The Spirit of Kyoto: Exploring the Soul of Traditional Japan

by Nana Young

Welcome to Kyoto, the city where major religions coexist in perfect harmony. Let’s explore the cultural heart and soul of Japan by taking a journey through Kyoto’s historic and religious landmarks.

Embracing Kyoto's Timeless Beauty

Main gate or Torii of Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine, Fushimi Inari Shrine

Kyoto is a city located in the southern part of Kyoto Prefecture in Japan’s Kanto region of Honshu Island. It’s one of the most populous cities in the country and was the capital city for over 1,000 years (from 794 to 1868). Kyoto may no longer be the capital city of Japan, but it remains the capital city of Kyoto Prefecture.

Archeological data suggests that there were settlements in the area that is now Kyoto around 10,000 years ago. However, the first permanent colonizers of the region were the Hata clan, a tribe of silk farmers and traders from Korea who moved there in the 6th century.

Kyoto became the capital of Japan in 794. The 14th century saw several temples and shrines built in the city. Kyoto maintained its capital city status until 1868, when the seat of power was moved to Tokyo. As a reaction, the city made efforts to modernize as quickly as possible, leading to the erection of power plants, canals, trams, and many other modern facilities.

Today, Kyoto is still the cultural heart of Japan, a place famous for having hundreds of stunning temples and shrines. It houses several landmarks dedicated to preserving Japan’s rich history and traditions. Kyoto is also host to major traditional festivals, especially Aoi Matsuri, which is held in May every year.

In this post, we’ll explore some of these landmarks and their cultural significance. We’ll also give you insights into life in Kyoto by exploring its culinary scene, seasonal splendors, and shopping experience. Let’s get started!

The Golden Pavilion: Kyoto's Iconic Kinkaku-ji

The Golden Pavilion. Autumn season at Kinkakuji Temple in Kyoto, Japan. Full of souvenir shops

Kinkaku-ji is a majestic Zen temple built in Kyoto, Japan. Formerly Rokuonji, it served as the retirement villa of shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu and was converted to a Buddhist Zen temple after his death in 1408, according to his will. A vital piece of Kyoto’s history, the temple was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994. It has also been declared a National Special Historic Site and one of the 17 Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto. Millions of local and foreign tourists visit the temple every year to admire its spiritual atmosphere and excellent architecture.

The top two floors of the temple are covered in gold, earning it the nickname “Golden Pavilion.” In total, the temple has three floors, each of which is designed in a different architectural style. The first floor uses an 11th-century Shinden style, the second floor is designed in a samurai style, and the third uses a Chinese Zen style. Visit The Golden Pavilion to view the serene beauty of its reflecting pond and surrounding gardens

Fushimi Inari Taisha: A Pathway Through Thousands of Torii Gates

Woman in traditional kimono walking at torii gates, Japan

Fushimi Inari Taisha is a Shinto shrine built for worshipping the deity of good harvest and business success. The name of this deity is Inari, and there are more than 30,000 other shrines in Japan dedicated to the deity. Out of all of them, Fushimi Inari Taisha is the most culturally significant. According to Shinto beliefs, foxes are the Inari’s messengers. Hence, you’ll find several statues of the animal around the shrine’s grounds. 

There’s a large mountain near the shrine called Mt. Inari. The path from Fushimi Inari Taisha to the mountain is famous for its thousands of vermilion torii gates that trail through the forest. Over several years, individuals and organizations donated these gates. At the back of each one is an inscription with the name of the donor and the date of the donation. Many people like to hike along the trail, starting from the shrine and moving along the mesmerizing path. It takes 2–3 hours to get to the mountain.

The Historic Streets of Gion: Kyoto's Geisha District

Sunset in old town street at Kyoto

Have you ever heard of the Japanese geisha? They are female entertainers who perform  traditional Japanese art forms such as singing and dancing. Well, in Kyoto, they’re called geiko. Gion is a street in Shijo Avenue, Kyoto, that is famous for its geiko and maiko (apprentice geisha) cultures. These ladies entertain at several restaurants, bars, shops, and teahouses (ochaya).

Kyoto's most famous geisha district is known for having a large number of traditional wooden machiya houses. People come from far and wide to catch a glimpse of the geiko and maiko in action. Some dine at ochaya and other establishments to witness them. However, geisha services are expensive and exclusive. The most cost-effective way to see a geisha is to attend cultural shows. There, you’ll see these lovely, hikizuri-adorned, and face-painted women sing and dance for the crowd without having to pay a lot of money.

