Kyoto: Centuries Of Splendour
by Dalia Miller
Photos: Kip Miller
I pop out of our hotel bed at the stroke of seven and fling the curtains open. The sun is shining brightly, the October sky cloudless. "What a perfect day to journey to Kyoto!" I nudge my husband. We are scheduled to depart Kanazawa on Thunderbird Train Number 14, a trip lasting two and a half hours, allowing us ample time for some background reading on this legendary city, considered Japan's capital of peace and tranquility. "Too bad this is not a bullet train," Jay, our tour director, apologizes as we board, "but you will find the ride to be relatively smooth."

For me the ride is almost irrelevant as I envision our visit to Japan's former capital, its cultural heart for nearly nine hundred years. I am deep into my guidebook when Jay's voice suddenly erupts: "We have just received advance notice that a category five typhoon will be hitting Japan in three or four days," he announces ominously, doing his best to maintain an air of calm. "Fortunately, most of you will have boarded your outbound flights by then." I ignore his warning, returning to a long list of Kyoto's riches: some 1600 Buddhist temples and nearly 400 Shinto shrines, not to mention idyllic gardens where even the most jaded can find a perfect spot for quiet contemplation. "Kyoto was first established around the year 794 and was country's center of power until the 1868 Meiji Revolution that brought its authority to an end," Jay's confident voice deftly changes the weather subject. "You will find it to be the embodiment of the old Japan."

Kyoto's dramatic train station incorporates a luxury hotel and a vast underbelly of shops linked by long escalators and walkways.
Kyoto's contemporary train station is one of Japan's architectural wonders. Designed by Hiroshi Hara, the futuristic structure became operational in 1997 on the 12th-hundred anniversary of the founding of the city. It is the country's largest and serves as a hub for a diverse network of trains and the municipal subway. The site also incorporates a massive shopping mall, the Isetan Department Store, a movie theater, and several government buildings -- all under an enormous 15-story glass-plated exterior. I sneak a glance at my husband and Kathy and Eric, our traveling companions. Everyone seems impressed. "The station is crisscrossed by a series of long escalators and walkways. You will find our hotel, the five-star Granvia, conveniently located at one end of the complex," Jay brags as we arrive at the station. "Terrific," comments my husband as he wheels his hand luggage down a subterranean walkway lined with restaurants and cafes. Numerous eateries beckon, each suitable for a quick lunch. We immediately zero in on Porta, a grill house specializing in okonomiyaki -- luscious vegetable pancakes bursting with potatoes, scallions and herbs. They arrive at our table sizzling in a frypan, which stays warm, allowing each bite to retain its crunchy deliciousness. Nearing the hotel, I listen intently as Jay previews our afternoon tour. He points out our tour bus which will be waiting for us. On our left rises the city's iconic Kyoto Skytower, the city's tallest structure at 131 meters.

Simultaneously contemporary and traditional, Kyoto's
Skytower offers sweeping views in all directions.

"The Skytower was built about 50 years ago on the site of the former central post office," says Jay. "It sits on top of a building that serves as a pedestal and is filled with shops, restaurants, a spa and a tourist information center. There is also a Japanese communal style bath in the basement level. If you have time later, you can take a couple of elevators up to the observation deck where you will be rewarded with amazing views of the entire city." As we stroll toward the hotel, Jay points out a kimono rental shop next to a photo studio. "Some of you ladies may want put on a kimono and other traditional accessories and then have a photo taken. It makes for a great souvenir of the city." I stare back at the tower as we head to the hotel. Even though it appears to resemble a futuristic rocket, its architect, Makoto Tanahashi, actually designed it to evoke a Japanese Buddhist candle.

