In my opinion, Kinkaku-ji is a bit overrated. If you go there expecting to see the outside of a golden temple and take a short stroll around a pond and some gardens, then you will not be disappointed. I simply didn’t find a three story Buddhist temple covered in gold leaf to be that compelling. Seeing the sun hit a golden building is somewhat impressive, I’ll grant you, but there seemed to be no artistry to the gold leaf. It was just solid. It looked as though it had been spray painted on. One of the things that Kinkaku-ji is supposed to exemplify is how Zen Buddhist temples harmoniously blend into their surrounding environment…
It’s a bright golden building in the middle of a less than idyllic pond. Err….what?
It’s not a bad place. It’s good for a stroll. The gardens are gardens. There’s the obligatory green tea and souvenirs. It’s tolerable pretty. It’s just not jaw dropping majestic. Perhaps my expectations were too high for it. It’s alright. If you’re in Kyoto, you should probably see it.
Kodai-ji is another temple just down the mountainside street from Kiyomizu-dera and in the Higashiyama District, talked about in the previous post. Kodai-ji is worth a visit because it offers a few experiences which not every run of the mill temple in Japan has to offer. A large zen garden (with raked stones) is worth seeing, at least once when you’re in Japan. The other garden the temple has to offer is a “tsukiyama style garden”…which from what I can tell seem to resemble normal non-flower gardens: rocks, ponds, hills, trees, done, though the 16th century landscape artist who designed the gardens was a fairly big deal. There are two tea houses in the complex, a santcuary with a small shrine with impressive lacquer work (the finest lacquer work of the period, actually, which incorporates designs in gold; unfortunately you’re not allowed to take pictures inside the buildings), and several other buildings, including a mausoleum. The artwork and gardens are absolutely worth seeing and talking a stroll through, and most of the buildings in the complex you can actually go inside and walk around in, which is a nice change from most historic sites in Japan, in which most of the building is only viewable, and not walkable. (You will need to take off your shoes to enter these buildings).
The buildings date from different times, because of several fires over the years. The oldest are from the early 17th century, and the most recent was rebuilt in the early 20th century. Kodai-ji is named after a noble woman, Kita-no-Mandokoro (her honorary name was Kodai-in) who became a Buddhist nun after her husband died.
More information on Kodai-hi is available here, including hours, admission fees, and a map!
Kiyomizu-dera is a Buddhist Temple (and a UNESCO World Heritage Site) that was founded in 780, though the current structures were built in 1633, including the Niomon (2-storied gate), Sanjunoto (3 storied pagoda), a bell tower and the two main halls.
“Kiyomizu” means “pure water” and the temple is named for the waterfall which flows on the eastern side of the main sanctuary. Visitors can go to the base of the waterfall (which lets out in a stone basic, though whole thing is very constructed ….this is not like a rustic jungle waterfall or something. The waterfall is divided into three separate streams, the water for each is supposed to grant something different: longevity, a good love life, and success in school. Visitors can use cups on wooden sticks to catch the water from the three streams and drink it to receive the “benefits”. Drinking from all three streams, however, is considered greedy and in poor form. The wood of the temple is crafted in such a way that not a single nail is used in the structure. The temple offers beautiful views of the surrounding mountainside and of Kyoto, particularly in spring and fall, when the temple almost seems to be floating in a sea of cherry blossoms or red maple leaves in spring/fall respectively.
I’d consider Kiyomizu-dera the best thing I saw in Kyoto, as far as temples/shrines go, because of the fantastic views, the expansive and varied temple complex, and its proximity to the Higashiyama district, one of the best preserved historic districts in Kyoto.
Higashiyama caters heavily to tourists, offering a variety of restaurants, cafes, pottery shops, clothing stores, souvenir shops, and specialty shops with local sweets, pickles (Japanese people seem to pickle everything), and crafts. Though the stretch of narrow road down the mountainside from Kiyomizudera through Higashiyama is only about 2km long, it’s quite easy to spend a few hours wandering the area. Yasaka Pagoda, 5 stories tall, is also along this street, and visitors can actually climb the stairs inside (usually pagodas can only be viewed from the outside).
Other attractions in the Higashiyama district include: Kodai-ji Temple (which I visited and will be covered in a separate entry), Yasaka Shrine (ditto), and Maruyama Park. More information on Higashiyama, as well as a map, can be found here: http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e3959.html
The Yasaka pagoda is open 10:00-4:00, every day of the year, and costs 400 yen (about $4). Kiyomizudera is open from 6:00-6:00, every day of the year, and costs 300 yen. The shops of Higashiyama generally close at about the same time as the surrounding temples, though stay open later during the spring and fall when “Illuminations” are held at Kiyomizudera.
More information on Kiyomizudera can be found here: http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e3901.html