The Philosopher's Stroll
Start: -- Ginkakuji, the Temple of the Silver Pavilion; from Kyoto Station, take bus no. 32 or 100 to Ginkakuji-mae stop or bus no. 5, 17, 102, 203, or 204 to Ginkakuji-michi stop.
Finish: -- Kyoto Handicraft Center, Marutamachi Dori.
Time: -- Allow about 5 hours, including stops along the way.
Best Times: -- Early on weekdays, when crowds aren't as thick.
Worst Times: -- There is no worst time for this walk.
From the Ginkakuji-mae or Ginkakuji-michi bus stop, head east (toward the wooded hills) along the canal, and continue east when the canal veers to the (right) south, up the gentle slope to:
1. Ginkakuji, the Temple of the Silver Pavilion
This World Heritage Site is the architectural jewel of this stroll. Contrary to its name, however, Ginkakuji isn't silver at all. It was built in 1482 as a retirement villa for Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa, who intended to coat the structure with silver in imitation of the Golden Pavilion built by his grandfather. However, he died before this could be accomplished, which is just as well -- the wood of the Silver Pavilion is spectacular just as it is. The entire complex is designed for enjoyment of the tea ceremony, moon viewing, and other aesthetic pursuits, with a beautiful garden of rippled sand, rocks, and moss. One of the small sandhills is in the image of Mount Fuji. It's easy to imagine the splendor, formality, and grandeur of the life of Japan's upper class as you wander the grounds here. Be sure to take the hillside pathway with its lookout point, dozens of different kinds of moss, and streams; you might be able to escape the crowds that sometimes overwhelm this attraction.
Head back to that narrow canal you saw on the way to the temple, heading south lined with cherry, willow, and maple trees and flanked by a small pathway. It's known as the:
2. Philosopher's Pathway
The name Philosopher's Pathway refers to the fact that, throughout the ages, philosophers and priests have strolled this tranquil canal thinking deep thoughts. It's a particularly beautiful sight in spring during the cherry-blossom season. The pathway runs almost 1.6km (1 mile), allowing you to think your own deep thoughts.
Take A Break -- Approximately 5 minutes down the Philosopher's Pathway, to the right, is Café de Sagan (tel. 075/751-7968), a coffee shop with an English-language menu listing sandwiches, desserts, beer, and juices. It's open Friday to Wednesday from 8am to 5pm, with views of the shaded path through its windows.
At the end of the Philosopher's Pathway (a 30-min. walk), near Nyakuoji Shrine, turn right and walk for a few minutes through a residential area until you reach a street with some traffic on it (and a wooden sign pointing toward Eikando and Nanzenji). Here you should turn left. After a couple of minutes, on the left, you'll come to:
3. Eikando Temple
Founded in 863, this temple (also known as Zenrinji Temple; tel. 075/761-0007; www.eikando.or.jp) derives its popular name from the seventh head priest Eikan (1032-1111), who was loved by the people for attending to the impoverished sick and for planting plum trees as sources of medicine. The temple is famous for a small statue of the Amida Buddha with his head turned, looking back over his shoulder. According to popular lore, it was carved after Eikan, who while walking and reciting chants he believed would propel him toward rebirth, was so astonished to see that the Amida Buddha had descended from the altar and was walking ahead of him that he stopped short in his tracks, whereupon the Buddha looked back over his shoulder and admonished, "Eikan, you are dawdling." How typically Zen. The Buddha facing backward is in the Amidado Hall. Otherwise, there isn't much to see unless it's autumn and the many maples here are at their most glorious. The temple's pagoda, up on a hillside, offers a view over the city. Open daily from 9am to 4pm (last entry); admission is ¥600, except in autumn when it's ¥1,000 and there's also night viewing.
A few minutes' walk farther south brings you to:
4. Nanzenji Temple
Nanzenji Temple (tel. 075/771-0365; www.nanzenji.com) is a Rinzai Zen temple set amid a grove of spruce. One of Kyoto's best-known Zen temples, it was founded in 1293, though its present buildings date from the latter part of the 16th century during the Momoyama Period. Attached to the main hall is a Zen rock garden attributed to Kobori Enshu; it's sometimes called "Young Tigers Crossing the Water" because of the shape of one of the rocks, but the association is a bit of a stretch for me. In the building behind the main hall is a sliding door with a famous painting by Kano Tanyu of a tiger drinking water in a bamboo grove. Spread throughout the temple precincts are a dozen other lesser temples and buildings worth exploring if you have the time, including Nanzen-in, which was built about the same time as Nanzenji Temple and served as the emperor's vacation house whenever he visited the temple grounds. The temple is open daily from 8:40am to 5pm (to 4:30pm in winter); admission to the main hall is ¥500 and to Nanzen-in ¥300.
Take A Break -- Several traditional restaurants near Nanzenji reflect the settings of the temples themselves. Okutan, just north of Nanzenji and with a view of a peaceful pond, has been serving vegetarian tofu meals for 350 years. On the road leading west from Nanzenji are Junsei, serving tofu, obento lunch boxes, and kaiseki in a beautiful garden setting; Goemonjaya, which serves moderately priced set meals and noodles; and Hyotei, which opened more than 300 years ago to serve pilgrims to Nanzenji, offering obento lunches as well as expensive kaiseki.
Head straight out (west) from Nanzenji until you see a body of water on your right, the Lake Biwa Aqueduct. Continue west on Niomon Dori (the water will be on your right) to the vermilion-colored bridge to your right, where you'll also see a vermilion-colored torii. Turn right here and continue straight ahead to Nijo Dori, where you turn left for one of my favorite museums (look for the bright orange installation outside), the:
5. Kyoto Museum of Traditional Crafts (Fureaikan)
This basement museum displays all the Kyoto crafts you can think of, from combs, umbrellas, and fans to textiles, sweets, bambooware, and masks. English-language explanations and videos describe how the crafts are made (mostly by hand). The best news: The museum is free.
Across the street to the north, it would be hard to miss:
6. Heian Shrine
If orange and green are your favorite colors, you're going to love Heian Shrine, one of Kyoto's most famous. Although it was built as late as 1895 in commemoration of the 1,100th anniversary of the founding of Kyoto, Heian Shrine is a replica of the city's first administrative quarters, built in Kyoto in 794, giving you some idea of the architecture back then. The most important thing to see here is the garden, the entrance to which is on your left as you face the main hall. Typical of gardens constructed during the Meiji Era, it's famous for its weeping cherry trees in spring, its irises and waterlilies in summer, and its changing maple leaves in the fall. I love sitting on the bench on the wooden bridge topped by a phoenix; you'll probably want to dawdle here, too.
Take a right out of the shrine's main exit onto Reisen Dori and then take the next right, which after 5 minutes will bring you to the:
7. Kyoto Handicraft Center
This center is located behind the shrine on its north side. It's the best place in Kyoto for one-stop shopping for souvenirs of Japan, including pearls, kimono and the less-formal yukata, fans, paper products, toys, and more.. You may want to take advantage of the free shuttle service the center provides to major hotels in Kyoto four times per afternoon; the last bus departs at 6pm. Otherwise, take bus no. 206 for Kyoto Station or 203 for downtown Kyoto.
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.