Perhaps no site in Kyoto is more emblematic of the city's riches than Kinkakuji, or Golden Pavilion, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Situated in northern Kyoto in a magnificent park that overlooks a vast reflecting pond, it was built as the retirement villa for Yoshimitsu, the third shogun of the Ashikaga dynasty. Apparently the shogun left directions in his will that the villa should be converted to a Rinzai sect Buddhist temple after his death. Today the pavilion is the only remaining structure of the shogun's estate and ranks as Japan's most famous site. "Follow my banner through the crowd," Jays instructs as we begin our visit. "It gets extremely crowded here, so I am taking you to a less-known picture spot." We trail behind him, weaving through groups of ebullient students of all ages. I loiter behind our tour group, soaking up the energy of the youths around me. But I am instantly swallowed up by the crowd, with Jay and the rest of the group nowhere to be found. "Never mind. This will be an adventure," I mumble, drowned out by a sea of squealing school girls. All the youths around me are wearing matching uniforms and baseball hats. I attach myself to a red-capped group and follow behind. Before long we arrive at the desired picture spot. The magnificent pavilion is surrounded by a lake, its glittering golden façade reflected in the water. Gold foil on lacquer covers the upper two levels of the temple and inside are numerous Buddhist relics. Atop the roof rises a shining Chinese phoenix, an appropriate icon for a site that has burned repeatedly. An English-speaking guide is belting out his spiel: "This garden is the epitome of a Buddhist paradise and the whole of Japan. It's meant to show that the shogun held the entire world in his hands. Few people know that the imperial house of Japan is registered in the Guinness World of Records as the oldest continuous monarchy in the world!" "How about that," I murmur. "After his death," the guide continues, "most of the buildings except for this Golden Pavilion were relocated elsewhere in Kyoto. Nearby you can see a 700 year old pine tree that the shogun planted."

Kyoto's Golden pavilion, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the most visited attraction in the entire country.
The gardens climb up to a viewpoint surrounded by several exhibit pavilions and crowded concessions selling traditional snacks and souvenirs. I eyeball a T-shirt that would be perfect for my two younger granddaughters. Beyond the crest the site's manicured greenery is magnificent. In the distance, I can make out the mountains that ring Kyoto and rows of tall buildings in its center. The city's urban design was copied from one in China when the emperor relocated to Kyoto from nearby Nara. In those early years Japan absorbed many artistic traditions from the Chinese and Kyoto reigned as Japan's center of power for about 1200 years. I descend a series of stairs and head back to our tour bus where Yuji, Jay's local assistant, is waiting, happy to practice his English on me. Minutes later, in route to our second stop, Jay kicks up his enthusiasm level: We are about to visit his very favorite Zen Buddhist temple.

Ryonaji Temple, a beloved Zen Buddhist site, is renowned for a legendary rock garden with rock clusters that invite endless contemplation and discussion.

"Ryoanji Temple is considered Japan's most famous rock garden," says Jay as we enter the site parking lot. "Hundreds of visitors come here every day to see it. The temple was originally part of a noble villa with magnificent gardens dating from the Heian Period. It was later converted to a Zen temple in 1450 and belongs to the Myoshinji School of the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism." Apparently, the main temple of this sect is located only a kilometer away to the south. "Let's stop by the pond here and take some pictures," suggests Kathy as we head toward the Hojo, the high priest's former residence where the rock garden is located. The outer gardens are exquisitely planted, just as one would expect. Inside the Hojo we remove our shoes and shuffle up a few stairs toward the legendary rock garden. I am relieved that it is not too crowded and I can actually get a close-up. The rectangular plot is filled with gravelly white pebbles and surrounded by low earthen walls. Strategically placed inside are 15 rocks of various sizes laid out in small groups on patches of moss. "There is more to the design than immediately meets the eye," Jay explains. "From any vantage point, at least one of the rock clusters is always hidden from view!" But the meaning of the garden remains unclear. According to some experts, the theme represents a tiger carrying cubs across a pond with rocks, or possibly islands in a sea. Scientists have another take on it. The rock garden personifies the abstract concept of infinity, they claim. I wander off to see more of the Hojo. There are tatami-floored rooms with sliding doors plus a couple of smaller gardens in the rear, not to mention a gift shop brimming with quality souvenirs. Leaving the Hojo, one can wander endlessly along walking trails. "There is a restaurant on the site,' Jay boasts, 'that specializes in a version of Yudofo (boiled tofu). It is absolutely adored the locals, but probably less so by tourists."

