A Stroll Through Higashiyama-Ku
Start: -- Sanjusangendo Hall on Shichijo Dori a couple of blocks east of the Kamo River; to get there, walk 20 minutes from Kyoto Station or take bus no. 100, 206, or 208 to Hakubutsukan Sanjusangendo-mae.
Finish: -- Gion.
Time: -- Allow approximately 5 hours, including stops for shopping and museums.
Best Times: -- Weekdays, when temples and shops aren't as crowded.
Worst Times: -- There is no worst day for this tour.
1. Sanjusangendo Hall
This hall dates from 1266 and is only about 15m (50 ft.) wide, but stretches almost 120m (400 ft.), making it the longest wooden building in Japan. However, it's not the building itself that impresses but what it contains -- 1,001 life-size images of the thousand-handed Kannon. Seeing so many of them -- row upon row of gold figures, glowing in the dark hall -- is stunning (unfortunately, no photographs or videos allowed). In the middle is a 3.3m-tall (11-ft.) seated figure of Kannon carved in 1254. At the back of the hall is a 117m (384-ft.) archery range where a competition is held every January 15.
Across the street is the:
2. Kyoto National Museum (Kokuritsu Hakubutsukan)
In 1889, the Meiji government, fearful that Japan's cultural objects were going the way of the samurai with the increasing import of Western ways and products, established three national museums -- one in Tokyo, one in Nara, and this one in Kyoto, which serves as a repository for art objects and treasures that once belonged to Kyoto's temples and royal court. It's presently undergoing renovation, however, with an expected reopening of its permanent collection of ceramics, paintings, lacquerware, textiles, sculptures, and other precious objects after 2013. Until then, special exhibitions are mounted three to four times a year.
East of the Kyoto National Museum (toward the wooded hills) are Higashioji Dori and a stoplight; take a left and walk about 5 minutes until you come to the second stoplight, at a small intersection with a Sunkus convenience store. Turn left here, take the first right down a narrow street, and to your right you'll soon see:
3. Kawai Kanjiro Memorial House
Kawai Kanjiro Memorial House, Gojo-zaka (tel. 075/561-3585), is the former home and studio of one of Japan's most well-known potters, Kawai Kanjiro (1890-1966). Inspired at a young age by Bernard Leach and one of the cofounders of the Japan Folk Crafts Museum in Tokyo, this versatile man handmade much of the furniture in this lovely home, which is a traditional Japanese house with an indoor open-pit fireplace and gleaming woodwork. Pottery, personal effects, and his outdoor clay kiln, built on a slope in the traditional Japanese method, are all on display, but this museum is worth seeing for the house alone, especially if you haven't had much opportunity to see the interiors of traditional Japanese homes. Admission is ¥900 for adults, ¥500 for students, and ¥300 for children. It's open Tuesday to Sunday from 10am to 5pm.
Take a right out of the museum, walk to the busy road with the overpass, and turn right. When you get to the big intersection, look catty-corner across the intersection to the left and you'll see a slope leading uphill between two big stone lanterns. This marks the entrance to the:
4. Otani Mausoleum
It serves as a major mausoleum for members of Shin Buddhism (a Japanese religious sect). In addition to a memorial hall dedicated to victims of World War II, it holds many memorial services for deceased Shin Buddhists from throughout Japan. After passing through a two-story wooden gate, you should turn left and then right for:
Since ancient times it has served as a cremation site and burial ground, with more than 15,000 tombs spread along the slopes.
Follow the pathway uphill through the cemetery for about 10 minutes to the top, where you should then turn left and follow the painted white arrow in the street to the vermilion-colored tower gate, which marks the entrance to:
6. Kiyomizu Temple
This temple is the star attraction of this stroll. First founded in 798 and rebuilt in 1633 by the third Tokugawa shogun, Iemitsu, the temple occupies an exalted spot. The main hall is built over a cliff and features a large wooden veranda supported by 139 pillars, each 15m (50 ft.) high. Take in the view of Kyoto from its deck, but to fully appreciate the grandeur of the main hall with its pillars and dark wood, be sure to walk to the three-story pagoda, which offers the best view of the main hall, built without the use of a single nail. From the pagoda, descend the stone steps to Otowa Falls, where you'll see Japanese lined up to drink from the refreshing spring water. Kiyomizu's name, in fact, translates as "pure water." From here you'll also have the best view of the temple's impressive pillars.
Take A Break -- On the grounds of Kiyomizu Temple, just beside Otowa Falls, is Taki-no-ya (tel. 075/561-5117), an open-air pavilion where you can sit on tatami and enjoy noodles and a beer or flavored shaved ice from the English-language menu. This is a great place to stop (and now you know why this walk takes me all day). If you're lucky to be here in autumn, the fiery reds of the maple trees will set the countryside around you aflame. Open Friday through Wednesday from 10am to 5pm. Or, for something more substantial, wait until after your temple visit to dine on tofu at Kiyomizudera Junsei, located off Kiyomizu-zaka. On Sannenzaka, keep your eyes peeled for Inoda's Coffee (tel. 075/532-5700), where you'll have views of a Japanese-style garden along with pastries, sandwiches, and coffee. It's open daily 9am to 5pm.
