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Kyoto (a little) off the beaten tracks [E]
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PostYou have posted in this forum: Mon Jul 09, 2007 1:54 pm Back to top

Location : Kyoto (京都)
Prefecture : Kyoto-fu (京都府)
Attractions : You know what Kyoto is famous for. Let's discover other great spots in this great city...

Internet : Kyoto Visitor's Guide


Kyoto station




Kawai Kanjiro's house








Hirano Jinja


Koryu-ji Temple



Kyoto is certainly the center of the "beaten path" in Japan, and rightly so; it was the capital of Japan for 1100 years. Kyoto was spared any bombing during World War II -- reputedly at the behest of American military consultants who recognized its cultural importance, not only for the Japanese but also for the world (There are reports of tacit Japanese agreement not to place any sites of military importance near Kyoto in return for its safekeeping). As a result, much of what you see here is the heart of Japanese history and culture as it has been for many, many centuries.

I personally believe that you can (easily) take about two months to see all the really interesting sights in Kyoto, if you keep busy. Of course most people would tire of this regimen, and four or five days is a reasonable amount to look around town, although many tourists take only two days or so. So there is no shortage of great sights to fill your time in Kyoto.

But if you would like to see something more than just what everybody else sees, here is my list of the top five really special places in Kyoto that foreign tourists seldom visit, but would most certainly find very interesting and enjoyable, even with a limited knowledge of Japanese culture and history. (I'm only talking about cultural sites here, I'm not giving up my secrets on great drinking houses or cheap Chinese restaurants.) It is now the top 5 plus 5, since I've added five more of my favorite "fairly special" places that I think many people would enjoy. Add some of these to your list of places to visit in Kyoto, and an extra couple of days to your schedule to make your visit more memorable.

Notice I said that foreign tourists seldom visit these places, but that doesn't mean that they will be empty! Kyoto is the main Japanese tourist destination and every school child in the country takes at least one (large) school outing there. Many of the temples are quite small and get crowded easily.

In particular, it is best to visit Tai-zo-in, Dai-sen-in, Ko-to-in, and Koryu-ji first thing in the morning before they get too many people; and it's best to visit San-zen-in on week-days. The others are seldom crowded, which is often what I like about them. Koto-in, San-zen-in, and Ko-zan-ji are known for the autumn colors of their maples, and are significantly more crowded when they turn. Double-check at the TIC for the opening hours of all the places you want to visit. Some temples open by 8am, others not till 9am.

Geographically, these spots cover the map of Kyoto, and except for the two temples at Dai-toku-ji, none are particularly "on the way" to another, except that the bus for Ohara (San-zen-in) leaves a few blocks down the street from Dai-toku-ji.

Top 5: (in no particular order)

Taizo-in (退蔵院)

Opening hours : 9:00-17:00, all year round
Entry fee : 500 yen
Special : One Day Experience Course: 7,500 yen (incl. Zazen, Tea, Shodo Experiences, Kaiseki Course), reservation mandatory
Internet :

Tai-zo-in is the oldest (1404) of 40 temples in the Myo-shin-ji (妙心寺) Zen Buddhist monastery complex, in the western part of the city. It has a large and beautiful sand and stone landscape garden (photo left), in addition to nice Zen gardens around the lovely little temple building itself. There is also a famous ink painting "Gourd and Catfish" by the 15th century Zen master Joetsu, and a number of ancient fusuma (sliding door) paintings.

Ceremonial tea is available near the wisteria arbor, with a nice view of the landscape gardens. Tai-zo-in is a very relaxing place when uncrowded. I can easily spend a couple of hours here -- in fact I once lived nearby and often did so. It opens at 9am; get there early. Dai-shi-in, a separate temple on the other side of the Myoshin-ji complex, is also open to the public for a fee, and the central monastery halls, near Taizo-in, can be visited without charge. Most of the other temples are private working monasteries.

Take the funky little Keifuku Kitano Line train from Kitano Hakubaicho (at Imadegawa and Nishi-O-ji streets, near Kitano Tenmangu shrine), get off at the third stop -- Myo-shin-ji-mae -- and walk back a block to the north gate. The large Myoshin-ji complex of 40 temples is surrounded by a wall, with entrances at the North (back) Gate and the main South Gate. Tai-zo-in is near the south end of the pleasant complex. From Kyoto station, the 26 bus stops at Myoshin-ji Kita-Mon (North Gate), or take the 75 bus to Hanazono, near the South Gate.

Kawai Kanjiro's house (河井寛次郎の家)

Opening hours : 10:00-17:00
Entry fee : 900 yen
Internet : (picture from this site)

Kawai Kanjiro (Kawai is his family name), was born in Hagi in 1890 and moved to the Gojo-zaka pottery area of Kyoto at the age of 30. He became famous not only as a potter but as a woodcarver, poet, writer, and a leader of the Folk Art movement, establishing several of the first folk art museums in Japan. He was inspired by the innovative English potter Bernard Leach, who later came to Japan to work with Kanjiro. Kanjiro remodeled this two-story Kyoto house himself, and it is a fascinating home of traditional Japanese folk craft, including the furniture he made himself. Of course his potting wheels and large kiln are in the back, as well as a good collection of some of his unique pottery and wood carvings. His house was opened to the public in 1973, six and a half years after his death at the age of 76.