Back at the Granvia we are overwhelmed by the hotel's enormous dinner buffet, a mélange of traditional Japanese dishes and western fare, including a line-up of miniature French pastries. "Be ready early in the morning," Jay reminds us. "We will be heading by bus to Nara, a small city north of Kyoto, where we will visit two important sites." But my sore knee tells me that a two-mile hike that is part of our site visit will be too much. Not to worry, I decide. I will stay behind and do a virtual visit on my cell phone plus all the requisite reading to gain an overview of the outing. Everyone will have taken plenty of photos for me to see later.

It's a cloudy day and rain is predicted. My traveling companions are well on their way to Nara and I am seated at the room desk with two guide books and my cell phone. A hotel maid knocks gently and I motion for her to enter and begin her cleaning routine. I glance at her in amazement. Where else do hotel maids wear a gray uniform with a crisp white apron and matching knee socks and gloves? She moves around deftly, trying not to disturb me, finally leaving the room in a state of fastidious perfection. According to my guide book, Nara is a slow-paced city to the north which reigned from 710 to 784 as the beating heart of Japan, having absorbed many elements from Chinese and Korean cultures, including the Buddhist religion under the patronage of several sovereigns and four empresses. "Nara was the cradle of Japanese civilization," Jay had told us earlier, "and Kyoto later became its epicenter."

A mammoth bronze statue of Buddah in Nara is housed in the world's largest wooden building.

Venerated since antiquity, herds of tame, always-hungry deer are allowed to roam free in Nara Park.
Nara is world famous for its park, a massive site created in 1880 at the foot of Mount Wakakusa and encompassing woodland groves, numerous ponds, and wide avenues lined with stone lanterns. The grounds are populated by herds of tame and always-hungry deer that have been venerated since antiquity. "They are considered messengers of the kami (Shinto gods)," Jay had explained in his preview of the site. "But please do not feed them." Located in the park is a five story pagoda, the second highest in Japan, beautifully reflected in an adjoining lake. All visitors head to Todaiji, a temple built to accommodate a mammoth bronze Buddah. In the year 743, the then Emperor Shomu began the construction of a building that could house this great Buddah, today a magnet for worldwide visitors. Even after Nara was eclipsed by Kyoto as the power center of the country, the temple continued to be favored by the emperors. My video shows visitors passing through the great South Gate with several bays and two roofs. The roofs tower over two wooden statues. They are known as the Ni-oh guardians of the site. One statue has its mouth open, the other closed, allegories for the beginning and end of life. A main avenue leads to the great Buddah hall, the Daibutsu-den. Apparently, the site still ranks as the largest wooden building in the world. "The building is 159 feet high and 187 feet wide," the video claims. Inside, the enormous statue of Daibutsu Vairocana sits in a lotus position. He is revered worldwide as the cosmic Buddah, created by Korean craftsmen in the year 751. Unknown to most visitors is a hidden secret hole in one of the building pillars. Legend claims that anyone who can manage to squeeze through it will be guaranteed a place in paradise!

Nara's massive park encompasses woodland groves, ponds and wide avenues lined with stone lanterns.

