Last month (April 16-17) CIEE students who have been here since fall semester got to visit Kyoto for the weekend. Kyoto was Japan's capital for over 1000 years. The emperor resided here from 794 until 1868 when the capital was moved to Tokyo. The city is known for its traditional Japanese culture and important historical sites.
We left on Saturday morning and took the shinkansen to Kyoto station, about 2 1/2 hours. After dropping luggage at a hotel, we split into small groups and individuals set off to explore the city independently. Each of us was responsible for investigating a certain aspect of Kyoto as part of a small project: food, theater, handicrafts, Buddhism, etc. It seemed like a lot of people chose something related to visiting shrines and temples in the area. Kyoto has around 2000 Buddhist temples scattered throughout the city, and since we only had about 6 hours to wander around, I decided visiting temples would be the best use of my time.
I took a bus to a temple northeast of the station called Ginkakuji. From there I could easily walk to the meeting point via a scenic stone pathway called tetsugaku no michi or "path of philosophy/philosopher's walk." I had picked out 9 temples I would be able to tour along the path during my 6 hour time period, although I was only able to see 7 in the end.
Some temples were smaller and built low to the ground, composed of modest wooden corridors that bent around the temple gardens. Others featured more robust, towering main halls, gold leaf decorated walls, and extensive Buddhist iconography. All seemed to be dressed in the same off-white and dark wood covering the outside.
When our time was up, we met at Yasaka Shrine and walked through Maruyama Park to a restaraunt where we ate traditional Kyoto cooking.
That night, we attended a show at Gion Corner where we experienced a medely of traditional Japanese arts. The show included short demonstrations of Kyogen theater, Bunraku puppetry, tea ceremony, flower aranging, koto music, and traditional Gagaku court music.
The next morning we split into two groups for a bike tour that took us through Gion, a famous geisha district, and brought us to the Imperial Palace. Along the way, our group stopped at a mochi shop where we had tea and sakura mochi, a sweet pink rice cake wrapped in a salty sakura leaf. Even though it was mid April, I was happy to see there were still sakura in bloom around the city, as Kyoto is supposed to be one of the greatest places to see them in season. On the ride back, we rode along the bank of the Kamo River where many families had come to eat lunch together in the grass.
Our lunch plans were at a restaurant specializing in shojin-ryori, the vegetarian cooking traditionally served to Buddhist monks. The restaurant was located in the grounds of Daitokuji temple and was a bit of a hike by bus. The food was delicious and I have to say I don't think I've seen tofu served so many ways in one meal.
Overall it was a great trip and one of my favorite places I've visited in Japan so far. I could easily spend a full week there and still not see everything worth seeing.