkansen from Kobe into Kyoto, meet our driver/guide, and follow an itinerary outlined over numerous phone and text messages. By the way, did I mention English is not widely spoken or understood in Japan? And replying “yes” to a phone call or text message could mean “I hear you”, not “I understand you”?

Our “guide” showing up late should have been the first indication the day would not go according to schedule. Still, we were determined to see as much of Kyoto’s legendary sites as possible. Our first stop was the huge Kiyomizu-dera complex. This UNESCO World Heritage site is a highlight of any visit to Kyoto. For centuries it was a site of pilgrimage, and judging from the crowds, today it is as popular with Japanese as foreigners. The giant gate, the pagodas, the temple guardians, the vistas overlooking the city are all amazing.

We followed the crowd going from the towering temple guardians to a passageway behind the main alter, down a dark passageway into total darkness. There a narrow path leads to an ancient Sanskrit carved tablet, illuminated with a modern spotlight. It is meant to be a moment of quiet reflection, but considering my claustrophobic tendencies, I was relieved to travel back up to squinting in the hot sun and retrieve my shoes from the modern guardian demanding a hundred-yen coin.

Our next stop, the Fushimi-Inari Taishi, with thousands of red torii gates, may be Japan’s most photographed symbol. Japanese tradition dictates tribute to Inari, the god of rice, sake and prosperity. Inari gradually became the symbol of entrepreneurial success, with businessmen from all over the country donating gates as a form of blessing. Today the seemingly endless rows of gates are interspersed with refreshment stands and dozens of lovely young Japanese girls being photographed in their rented geisha-styled kimonos. Despite the crowds, the red torii gates do seem to extend into a tranquil eternity.

If there is a symbol of Kyoto, it is the Kinkaku-ji, the Temple of the Golden Pavilion, the spectacular gold-sheathed building. Originally build in 1393 and reconstructed in the 1950’s after a disastrous fire, the upper two levels are coated in gold leaf. We managed to time our visit for late in the afternoon, when the sun leaves dazzling reflections of the building in the surrounding moat. With most visitors gone, we could leisurely stroll the garden paths and admire the building’s shimmering reflections.

As wonderful as the day was, traversing from the Shinkansen station to eastern Kyoto to southern Kyoto to western Kyoto by a well-intentioned but incompetent driver, was exhausting in the summer heat and heavy traffic. Time to head back to the Shinkansen station and a relaxing, air-conditioned ride back home. Next time we’ll try to enjoy more of Kyoto’s fascinating culture—at a more leisurely pace.


· Kyoto is a big city with heavy traffic—plan accordingly, especially during the busy travel months of April-May and September-November.

· Do not mistake all the kimono-clad girls for the real thing. Plan on spending time in Gion to possibly glimpse a genuine geisha en route to an appointment.

· The once-controversial Kyoto Tower, built for the 1964 Summer Olympics and designed to withstand earthquakes, offers a view of Kyoto from its observation tower and a busy food court in the lower level.

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