The house is near the Gojo-zaka intersection, not far from the famous Kyo-mizu Temple. Take the 206 bus from Kyoto station north up Higashi-yama street, and get off at Uma-machi, just before Gojo-zaka. Continue walking north and enter the first alley to the left, then make the first right. The house is about 50 yards up on the right. Walking from Gojo-zaka towards downtown on Gojo street, take the first lane on the left and walk about 70 yards down. Tel (075) 561-3585. Closed Mondays, and I think for an hour or two after lunch. Directly across the street is the tiny home gallery of Shoto Kimura, who makes gorgeous paper-cut art works of traditional Noh and Kabuki themes.

Daitoku-ji (大徳寺)This Rinzai sect Zen Buddhist monastery complex covers a large area that encompasses 23 separate temples. Two of them are of particular interest:

  • Daisen-in (大仙院): There is a whole series of Zen dry sand-and-stone gardens here that date back as far as 1509. If you're into this kind of garden, you can spend quite a while admiring them, as long as it's not too crowded. Opens at 9am. Tour buses start unloading after 10.

    Image 524

  • Koto-in (高桐院): This temple dates back to 1601. It is a small, cozy, and lovely little building with natural gardens sprinkled with maple trees. You can get tea here and sit out on the veranda for a while. Opens at 9am.

Image 522   Image 523

Dai-toku-ji is on Kita-O-ji street between Horikawa and Sen-bon streets, in the north of Kyoto. You can a take a 205 bus from Kyoto station and get off at Dai-toku-ji-mae; many other buses run down this street. Or you can walk over (west) from the Kita-O-ji station at the end of the subway line.

Kozan-ji (高山寺)

Image 521Opening hours : 9:00-17:00
Entry fee : 600 yen

Near Tagano-o hamlet, this small wooden temple (photo left) sits alone amid ancient forest high on the slopes of Mt. Takao, on the outskirts northwest of Kyoto. Dating from 774, it became a Buddhist temple in 1206 and is noted for its traditional Kamakura-period architecture (mostly reconstructed in the 19th century) including the Sekisuin-in building, connected via an interesting covered wooden walkway. It is also well worth visiting the graveyard and the lovely mountain shrines in the ancient forest just behind the temple. Kozan-ji is a very serene, cool, and relaxing place, as there are seldom many visitors, except when the maples that cover the mountain are in full autumn glow.

Ko-zan-ji is the home of the four "Cho-ju Giga", or "Scrolls of Frolicking Birds and Animals", humorous ink-painted picture scrolls (e-maki) executed in the 12th and 13th centuries, several by the priest Kakuyu (a.k.a. Tobasojo). (Clickable photo, left.) These long scrolls, almost 13 inches high, depict birds and animals behaving like people and are clearly satirical although, uncharacteristically, no text accompanies the drawings. Selected short portions of the scrolls are on display and you can buy smaller (but complete) replica scrolls at the temple, which are of good quality but pricy.

The number 8 city bus from Shi-jo/Kawaramachi only goes as far as Takao village - about 2 kilometers short - but there is a Japan Railways rural bus (JR Bus) from in front of Kyoto station that passes Kozan-ji on its way into the countryside. This is the bus to Shu-zan and your stop is at Tsuga-no-o, or Tsuga-no-o Kozan-ji; just tell the driver "Kozan-ji". It runs about every hour, takes 45 minutes to Kozan-ji, and drops you on the road below the temple. From there you walk a few hundred yards up a trail to the temple. There are several other temples in the area and plenty of lovely walking trails, for example down to Kyo-taki waterfall, or back to town via Sawa-no-ike pond. So the bus up to Kozan-ji could be the beginning of a full day off in the hills. The last JR bus returns after 7pm.

Plus 5:

Shosei-en (渉成園)

This is a nice old rambling landscape garden (-en) on a fairly large estate with several old houses, right in the heart of town. There is a large pond on the grounds with a few little bridges, gazebos, huts, and a stream or two. It is not a spectacularly or immaculately landscaped garden (or it would be famously crowded), but it is a pleasant place to walk and sit around, and really gives you the feeling of being out of the city for a while. You cannot normally go into the old houses. I once lived close by, and I don't think I ever saw more than five other people in there at a time. It simply does not aspire to be a tourist attraction.

