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Imperial Villas & Temples Within Easy Reach Of Kyoto

If this is your first visit to Kyoto and you're here for only a couple days, you should concentrate on seeing sights in Kyoto itself. If, however, this is your second trip to Kyoto, you're here for an extended period of time, or you have a passion for traditional Japanese architecture or gardens, there are a number of worthwhile attractions in the region surrounding Kyoto. Foremost on my list is Katsura Imperial Villa.

Note: The Katsura Imperial Villa, Shugakuin Imperial Villa, and Saihoji (popularly called the Moss Temple) all require advance permission to visit. To see the Katsura Imperial Villa or Shugakuin Imperial Villa, which are free, you must apply for permission either online at http://sankan.kunaicho.go.jp at least 4 days before your intended visit; or go in person to the Imperial Household Agency Office (tel. 075/221-1215; no English is spoken and no reservations are accepted by phone, but you can have a Japanese speaker call to see whether space is available), located on the northwest grounds of the Kyoto Imperial Palace near Inui Gomon Gate, a 5-minute walk from Imadegawa subway station. It's open Monday through Friday from 8:45am to noon and 1 to 5pm. In the off season, you may be able to make a reservation for a tour on the same day, though keep in mind that it takes an hour to reach Katsura Imperial Villa and 30 minutes to reach Shugakuin by taxi from the Imperial Household Agency Office. It's always better, therefore, to make a reservation a day or two in advance if applying in person; in spring and fall, try to make a reservation a week in advance. The time of your tour will be designated when you apply. Parties are limited to four persons, everyone must present their passports, and participants must be at least 18 years old. Tours are conducted in Japanese only, but an English-language video is shown.

Tours, which take place weekdays (except holidays) and the third Saturday of every month year-round, as well as on Saturdays in April, May, October, and November (even if they are national holidays), are given at Katsura Imperial Villa at 9am, 10am, 11am, 1:30pm, 2:30pm, and 3:30pm and at Shugakuin Imperial Villa at 9am, 10am, 11am, 1:30pm, and 3pm.

For tours of Saihoji, see below.

Katsura Imperial Villa -- About a 20-minute walk from Katsura Station on the Hankyu railway line, or a 30-minute bus ride from Kyoto Station (take bus no. 33 to the Katsura Rikyu-mae stop) and then an 8-minute walk, this villa is considered the jewel of traditional Japanese architecture and landscape gardening. It was built between 1620 and 1624 by Prince Toshihito, brother of the emperor, with construction continued by Toshihito's son. The garden, markedly influenced by Kobori Enshu, Japan's most famous garden designer, is a "stroll garden" in which each turn of the path brings an entirely new view.

The first thing you notice upon entering Katsura is its simplicity -- the buildings were all made of natural materials, and careful attention was paid to the slopes of the roofs and to the grain, texture, and color of the various woods used. A pavilion for moon viewing, a hall for imperial visits, a teahouse, and other buildings are situated around a pond; as you walk along the pathway, you're treated to views that literally change with each step you take. Islets; stone lanterns; various scenes representing seashores, mountains, and hamlets; manicured trees; and bridges of stone, earth, or wood that arch gracefully over the water -- everything is perfectly balanced. No matter where you stand, the view is complete and in harmony. Every detail was carefully planned down to the stones used in the path, the way the trees twist, and how scenes are reflected in the water. Little wonder the Katsura Imperial Villa has influenced architecture not only in Japan but around the world. Sadly, tours are much too hurried (they last only 1 hr.), and no photography is allowed.

Shugakuin Imperial Villa -- Northeast of Kyoto, about a 40-minute bus ride from Kyoto Station (take bus no. 5 from Kyoto Station to the Shugakuin Rikyu-michi bus stop) and then a 15-minute walk, this villa was built in the mid-1600s as a retirement retreat for Emperor Go-Mizunoo, who came to the throne at age 15 and suddenly abdicated 18 years later to become a monk, passing the throne to his daughter in 1629. Amazingly, though the villa was only 2 hours from the Imperial Palace, the emperor came here only on day trips; he never once spent the night. The 53-hectare (133-acre) grounds, among Kyoto's largest, are situated at the foot of Mount Hiei and are famous for the principle known as "borrowed landscape" in which the surrounding landscape is incorporated in the overall garden design. Grounds are divided into three levels (only two of which have compelling features): The upper garden, with its lake, islands, and waterfalls, is the most extensive of the three and offers grand views of the surrounding countryside from its hillside pavilion. The middle garden, built as a residence for the emperor's daughter, contains a villa with the famous "Shelves of Mist"; in keeping with the Japanese penchant for ranking the best three of everything, this is considered one of the three most beautiful shelves in Japan. The gardens are more spacious and natural than most Japanese-style gardens, which are often small and contrived. Tours, which take 1 hour and 15 minutes and cover about 3km (2 miles), allow ample time for photography.

