Pass through the giant Torii gateway in Kyoto, Japan and you will transcend time into a world preserved against the ages. More than an ancient city, Kyoto possesses the legendary flare of the samurai with all the accoutrements of a metropolis. A UNESCO World Heritage site, this city boasts architecture dating back to the tenth century and a medieval beauty so rich that American Secretary of War Henry Stimson struck it from the short list of A-bomb targets. Over 1100 years old, Kyoto has withstood war, natural disaster, and political intrigue. To modern Japanese, Kyoto is the basin of culture and history; where emperors are enthroned, where geisha still clip-clop at twilight along cobblestone avenues, and where the clear waters of Kiyomizu may be the real life fountain of youth.
When traveling there, visitors should divide the city into five areas: the city center, northeast, southeast, northwest, and southwest. Each area is easily accessible via buses, subways, and trains. Don’t worry about language barriers. As you ride along, stops are posted on monitors and announced several times in English. Several day passes are available and can be purchased at train stations and tourist offices. Most likely, you enter the city through Kyoto Japan Rail (JR) Station with your rail pass, a great way to save money. Similar to other cities, it is Kyoto’s commercial heart. If it’s your first time here, make your way to the peripheral areas first where the historical sites will be crowned with fall foliage.
The Northeast or Higashiyama North. Set foot on the Philosopher’s Path and walk along a canal under the thick canopy of fall hues.
Eikan-do: The Temple of the Maple Leaves
From Kyoto Station or the Keihan Sanyjo Station, take city bus #5 and get off at Nanzen-ji Eikando-michi. Walk three minutes toward the mountain. Eikan-do was founded in 855 by a Buddhist priest named Shinsho and in the 11th century the temple was renamed for a philanthropist priest named Eikan. The grounds reach in all directions and boast architecture from several eras. Gardens and ponds dot the landscape. But take special note of the artwork. Painstakingly restored, paintings include a massive collection of Amida Buddha images as well as dragons and phoenixes. Inside the temple, view the statue of Buddha Glancing Backwards. For a spectacular city view, climb up the mountainside through the trees. A clearing up the path offers a outlook over Kyoto bathed in warm red and yellow foliage. After sunset, the temple opens for night visits, a great opportunity to see the art and architecture in a more ethereal perspective.
Leaving the temple gates, take two rights and hug the tree lines to begin the Philosopher’s Path. The stone path winds through several old neighborhoods. To your left, the canal follows along while all around you maple trees encourage you further down the road. Walking north, you can discover small temples and shrines as well as sojourn into cafes and shops. The walk is only thirty minutes but take your time. Have coffee, snap pictures, and enjoy the little discoveries of Kyoto.
Ginkakuji, the Silver Pavilion
The Philosopher’s Path brings you right to its high-hedged entry. Approaching the complex, you walk between a maze of evergreens. The corridor winds and becomes a portal back in time. At the last turn, take a deep breath as everything unfolds at once: cobbled paths, spindly trees that point sideways, ponds, sand gardens, and of course the main temple.
In 1482, Shogun Ashikawa Yoshimasa built the estate as his retirement villa. After his death, it was converted to a Zen temple. Though never covered in silver, the temple which was once covered in shiny lacquer would catch moonlight and reflect it into the grounds in a silvery glow. Overall, Ginkakuji maintains an aesthetic spell over the grounds. Follow the path around to the Sea of Silver Sand where raked sand mimics the ebb and flow of the changing tide. Sit at the steps of one of the minor buildings and watch the leaves and manicured trees bow in the breeze. Or marvel at sand sculpture called the Moon Viewing Platform. For a birdseye view of the grounds, head up the path behind the main building. Through the trees, you can peer down to the lake and temple with Kyoto peeking out from behind.
For a temple that is a little closer to nature head south from Ginkakuji to this mystical Buddhist temple. Flush against the trees and secluded from the main paths, Honen-in has raked gardens, ponds, and stone statues as well as a gently sloping staircase where you can imagine centuries of monks passing over. Here, the trees hang low almost pressing up against the dark buildings. Here, you feel the season. Colors sweep across the somber buildings making them more cheery but magical at the same time.
At the heart of Kyoto, Shijo-dori (Shijo Road) maintains the pulse of the city with its commercial buildings, nightlife, and dining. Close by, the Kyoto Imperial Castle warrants a visit as well. But head out to the periphery of the city—to the east or west and you will find the greatest and smallest treasures of this ancient capital. Wander under the turning leaves along Tetsugaku-no-Michi (The Path of o). Discover quiet temples and stone Buddha statues and end up at Ginkakuji (The Silver Pavillion). Designed as a noble retreat, you enter the grounds by weaving along the walkway lined with tall hedges. Just as you make one final dramatic turn, you step into an estate construct for royalty. Paths bring you passed open pavilions, sand gardens, and trees with spindly branches pointing the way toward the ponds, the central temple, and up the mountain to the trees. Come early when the air is fresh and the walkways unoccupied.