Arashiyama Bamboo Grove: A Natural Wonder

Woman walking at Bamboo Forest in Kyoto, Japan

In Kyoto, things to do tend to involve visiting iconic sites. One such place is the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. Located in the village of Sagano, this is a must-see natural attraction that captivates visitors who travel far and wide for a walk through the bamboo forest paths. As you stroll this path, you may get the ethereal feeling of walking on a strange planet. The environment is clean and serene, the only sound being the rustling of the bamboo. The towering grooves create a tunnel made of greenery, with some sunlight passing through the tiny spaces between each grove.

The path created along the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove leads to several interesting destinations. There’s the Nonomiya Shrine, a place with a reputation for creating blessed marriages; the Okochi-Sanso Villa, with its majestic gardens and stunning views; and the bamboo craft shops.

Kyoto's Zen Gardens: Spaces of Serenity

Japanese tourists enjoy tranquility at Ryoanji Temple in Kyoto, Japan.

As the center of Zen Buddhism in Japan, it’s only natural that Kyoto should have a wide array of Zen gardens. Such gardens are common in Buddhist temples. And since Kyoto has so many of those, you can never run out of Zen gardens to explore.

Generally, these gardens don’t use water. Rather, they contain a lot of rocks, gravel, trees, and other greenery. They’re also called karesansui (Japanese dry garden). Besides the lack of water and the use of rocks, Zen gardens thrive on minimalist beauty and a tranquil atmosphere. Ryoan-ji Temple has one of the best gardens in Japan. However, there’s almost always a large crowd of people at the temple so it’s best to go in the early hours of a weekday.

Another option is the Tofuku-ji Temple and its Hojo Garden. Other temples with Zen gardens are Kennin-ji Temple, Daitoku-ji Temple, and Konchi-in Temple.

Nijo Castle: A Legacy of the Shoguns

The karamon main gate to Ninomaru Palace at Nijo Castle in Kyoto - Japan

Nijojo or Nijo Castle, used to be a residence for Tokugawa Ieyasu. He was the first shogun in the Edo period (1603–1867) of Japan’s history. Leyasu wasn’t responsible for completing the castle. That honor goes to his grandson, who finished it around 1626. Nijo Castle is now one of the few examples of castle architecture during the feudal era of Japanese history. In 1994, it became a UNESCO world heritage site.

The castle consists of three major areas. The first is Honmaru, the main defence circle. The second is Ninomaru, the secondary defence circle, and the third is a garden. These areas served different purposes for their original owners. Today, visitors pay to receive a tour of most of the castle and the surrounding grounds. They can explore these lovely palace buildings, impressive fortifications, and well-preserved interiors one at a time because the castle consists of several distinct buildings connected by corridors.

Philosopher's Path: A Stroll Through Kyoto's Intellectual Legacy

The Philosopher's Path is a stone path through the northern part of Kyoto's Higashiyama district

The Philosopher's Path is a natural pathway that passes through a canal lined by cherry trees. Located in the Higashiyama district, the path was a favorite among scholars like Nishida Kitaro, who used it to practice meditation on their way to Kyoto University. A trip along this path will reveal several restaurants, cafes, and boutiques. There are also small temples and shrines, such as Honen-in.

The canal in the area was built during the Meiji Period and is connected to Lake Biwa. It also connects to several temples and shrines. Part of the canal’s network includes an aqueduct, which is visible from Nanzenji.

Kyoto's Temple Trail: From Sanjusangen-do to Kiyomizu-dera

Kyoto, Japan at Kiyomizu-dera Temple during autumn season.

Kyoto temple trails allow you to embark on a spiritual journey from one famous temple to another. It’s most effective when done alone, as the journey affords you an opportunity for self-reflection. In this section, we’ll discuss one of our favorite temple trails in Kyoto. It will take you from Sanjusangen-do to Kiyomizu-dera.

The journey begins at Kyoto Station, the major transportation hub in the city and an access point to famous shrines like Yasaka Shrine, Kitano Tenmangu Shrine, and Heian Shrine. Feel free to arrive here from your destination via train or bus. From here, your first stop should be Sanjusangendo, a Buddhist temple that lies only 20 minutes away from the station. Sanjusangendo, also known as Rengeō-in, has a main temple hall that’s famous for its 1001 statues of Senju Kannon, the deity of mercy.

The next location on our itinerary is Chishaku-in Temple, which is only a short 3-minute walk from Sanjusangendo. The temple has so many breathtaking gardens on the compound, so feel free to explore to your heart’s content. Once you’re done, head through Higashiyama Ward to Kiyomizu-dera Temple.