Before departing Kiyomizu Temple, be sure to make a stop at the vermilion-colored Shinto shrine located behind the temple's main hall:
7. Jishu Shrine
This shrine is regarded as a dwelling place of the deity in charge of love and matchmaking. Ask for the English-language leaflet that gives its history. Throughout the grounds are English-language signs and descriptions telling about its various parts; for once, you're not left in the dark about the purpose of the various statues and memorials and what Japanese are doing as they make their rounds. It's very enriching. You can buy good-luck charms for everything from a happy marriage to easy delivery of a child to success in passing an examination. On the shrine's grounds are two stones placed about 9m (30 ft.) apart -- if you're able to walk from one stone to the other with your eyes closed, you're supposedly guaranteed success in your love life. It sure doesn't hurt to try. There's also a place where you can write down your troubles on a piece of paper and then submerge it in a bucket of water, which supposedly will cause both the paper and your troubles to dissolve. If you failed the rock test, you might make a point of stopping here.
From Kiyomizu Temple, retrace your steps to the vermilion-colored entry tower gate you passed earlier. From here, on a downhill slope called Kiyomizu-zaka, you'll pass shop after shop selling sweets, pottery, fans, ties, hats, souvenirs, and curios. It's okay to go crazy shopping here, but remember that you're going to have to carry whatever you buy. After passing a couple of small shrines nestled in among the shops, you'll come to a split in the road and a small shrine on the right shaded by trees in front. Just beside this shrine are stone steps leading downhill (north) to a stone-cobbled street called:
The slope leads past lovely antiques stores, upscale craft shops, and restaurants and winds through neighborhoods of wooden buildings reminiscent of old Kyoto. Keep your eyes peeled for downhill stairs to the right leading to Maruyama Park; after you take these, the street will wind a bit as it goes downhill and eventually end at a T intersection. Take the stairs opposite the road to:
9. Ryozen Kannon Temple
This temple (tel. 075/561-2205) has a 24m-high (80-ft.) white statue dedicated to unknown soldiers who died in World War II. Memorial services are conducted four times daily at a shrine that contains memorial tablets of the two million Japanese who perished during the war. There's also a Memorial Hall commemorating the more than 48,000 foreign soldiers who died on Japanese territory. Open daily from 8:45am to 4:20pm; because admission is ¥200, you may only want to take a peek at the statue. Just past Ryozen Kannon Temple, across the parking lot, is:
10. Kodaiji Temple
This temple was founded by the widow Nene in commemoration of her husband, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who succeeded in unifying Japan at the end of the 16th century. In addition to teahouses and a memorial hall containing wooden images of the couple, there's a beautiful garden designed by master gardener Kobori Enshu. Don't miss it.
Exit Kodai-ji Temple via the main steps leading downhill and turn right, continuing north.
Take A Break -- Past Kodai-ji Temple and just before the street ends at a pagoda with a crane on top, keep your eyes peeled for a teahouse on your right with a garden, which you can glimpse from the street through a gate. The Kodaiji Rakusho Tea Room, 516 Washiochiyo (tel. 075/561-6892), is a lovely place and one of my favorite tearooms in Kyoto. It has a 100-year-old miniature garden with a pond that's home to some of the largest and most colorful carp I've ever seen, some of which are 20 years old and winners of the many medals displayed in the back room. In summer, stop for somen (finely spun cold noodles), tea, or traditional desserts, and refresh yourself with views of the small but beautiful garden from one of the tables or from the back tatami room. If you're a gardener, you'll probably want to give up the hobby after you've seen what's possible -- but rarely achieved. Open from 9:30am to 5:30pm (until 6pm in summer); closed 1 day a week but, unfortunately, not a fixed day. For coffee or afternoon tea, there's a cafe in Chorakukan, a brick-and-stone Meiji-Era building at the southwest corner of Maruyama Park (described earlier; to the left as you enter the park).
Continuing on your stroll north, turn right at the pagoda with the crane and then take an immediate left, which marks the beginning of:
11. Maruyama Park
An unkempt field of shrubs and weeds until designated a public park in 1886, this is one of Kyoto's most popular outdoor respites, filled with ponds, pigeons, and gardens. In spring, it's one of the most popular spots for viewing cherry blossoms; to the left after you enter the park is one of the oldest, most famous cherry trees in Kyoto. Also farther west is:
12. Yasaka Shrine
Yasaka Shrine is also known as Gion Shrine because of its proximity to the Gion District. Its present buildings date from 1654; the stone torii (gates) on the south side are considered among the largest in Japan. But the reason most people come here is one of practicality -- the shrine is dedicated to the gods of health and prosperity, two universal concerns. This shrine, free to the public and open 24 hours, is packed during the Gion Festival and on New Year's Eve.
Exit Yasaka Shrine to the west; this brings you to a busy street called Higashioji. Cross it and continue walking west on busy Shijo Dori, until you reach Hanamikoji Dori on your left. This is:
Gion is one of Japan's most famous nightlife districts. It's centered primarily on Hanamikoji Dori, which translates as "Narrow Street for Flower Viewing." This is Kyoto's long-standing geisha district, an enclave of discreet, traditional, and almost solemn-looking wooden homes that reveal nothing of the gaiety that goes on inside -- drinking, conversation, and business dealings with dancing, singing, and music provided by geisha and their apprentices, called maiko. If it's early evening, you might glimpse one of these women as she small-steps her way in geta (a traditional wooden shoe) to an evening appointment, elaborately made up and wearing a beautiful kimono. You might also wish to visit Gion Corner on Hanamikoji Dori, which offers performances of dance, puppetry, and other traditional arts nightly.
Winding Down -- If all this sightseeing and shopping have made you thirsty, there are many restaurants and bars to the west across the Kamo River, on Pontocho, and near Shijo and Kawaramachi streets.
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.