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[Outbound]: Kyoto
A journey into the cultural heart of Japan. Buddhist Temples, Shinto shrines, serene rock gardens, and other spiritual pursuits...
By May 27, 2014
If anywhere is a preservation success story, a place that manages the delicate intertwining of modern and ancient with a deliberateness and brilliance of design, it’s Kyoto.

It’s also home to Nintendo's headquarters.

Delicate paper lanterns line the narrow streets where old machiya (wooden merchants’ houses), still stand. Shop windows display artisanal crafts and exquisitely patterned fabrics. Small restaurants house slender conveyor belts with their tantalizing parades of sushi.

Also: Nintendo.

Kyoto’s reign as the Japanese capital city lasted more than a thousand years, from 794 until 1868. While no longer the capital, it is still regarded as the cultural heart of Japan. You almost can’t turn around without tripping over a UNESCO World Heritage site. The city’s 17 include a collection of Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, and a castle.

(Pssst. Nintendo.)

Photography by Emily Walz

Kyoto is a lovely city with plenty to see and do, and is incredibly easy to navigate. The free city tourist map is all the guidebook you’d need, dotted with more sites than anyone could see in a week. Find a copy at the Tourist Information Center at Kyoto station right when you get into town, or download a copy before you go.

The temples shelter meticulous gardens whose strolling paths are designed to suddenly reveal breathtaking views. The sound of rushing water comes from stone troughs beside the temple entrance into which small spigots continuously flow. The ritual is to dip in one of the bamboo cups and pour a little over each hand, the cool clear water a purification of the soul. Here's a run down on a couple of the key areas and sites:

The gate to the temple complex, a niōmon 仁王門, or gate guarded by two kings.

Kiyomizu-dera 清水寺

Nestled in the Higashiyama district in the foothills of Kyoto’s eastern mountains, this Buddhist temple is perhaps most famous for the views from the large wooden veranda, looking down on the city. The walk up the hill is part of a district of narrow lanes perfect for wandering in and out of cafés and souvenir shops.

鳥居 Torii gate at Jishu-jinja Shrine’s entrance, marking the transition from the profane into the sacred.

Past the veranda is the Jishu-jinja Shrine for lovers. Up the stairs is a pair of “love stones” you’re supposed to walk between with eyes shut to find true love. Yes, indeed.

The name of Kiyomizu-dera, or the temple of clear water, comes from the waterfalls. Find them cascading over a stone archway down the hill past the veranda. Legend has it your supposed to drink for luck.

Kinkaku-ji 金閣寺, The Golden Pavilion

The site was first a villa, purchased by a shogun, who built the pavilion in 1397. It was later converted to a Zen Buddhist temple. The first pavilion burnt to the ground in 1950 in a scandalous act of arson committed by a schizophrenic monk living on the grounds. The story shocked and sensationalized, but in 1955 the pavilion was re-built, covered with more gold leaf than ever.

The grounds are a Muromachi period garden, a “classical” phase of garden design that focused on integrating structure with landscape. All this might sound intimidating to the uninitiated, but try looking. The pavilion extends out over the water, the gold shining in the sunlight, the entire landscape perfectly reflected in the water of the 鏡湖池 “mirror pond,” whose rocky islands are said to represent the islands of Japan. Other outcroppings are the boats anchored on their way to the mythological Isle of Eternal Life.

Ginkaku-ji is the corresponding “Silver Pavilion” across town, built by the grandson of the shogun who built the gold one, though plans to cover it in silver were never realized.

Fushimi Inari 伏見稲荷大社

This Shinto shrine on the south side of the city is dedicated to Inari, the god of rice, traditionally the patron deity of merchants and manufacturers. Rows and rows the bright red-orange torii (gates) align to form tunnels, each inscribed with the names of their donors, on the trails leading up sacred Mount Inari.

It takes a million yen to buy a big gate, but for those devotees who haven’t struck it rich yet, you can leave little ones.

Ryoan-ji 龍安寺

The heart of Ryoan-jiis a spare Zen garden: carefully arranged rocks, meticulously raked pebbles, the occasional patch of moss. These famous 15 rocks (whose designer still remains a mystery) have been in place since approximately the year 1450. Their arrangement is the subject of much speculation: do they represent a tiger carrying her cubs? Islands in an ocean? Mountain peaks shrouded in clouds?

Some argue that to ask the question misses the point of the garden entirely. Viewers can sit and ponder, gazing down on it from the wooden veranda running along one side.

If all of the temples start looking alike, Kyoto has a few other tricks up its sleeve:

Lounge and read one of the Manga Museum's 50,000 volumes from its Wall of Manga, or stop into one of Kyoto’s several art museums. If you’re looking for an introduction to traditional Japanese art and culture, it’s possible to dye a kimono or participate in an introductory tea ceremony.


The Gion district and Ponto-chō have ritzy fusion and pristine Japanese restaurants, with outdoor dining on wooden patios extending over the riverside in the warmer months. The Nishiki market, popular with locals and tourists both, began as a fish market sometime in the 14th century. Though most stands are retailers, occasional stalls allow visitors to eat on-site.

Kaiseki originated from tea ceremony dishes, evolving into a dining experience with a set order of courses and emphasis on fresh, local ingredients. Typically served at traditional Japanese inns, kaiseki can be purchased independently, but is on the more expensive side of Kyoto’s dining options.

If you’re looking for a gift that captures some of the taste-sensations you’ve tried, Kyoto has green tea-flavored everything: besides the matcha ice cream, there are boxes of all kinds of sweets: cookies, pastries, chocolates and, of course, the actual matcha powder itself.

Convenience stores sell small, colorful 100ml squared boxes that look like juice boxes. Actually, they’re sake. Hunt through a supermarket to find sake-filled chocolate bonbons.


What am I forgetting... Nintendo!

It's just a sober-looking white office building. It looks like this. They don't let you in. There's no tours or anything.

From their homepage Q&A:

Q: Can I take a tour of Nintendo’s factories/offices?

A: Since we are entrusted with the business secrets of our various licensee companies, we do not offer factory tours or company tours. Please take note.

There you have it. It's all Wonka-ed up and they're busy working on marvelous and wondrous things in total secret.

Alas. Still the rest of Kyoto...



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