If you jay-walk directly across Karasuma street from the entrance to the Higashi Hongan-ji temple (two blocks north of Kyoto Station), there is frontage street that jogs in at that point. Continuing east on any one of the lanes near the middle of that street should bring you to the walls of the estate after a few blocks. The entrance is on that (west) side; no English signs. There is a little hut just inside where you are supposed to pay something, but sometimes there is no one there! Once inside, walk around to the right to get to the grounds. Ask at the TIC (Tourist Information Center) for more directions and hours.

Sanzen-in (三千院)

This temple is a little northeast of town in Ohara (大原) village. The temple grounds are large, with various buildings, exhibits, and religious icons. Even if you are tired of such things, the wooded rural setting, grounds, and gardens of the temple are quite pleasant, and it's nice just to get out in the country. Ohara is known for the costumes, songs, and industriousness of its women, known as Ohara-me.

The "Kita 6" (6 north) city bus, which starts at the Kita-O-ji subway station at the intersection of Kita-O-ji and Karasuma streets in the north of town, has Ohara as its final destination. There are also regular JR regional buses from Kyoto Station that pass through Ohara.

Hirano Jinja (平野神社)

This was always my favorite little shrine to visit whenever I was in the neighborhood. It is nice and quiet, but not interesting in any special way; I just like the feelings there. There is a small traditional dance platform in the grounds. The shrine is on the east side of Nishi-O-ji street, a bit north of Imadegawa street. It faces away from Nishi-O-ji and the main entrance is from back streets going up the west side of the Kitano Tenmangu shrine. You can also walk in from Nishi-O-ji down a lane and through the cherry groves of the shrine to get there. It's a nice local neighborhood place to enjoy a cherry-blossom viewing 'fair' in early April. No charge.

Koryu-ji Temple (廣隆寺)

In the Uzumasa section, this temple dates back to 603 AD, before there was a Kyoto, and it has the oldest buildings in town (1165 and 1251). The temple and its grounds are not bad, but the special attraction is a venerated wooden statue of the Maitreya, or Future (Japanese Miroku) Buddha. It dates from the Asuka period (552-645 AD). It's a little smaller than life-size and nowdays is kept distantly behind glass, but if you aren't crowded out, it bears some contemplation (clickable photo at left). Opens at 9am.

Take the little Keifuku Arashiyama Line train from Shi-jo Omiya (near downtown Kyoto) and get off at Uzumasa (太秦), right in front of the temple. This line meets the Keifuku Kitano line at the next station, Katabira-no-Tsugi, and continues to Arashiyama (嵐山).

Temple Fairs

Two large temples in Kyoto host "fairs" once a month, which are a combination of a flea market and a local festival. The main entry path to the temple grounds is lined with temporary stalls selling snack foods, cheap goods, and a few carnival games. And around the outside, individuals spread blanket on the ground to sell all manner of goods, from junk to antiques, artwork to hand-made toys. It's a lot of fun, and about the only place I know of in Japan where you can actually bargain for goods. If you live in Japan, you can get old crockery or other cheap furnishings for your house, and there are usually plenty of old kimonos and yukatas on sale, as well as stacks of more ordinary used clothing.

To-ji temple has its fair on the 21st of each month, from 8 to 5; and Kitano Tenmangu (shrine) has its on the 25th, from 7am to 9pm. In practice, they don't really get going until 9 or 10 am, and taper off in the late afternoon. No charge.

More Esoteric

The Nijo-jinya (二条陣屋), is a real ninja house, just south of Nijo Castle. Regular tours are given by appointment only, and foreigners must have a companion who speaks Japanese. Ask at the Tourist Information Center or check this link (in Japanese) for details.

Shoren-in is another quiet little temple and garden where you can spend a pleasant hour or two. It is near the more crowded (but nice) Choin-in off the Higashi-yama street above Imadegawa. Opens 9am.

A quite esoteric fact is that the Kamo-gawa (river), which runs right through the middle of Kyoto from North to South, is written in two different ways. To the north, before it is joined by the Takano River, it is written as 賀茂川; the arcane characters meaning "Congratulation Luxurient River". But from then on south, it is written as 鴨川, which any Japanese would recognize as "Duck River". Go figure!


As soon as you can after arrival in Kyoto, head for the English-speaking Tourist Information Center. They have the best knowledge and access to local and specialty resources, and they will make enquiries for you in Japanese. The Kyoto TIC is across the street (Shichi-jo Dori) from the front of the main station, around the corner from Kyoto Tower, on Karasuma Street. (The Japanese city infomation center is 100 yards in front of the station, but before you cross the street to Kyoto Tower.) Their phone number is 075-371-5649.

Kyoto Guide : the monthly Kyoto Visitor's Guide on-line!

Japanese Garden is a very nice site from the Bowdoin College with maps and pictures of many Japanese Garden in and around Tokyo

This text was published on Randy Johnson's Favorite Getaways In Rural Japan, which is probably the most comprehensive guide for serious travelers in Japan. Reproduced with the permission of the author.
Pictures are from Wikipedia, from the official web sites of the attractions or from sanji's collection.

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