Saihoji -- Popularly known as the Moss Temple (Kokedera), Saihoji was converted into a Zen temple in 1339 and is famous for its velvety-green moss garden spread underneath the trees. Altogether, there are more than 100 different varieties of moss throughout the grounds, with such popular names as "velvet moss," "water moss," and "snake-stomach moss." They give off an iridescent and mysterious glow that's best just after a rain; indeed, Kyoto's rainy season and high summer humidity create the perfect breeding ground for moss. Before being allowed to visit the grounds, you'll be ushered with other tour participants into a tatami room, where monks light incense, sound the bells, chant for our happiness and ancestry, and instruct participants to write their wishes on a tablet with a calligraphy brush. You can then walk on your own through the moss garden, which looks like it's straight out of a fairy tale and which circles a pond shaped in the Japanese word for heart, and linger as long as you wish; plan on a minimum of 1 hour here.

Note: Because the monks are afraid that huge numbers of visitors will trample the grounds of this UNESCO World Heritage Site to death, permission is needed to visit Saihoji, and you can obtain it only by writing to the temple at least 7 days in advance (applications up to 2 months in advance are accepted). You can write in English to Saihoji Temple, 56 Matsuo Kamigatani-cho, Nishikyo-ku, Kyoto 615-8286 (tel. 075/391-3631), and give your name, your (hotel) address in Japan, your age, the number of people in your group, and the date you'd like to visit (plus second and third choices). Include a self-addressed return envelope; if you want it sent to a hotel in Japan the monks will send it to you free, but if you want it sent outside Japan to your home, include International Reply Coupons for return postage. The cost of the visit is a "donation" of at least ¥3,000 (no change given), payable when you arrive at the temple to pick up your ticket on the day of your tour. To reach Saihoji, take the Hankyu Line from Kawaramachi or Karasuma stations 10 minutes to Katsura and then the Arashiyama Line one stop to Kami-Katsura Station, from which it's a 15-minute walk. Or, take bus no. 73 from Kyoto Station or 63 from downtown Kyoto to the Kokedera-michi stop, but it takes longer.

Byodoin Temple -- Located in the town of Uji, about 18km (11 miles) southeast of Kyoto and a 15-minute ride by express JR train from Kyoto Station, Byodoin Temple (tel. 0774/21-2861) is a good example of temple architecture of the Heian Period. Originally a villa, it was converted into a temple in 1053. Most famous is the main hall, known as Phoenix Hall, the only original building remaining. It has three wings, creating an image of the mythical bird of China, the phoenix; on the gable ends are two bronze phoenixes. On the temple grounds is a National Treasure: one of the most famous bells in Japan (there are no inscriptions on the bell, but it has reliefs of maidens and lions and is thought to contain Korean influences) as well as a monument to Minamoto Yorimasa, who took his own life here after being defeated by the rival Taira clan. Byodoin is best known to Japanese, however, for gracing the back of ¥10 coins. Byodoin is about a 10-minute walk from the Uji JR Station (there's a map of the town in front of the station). Admission to the grounds is ¥600 for adults, ¥400 for junior-high students, and ¥300 for children; ¥300 more for Phoenix Hall. Open daily 8:30am to 5:30pm (9am-4pm Dec-Feb).

Fushimi-Inari Shrine -- Just a 2-minute walk from the JR Inari Station (which is just two stops by local commuter train from Kyoto Station), Fushimi-Inari Shrine (tel. 075/641-7331) is one of Japan's most celebrated Shinto shrines. Founded in 711, it's dedicated to the goddess of rice (rice was collected as taxes during the shogun era) and has therefore long been popular with merchants, who come here to pray for success and prosperity. The 4km (2 1/2-mile) pathway behind the shrine is lined with more than 10,000 red torii, presented by worshipers throughout the ages and by Japanese businesses. There are also stone foxes, which are considered messengers of the gods, usually with a key to the rice granary hanging from their mouths. It's a glorious, almost surreal, walk as you wind through the woods and the tunnel of vermilion-colored torii gates and then gradually climb a hill, where you'll have a good view of Kyoto. At several places along the path are small shops where you can sit down for a bowl of noodles or other refreshments. Admission is free, and the expansive grounds never close. The most popular times to visit are the first day of each month and New Year's, but I prefer weekdays when almost no one is there.

Note: Both Byodoin Temple and Fushimi-Inari Shrine are on the same JR line that continues to Nara. If you plan on spending the night in Nara, you could easily take in these two attractions on the way. Note, however, that the express train to Nara does not stop at JR Inari Station; for that you'll have to take a local train.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.