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Kyoto’s Charming Mix of Past and Present

By: Amy Gibson

Date Posted: 2000-11-10

A visit to Kyoto carries one guarantee: you will not run out of things to do. It is more likely you will run out of time, and perhaps Yen, before visiting all of the area's 1,600 temples, 200 shrines, 3 imperial palaces and countless gardens. Most sites charge a fee of ¥300-800, which can dent a budget after several days of touring. Thankfully, Kyoto's most captivating attraction -- its charming mix of past and present -- comes free of charge and in abundance.

Kyoto was Japan's imperial capital from 784 until 1868, and most of the city's great buildings and gardens were constructed during that time. Civil wars, earthquake and fire destroyed many buildings, but faithful reconstructions have preserved the best of the original architecture and design. Many of the "modern" reconstructions are themselves quite old, dating back as far as the 17th century.

Two important sites are the Kyoto Gosho (Imperial Palace) and the Katsura Imperial Palace. Though the history and architecture of each are interesting, the lush, tranquil gardens are the true standouts. Kyoto Gosho's gardens were designed to represent a "world in miniature," because, in the words of our guide, "the imperial family did not get out much." Thus, a spread of small rocks along the edge of a pond represents the seashore, and a small hill conjures images of mountain ranges. Katsura Imperial Palace features the oldest stroll garden in Japan, incorporating several garden styles including miniature landscapes, karesansui and pond-and-island. The Palace's quiet location, coupled with a strict limit on visitors, makes Katsura a peaceful and soothing destination.

The karesansui (dry-garden) style at first may baffle westerners. Karesansui gardens contain little more than strategically placed gravel and larger rocks, though some may include restrained groupings of moss, small shrubs and trees. Designers of karesansui gardens strive to provide a peaceful, inspirational environment for meditation and contemplation. Even the most skeptical visitor will find that the world-renowned garden at Ryoan-ji, a Buddhist temple, does just that. Its simple arrangement of 15 rocks within a walled space allows you to clear your mind and achieve an incredible degree of focus. Like many of the religious sites in Kyoto, details are significant. For example, in Buddhism the number 15 denotes completeness, yet you cannot see all 15 garden rocks at once, demonstrating the limitations of the physical world.

Other sites are more notable for their architecture and art. Kinkaku-ji, known as the "Temple of the Golden Pavilion" was originally constructed as a retirement villa. The top two stories of the temple building are coated entirely in gold. Perched on the shore of a lake, the structure seems to glow from within. Sanjusangen-do is another dazzling site. The center of worship is a 6-foot-tall, 1,000-handed Kannon carved in the 13th century. It is flanked by 1,000 smaller statues of the Kannon, all identical at first glance. Take a second look -- you will see that each statue is subtly unique. The long rows of serene figures in the hushed temple hall create one of the most striking scenes in all of Kyoto.

The list of Kyoto's "must-sees" is never-ending. It would be terrible to miss the expansive Kiyomizu-dera temple complex, clinging to the slopes of Higashiyama, or Nijo-jo, the Tokugawa shogun's austerely beautiful palace, and its ancient alarm system of squeaking floors. But while the sites are stunning, Kyoto's character -- its long history and rich tradition combined with modern life -- is its most distinctive asset. A Buddhist monk riding the subway, a geisha making her way through the nightlife of Gion, a woman in kimono on her way to the market -- these everyday sights may be most memorable. And best of all, they are free.

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