The park also houses the Nara National Museum and magnificent traditional gardens and ponds. I can easily visualize my husband having a photography field day as he strolls past all the trees, deer and lanterns. At the eastern end of Nara Park, the Kasuga Taisha Shrine hugs the edge of two sacred mountains and a primeval forest. This shrine is world famous for its red pillars and 3,000 moss-covered stone lanterns that were donated by devoted worshippers throughout the centuries. Every summer and winter the lanterns are lit during the popular Mantoro Festivals. Nara Park is unlike any other, a site never to be forgotten, I am convinced. After their two mile hike through the park, I am sure our group worked up quite an appetite and I wonder where they ate. "We tried out one of the popular curry houses in Nara town," Kathy reports upon her return to the hotel. "Yummy food," she notes, promising to send me some of her favorite photos from the visit. I smile back at her and Eric, happy that at least I had my virtual tour and eager to head out on our shopping expedition together.

Japan's traditional arts are well represented at Kyoto's popular Handicrafts Center, located in the Sakyo-ku section of the city. To get there, we grab a special taxi designated for foreigners. "That must mean the driver understands a few words of English," Eric assures us. The cabbie takes us on a scenic drive along the Kamo River, once the notorious site of public executions conducted by the samurai, but today a much-coveted area lined with upscale homes with verandas. Nearby, The Center is housed in a modern two-story building brimming with a large selection of Japan's finest crafts, especially those popular with tourists. There is something for everyone: from woodblock prints and glazed ceramics to miniature Geisha dolls and lacquered plates decorated with gold leaf. English-speaking attendants make our shopping experience both efficient and pleasant. Satisfied that we have fulfilled our entire gift list, we search for a ride back to the hotel. Cab after cab zooms past. At long last, one stops for us but the driver does not understand a word of English. I rummage through my handbag for the hotel card. Minutes later, seated in Granvia's beautiful lobby, we're happy to run into Jay. "Where do you want to eat tonight?" he asks. "How about Italian for a change of pace," suggests Kathy. "Perfect," Jay smiles, himself a huge fan of pasta and pizza. We take a steep escalator down to Monte Romano, a popular establishment deep in the bowels of the station complex. The owner is tickled to try out his English on us, revealing that he had apprenticed at an Italian restaurant in San Diego years earlier. "We make all our pasta on the premises," he boasts.

It's our final day in Kyoto and the weather prediction is dire. The typhoon, now named Hagibis, is scheduled to make landfall in Osaka and Tokyo in about 36 hours. We will be departing Japan in the nick of time! Our morning outing includes visits to two sites that are de rigueur in Kyoto. The first, Sanjusangen-do Temple, is considered a national treasure and was established in 1164 by a powerful warrior named Taira-no-Kiyomori. "When you see it, it will take your breath away," promises Jay. At the temple site we enter an enormous long hall densely packed with rows of statues of the Buddhist deity Kannon. There are 1001 in total, guarded by 28 additional protector statues. All are standing, except for an oversized seated statue in the center. "The origins of the temple date back to 12th century India," Jay explains. "All these figures are made out of Japanese cypress." We are bowled over by the sea of statues and their guardian deities. "Each statue is made from pieces," he divulges. "Arms, legs, heads and torsos are selected from a stockpile and then assembled, lacquered and colored," "Sounds like a deity factory to me!" chuckles my husband. Photos are strictly forbidden, but I sneak a shot of Kannon as featured in our guidebook.

The seated, gilded goddess Kannon is the centerpiece of Sanjusangen-do Temple,
a sacred Buddhist site displaying 1001 goddess statues lined in rows.

