Kyoto - City of the Shoguns

Kyoto - City of the Shoguns photo

Ancient Japan lives in Kyoto. This is Japan's most traditional city and its spiritual heart. For more than ten centuries, it was the home of the Shoguns and the center of Japanese civilization. About 200 Shinto shrines and over 1,500 Buddhist temples bear testimony to Kyoto's position as Japan's capital and cultural center for over 1,100 years, from 794 to 1868.

No visit to Japan is complete without time spent in Kyoto, exploring its sights and finding peace and serenity in temple gardens. In addition to its many temples, you'll find the palaces and royal gardens of the Shoguns. Like the city itself, Kyoto's hotels range for the traditional to the ultra-modern - book in advance to secure the best deal.

Unlike Tokyo, Kyoto is the real Japan. The dark wood of its ancient buildings seems to welcome you with a mystery and coziness that can only be found in Japan. This sprawling metropolis has the warmth and feeling of a small village, perhaps because of the height of its wooden buildings. A two-story house is almost as tall as the average Westerner. To many, the old city resembles an oversized Liliput.

In stark contrast to the houses that line the narrow streets, the temples and imperial residences loom large and rambling, sometimes taking up an entire city block. One of the grandest is the Kinkaku-ji Temple, also known as the Gold Pavilion.

Originally built as a villa for a Shogun, it was later converted into a temple. Fire destroyed the original building, constructed 600 years ago. What you see today is an exact replica. Around it is lies one of the loveliest of the royal gardens.

To appreciate the power and might of the Tokugawa Shoguns, Japan's most powerful military dictators, you must visit Nijo Castle, their residence until 1868. Built in 1603 as the first residence of Leyasu, first Shogun of the Tokugawa family, it resembles a fortress more than a home. Despite its moat, turrets, and massive entrance, this is obviously no fortress, but the spacious, glittering residence of a military dictator who could afford to rival the emperor in the size and show of his palace. Beyond the ornate iron-plated East Gate, stands a wide court with five connected buildings. All are profusely decorated with rich wood carvings, sculptures, murals, painted sliding doors and gilded ceilings.

Compared to the lavish beauty of Nijo Castle, The Ryoan-ji Temple offers simplicity. The rock and sand garden of this Zen temple is probably one of the most photographed spots in Japan. The famous garden, 15 stones arranged in groups of 5, 2, 3, 2, 3, on a bed of raked sand, is both simple and suggestive. What you see will depend on a quiet mind and a free imagination.

To get an idea of what the first imperial palace looked like in 794, visit the Heian Shrine, constructed in 1895 to celebrate the 1,100th anniversary of the founding of Kyoto. Its builders modeled if after the first imperial palace, complete with gardens overflowing with cherry and iris blossoms in the Spring.

Beyond the palaces of the Shoguns, Kyoto is full of national treasures. One of these, the Sanjusangendo Hall, dates from 1266 and is known for its wooden image of the Thousand Handed Goddess, the Buddhist personification of Mercy or Compassion. It was created by the Japanese sculptor, Tankei, when he was 82 years old. Flanking it are 1,000 other, smaller, standing images of the goddess.

The crowning achievement of Japanese architecture is the Katsura Villa. The is abstract art on a large scale and one of several distinct functional styles in traditional Japanese building. This building with its garden is perhaps the ultimate expression of that peculiar Japanese mentality in which discipline is so ingrained in art, building, and nature that they become one.

The Villa's builders employed only the simplest of natural materials combined with logic to produce the timeless, distant, abstract beauty of clear water and utter silence. Nothing is out of place. No human passion or daily disorder could survive in this fragile work of art. Katsura is an experience in the mind, a cerebral thought of great subtlety, uniquely Japanese, as is the City of Kyoto, itself.