The hike from Chishaku-in Temple to Kiyomizu-dera should take approximately 22 minutes. Kiyomizu-dera Temple is one of the most famous places in Kyoto and is best known for having a wooden stage that offers interesting views of the surrounding trees and flowers. Kiyomizu-dera is also home to several spiritual landmarks, including the Jishu Shrine, Otowa Waterfall, and Koyasu Pagoda.

Finally, walk down to the Shijo Ohashi Bridge. It will take another 23 minutes to get to the bridge. From there, you can walk to the Gojo Shijo station and take public transportation to other locations. The entire temple trail takes about an hour or two.

Tea Ceremony Experience: Kyoto's Cultural Heritage

Tea Ceremony

Kyoto is the best place to explore the spiritual side of traditional Japanese tea ceremonies. The event resembles a religious ritual and can come off as highly formal when compared to tea ceremonies in other regions. This could pose a problem for beginners looking to pick up the intricacies of tea ceremonies. However, there are places in Kyoto where you can learn about the art, history, and etiquette of traditional tea ceremony, or chanoyu. Check them out below:

  • Camellia near Ninen-zaka.

  • Tea Ceremony KOTO near Kinkaku-ji Temple

  • Nanzen-ji Temple in Higashiyama

  • Shoren-in Temple in Higashiyama

Kyoto Cuisine: A Taste of Tradition

High class Japanese kaiseki cuisine

Kyoto has a diverse local food culture that allows it to offer sumptuous traditional meals enjoyed by tourists from all around the world. The city is home to many traditional and fusion restaurants that combine local meals with foreign cooking practices. Gion district, Pontocho  district, and Kyoto Station are some of the best places to savor the local cuisine.

Kyoto-style kaiseki ryori is a traditional multi-course meal that’s native to the city. Another option is shojin ryori, a vegetarian Buddhist cuisine. Lovers of Japanese sweets can visit any of the cafes in the city and get a taste of the exquisite matcha green tea flavor.

Seasonal Splendors: Kyoto Through the Seasons

Crowds enjoy the spring cherry blossoms by partaking in seasonal nighttime Hanami festivals in Maruyama Park.

It’s never a bad idea to visit Kyoto, no matter the season. The city has temperate weather that allows tourists to travel in and out without facing any inconveniences. The beauty of Kyoto across different seasons also transforms throughout the year. Early April usually marks the start of the cherry blossom season. People visit popular hanami (cherry blossom viewing) spots to bask in the natural beauty of sakura flowers. The same thing happens with plum trees in mid-March. Kyoto also hosts dozens of major festivals and displays of traditional Japanese culture throughout the year.

Aoi Matsuri: The Modern Festival with Ancient Roots

Participants in Aoi Matsuri in Kyoto, Japan on May 15

On May 15, every year, millions of people in Kyoto celebrate Aoi Matsuri or Aoi Festival. Dating back to the 7th century, Aoi Matsuri rose to prominence during the Heian Period (794–1185). It grew so popular that it became the word for festivals in general. Today, Aoi Matsuri is celebrated with lavish parades, colorful ox-drawn carts, and men on horseback. The parade typically starts at the Kyoto Imperial Palace before making its way to the Kamo Shrines in northern Kyoto. Each year, an unmarried woman from the city is chosen to be the Saio. She undergoes purification rituals and is led through Kyoto's streets by parade participants.

Shopping in Kyoto: From Handicrafts to Kimonos

Japanese young girl wearing kimono and choosing handkerchief in the shop.

Downtown Kyoto offers a solid shopping experience for both locals and foreigners. There are several department stores selling the latest fashion items and accessories. Check out the Nishijin Textiles Center for your handmade textiles and antique kimonos. Central Kyoto is home to specialty shops that sell traditional crafts and local fashion items. If you’re a fan of Japanese pop culture, check out the in-house shop at the Kyoto International Manga Museum.

Kyoto's Timeless Charm: Reflecting on a City Where History Lives

Young Japanese women in traditional Yukata dress stroll by Hirano-jinja Shrine in Kyoto

Kyoto’s ability to beautifully meld the past with the present is a priceless trait that appeals to most tourists. Despite the modernization of Japan, the city maintains its cultural and religious roots better than many other places in the world. We hope that you get to go on a Kyoto trip to explore its depths and discover its secrets someday. For now, Bokksu Snack Box offers you the chance to experience Japan and its many regions through snacks and sweets. We send out mystery boxes with curated snacks from Japan every month. Some of these treats are sourced directly from family businesses in Kyoto. Subscribe now to start enjoying gourmet Japanese treats.

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