Nijo-jo Castle housed Japan's reigning shoguns until 1867. A showstopper, it features breathtaking gardens, a dramatic Chinese style castle gate and 33 tatami-lined rooms with sliding panels.
Nijo-jo Castle, a short drive north of the temple, was built in the year 1603 by the first Tokugawa shogun, Ieyasu, to serve as his temporary residence and that of future reigning shoguns whenever in Kyoto. "It was a symbol of the dynasty's power for 15 generations, until the last shogun's abdication in 1867, and it became a great gathering place for feudal lords," Jay notes "Inside there are 33 rooms, most for guests, lined with some 800 tatami floor mats." The bus finds a spot in the overcrowded parking lot and we blend into a sea of visitors headed toward the Chinese style castle gate, the richly gilded Kara-mon, a structure that sets the tone for the grandeur of Nonomaru Palace to follow. "After you take off your shoes, follow me around the perimeter of the palace rooms. No photos are permitted, but you what you see will be permanently etched in your memory," Jay sets the rules of the visit. There are coffered ceilings, majestic alcoves, beautifully painted sliding panels depicting herons and peacocks, and hidden alcoves from which guards could emerge in the event of a sudden threat to the shogun. "The original artists were part of eight generations of the Kano school that began in the 15th century and utilized a black monochromatic style," Jay explains. Apparently, gold leaf and other colors were added in subsequent years. Beyond the castle, a series of gardens dazzle visitors with a reflecting pond, three islands and a profusion of topiary pines, every inch a veritable feast for the eyes.

Gion, Japan's world famous geisha district, is home to 700 tea houses and nearly 3,000 working geisha.
With free time in the afternoon, our group disperses in different directions. Some head to Nishiki, a pedestrianized, covered food market known as the "Belly of Kyoto." Others travel farther to the city's celebrated bamboo grove located in the Arashiyama Mountains to the west. Kathy and Eric head toward a famous walking area known as Philosopher's Path, set along a scenic canal shaded by willows and cherry trees. The two of us accompany Jay to Kyoto's famous geisha district, Gion. During its heyday in the first half of the 19th century, it was home to about 700 tea houses and 3000 working geisha. Here, too, the Spielberg-produced film, "Memoirs of a Geisha," was made. Today the district is much diminished, but still evokes its original charm. We wander through narrow, cobbled lanes, past doorways overhung with lanterns and facades accented with bamboo and bonsai. Whenever we can, we stop to photograph a "maiko," a geisha in training, as she heads out to shop. Jay points out Gion's most celebrated geisha house, Ichiriki, distinguished by red panels. Steps away is the city's famous Kobu Kabu Renjo Theater, where one see (and dearly pay for) a top-notch geisha performance. "Since we will be having a traditional meal later tonight," Jay suggests, "how about an Italian lunch?" We follow him to Rigoletto Smoke Grill and Bar, his very favorite trattoria in Gion. A crisp salad and sizzling pizza plus chilled local beer are the perfect lunch.

Skirting a lake off Kyoto's Biwa Canal, Tempura Endo Okaskaki is an elegant restaurant renowned for artfully-presented tempura and side dishes.

For our last night in Japan, what better place for a celebration than an elegant tempura restaurant skirting a lake off Kyoto's Biwa Canal. We follow a stone pathway illuminated by paper lanterns to Tempura Endo Okazaki, an airy multi-room establishment world famous for its Kyoto style creations served on long banquet tables. Chef Kayushi and attentive kimono-clad waitresses explain each course of the feast, from fresh seasonal vegetables dipped in a special corneal batter and crispy fried in premium cottonseed oil to prawns stuffed with shitake mushrooms and other seafood delicacies. Every morsel is delicious and artistically presented. I find their palate-cleansing red miso soup especially memorable. We sit back and relax. It has been an extraordinary trip and heartfelt toasts of appreciation are extended around the table to Jay, who has been beaming all evening. As we depart, I am convinced that we were blessed with the best tour director Japan has to offer.

By the time we arrive at Osaka's Kansai Airport for our flight home, the typhoon warning signs are everywhere, and Tokyo, directly in the path of the storm, is frantically boarding up windows and issuing stern directives to locals and tourists. Some of our fellow tour members cancelled their extension to Hiroshima in the south and headed north to Hokkaido Island, well out of the Hagibis's path. At our two-hour layover in San Francisco between planes, I catch some coverage of the violent storm. Thousands left Tokyo to escape the destructive winds and record-breaking waves. "We made it out just in the nick of in time," sighs my husband, thrilled that we'll retain nothing but great memories of our journey to Japan.