Kyoto (Northern Higashiyama)

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November 11th 2019
Published: February 20th 2020
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Our day started early at Ginkaku-ji, the Silver Pavilion, a Zen temple along Kyoto’s eastern mountains. The temple began in 1482 as a retirement villa for shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa, and after his death it was converted into a temple. The interior of the building is not open to the public but it is supposed to contain a statue of Kannon. The shogun's ambition to cover the elegant building with silver (if this was his intention – it’s also possible that the name arose because the moon light reflecting on the building's dark exterior gave it a silvery appearance) was never realized but it is still lovely to behold. In front of Ginkaku-ji is a dry sand garden with a large cone of white sand and ranked undulating sand which is supposed to be symbolic of a mountain and a lake; different from anything I’d quite seen before. There’s a lovely pond, a beautiful moss garden and a path that leads up the mountainside through the trees. While Ginkaku-ji is impressive the garden is arguably the larger draw, especially with the autumn leaves.

The day became rainy as we started our walk along the Philosopher’s Path (Tetsugaku-no-Michi) towards our next location. We stopped for tea and a snack at one of the many canal-side cafes until it subsided. The Philosopher’s Path is supposedly one of the most pleasant walks in Kyoto, especially with the cherry blossoms in the spring or the autumn leaves. The pleasant stone path follows a canal and connects several famous temples and shrines, making it a popular destination but fortunately not with tour groups (or perhaps they weren’t up for walking in the rain). The path gets its name due to Nishida Kitaro, one of Japan's most famous philosophers, who was said to practice meditation while walking this route on his daily commute to Kyoto University.

Our next stop was Eikendo Temple, a Buddhist temple famous for its autumn foliage and for its prominence in the past as a center of learning. It became known as Eikendo in the 11th century to honor the philanthropic priest Eikan, who is credited with acquiring the temple's main object of worship, an unusual statue of the Amida Buddha with his head turned sideways. According to legend, Eikan was walking through the temple one day, when the statue, which was originally facing forward, turned its head towards the priest and talked to him. Eikando's most recognizable building is its Tahoto Pagoda, which is nestled in the trees on the hillside above the temple's other buildings. Visitors can walk up to the pagoda, from where the rest of the temple grounds and the city of Kyoto can be seen; the view from the pagoda is particularly attractive in autumn. We stopped at the teahouse near the Hojo Pond, around which is a beautiful mossy garden, and enjoyed an excellent break while admiring the gorgeous surroundings.

Finally, we visited Nanzen-ji Temple and its Oku-no-in, a Zen Buddhist temple originally established in 1291 and one of the most important Zen temples in all of Japan. Nanzen-ji began as a retirement villa for Emperor Kameyama but was dedicated as a Zen temple on his death in 1291. The grounds here were particularly expansive and we could easily have spent the whole day among the subtemples. At its entrance stands the massive San-mon; from the second story you can enjoy a great view over the temple complex and the city. Beyond the gate is the main hall of the temple, above which you will find the Hōjō, where the Leaping Tiger Garden is a classic Zen garden well worth a look. Outside the Hojo there is a large brick aqueduct that passes through the temple grounds. Paths run alongside the canal lead into the surrounding forest.

Nanzen-ji Oku-no-in, a small shrine hidden in a forested hollow behind the main precinct, is a lovely hike away from the crowds. It’s here that pilgrims pray while standing under a small a waterfall in a beautiful mountain glen, sometimes in the dead of winter. Highly recommended by Lonely Planet but I think if you’re short on time you could skip it.

Dinner was spent at Goya Restaurant, one of the outstanding dining experiences of this trip, allowing us a chance to sample the cuisine from the southwestern islands which we’ll hopefully visit next time around. The Okinawan-style restaurant had plenty of vegetarian options and a large selection of awamori, a rice-based distilled liquor that we’d been wanting to try. We also got to try sea grapes, a type of sea plant that was lots of fun to eat. Clement had fried Okinawan fish, bitter melon stir-fry and boiled and sliced pig ears. If you can't make it to Okinawa you should come here!

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Crab at Ginkaku-jiCrab at Ginkaku-ji
Crab at Ginkaku-ji

Lots of crabs in Kyoto!

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