In May, my friend and former flatmate Dave will be visiting Japan with his wife. As I call the country home at the moment, I feel a certain responsibility to ensure it lives up to expectations.
Although meeting me in Tokyo will undoubtedly be the highlight of his travels, to truly witness the historical beauty of Japan that I've shown off on Instagram, I think Kyoto is a must-see.
To ensure Dave has a good trip and I don’t have to commit seppuku, here are the reasons why he - and by extension, you - should go to Kyoto.
The historical capital of Japan
For over a thousand years, Kyoto was the Imperial capital of Japan and home to the Emperor. There are so many places of historical value there that the city was actually dropped from the target list for the atomic bomb in WW2.
So basically, the awesome Japanese stuff there was so beautiful and so traditional that even the Americans appreciated it enough not to bomb it.
If that’s not a good reason to go, I don’t know what is.
What’s the difference between a Buddhist temple and a Shinto shrine?
Most of the attractions in Kyoto are either temples or shrines.
Shrines are all about Shinto, the ancient religion of Japan. They have large gates at the entrance that symbolize moving from profane to sacred ground. They’ll often have the word -jingu in the name (such as Meiji-Jingu in Tokyo) and this is where you’ll see people washing their hands before they enter and doing a clapping ritual as they throw a coin for good luck.
Shinto is absolutely fascinating. The TL;DR is that it’s more a system of traditions and superstitions, rather than beliefs and dogma that will damn you to Hell (like more familiar religions).
People write their wishes and draw on small wooden plaques (Ema) shaped like the fox messengers of the God Inari at the Fushimi Inari shrine
The Gods - known as Kami - are sort of like spirits in things or concepts related to daily life, such as the elemental force of thunder, a mountain, or even vegetables and old tools.
These spirits are not omnipotent, they’re just a higher manifestation of the energy of life. So they’ll often intervene if you’re nice to them, like helping you pass exams or other things that are important to Japanese people.
In the greater scheme of things, ‘good’ is the default setting for life. Therefore ‘bad’ is whatever pisses off the spirits. This is why you should be loyal to your ancestors and why people are dedicated to a local shrine, rather than the religion as a whole.
Here’s a picture of my girlfriend’s purse to explain further:
This depicts Tsukumogami, or household objects which have acquired their own spirit by becoming 100 years old. In folklore, they’re animate and self-aware.
What do they do? Hopefully, it’s the same thing I would do if I was an umbrella that just got a soul: playfully fuck with humans. Think about that the next time you go to throw out an old screwdriver.
So that’s why shrines are important. As for temples… well, they’re just your regular ‘ole Buddhist temples. They’ll feature quiet prayers and pagodas, and will have -ji in the name.
If you go to Kyoto, make sure you visit these ones because they’re badass:
Fushimi Inari-taisha 伏見稲荷大社
The number one thing to do in Kyoto, according to TripAdvisor.
This is the head shrine of Inari, the God of rice and therefore business. There are more than 10,000 orange gates that stretch all around the mountain. Each was donated by a company or business saying thank you for prosperity or hoping for more.
Note: Feel free to send money via PayPal so I can get one for this website.
Inari's messengers are depicted as foxes, so there are a lot of very cool fox items to purchase. It’s crowded but if you go early or late and walk for about an hour around the mountain, you’ll be able to get a clear photo of the pathway.
Kinkaku-ji / Golden Pavilion 金閣寺
The most famous temple in Kyoto. It was built at the end of the 14th century as a villa for the Shogun and is covered in gold leaf.
If you’re wondering, the Shogun was sort of a military dictator. Just like me and Dave aspired to be at university.
The pagoda at this one looks like something out of a ninja movie. Apparently less popular to visit, but totally worth it.
This is the oldest zen temple in Kyoto. Check out the relatively recent ceiling painting of dragons that was included to celebrate the temple’s 800th anniversary in 2002.
This one has Japan’s most famous rock garden. There are 15 stones in the garden, but because of the angles, you can only see fourteen at once. Number fifteen supposedly only becomes visible after enlightenment.
Presumably, I’ll be able to see it next time I go.
Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
You could spend hours in here. It's like entering an ethereal plane, only with bicycles for rent.
If you do get templed out, it’s worth having a wander around the traditional arts and entertainment district of Gion in the evening. You might get lucky and see a geisha slip down one of the back streets.
If you do spot one, remember you’re not allowed to touch them:
I'm going to hazard a guess that there was an increase in Chinese tourists recently.
To make up for the fact that you can’t do all your favourite things on the street in Gion, take the train to Nara for a day. Here you’ll find plenty of other temples and shrines, as well as deer meandering freely through the streets and parks.
Pick up a bag of deer cookies to feed them and watch them bow their heads to you. Even the wildlife is polite in Japan.
Well, until I attempted to take a deer selfie.
So, after all that, did I convince you to go to Kyoto?
Leave a comment below. Or if you've already been, post your deer selfies!
Photo credit: These ones are all mine, except Yuka Goto (deer / don't touch the geishas!) and Wikimedia Commons (cover photo - Paul Vlaar).