Japan's old capital is even lovelier after dark
Editor's note: If you're looking to get away over the Thanksgiving holiday, Kyoto might be a good choice.
I had heard many great things about Kyoto, and had been wanting to visit for quite a while. So I decided to visit Japan's former capital over the Thanksgiving holiday. Although passing up a hearty turkey dinner back in Tokyo was a difficult decision, I found my timing to be kismet.
Growing up in Hawaii, I didn't really get to witness the changing of the seasons. But I can't imagine an autumn display more beautiful and breathtaking than what I saw on my Kyoto trip.
Deciding where to go in Kyoto was a challenge because of the countless numbers of temples, shrines, gardens and historical sites. And I had only two days.
My initial strategy was to spend every moment of available sunlight taking in the sites. I figured there would be less to see after sunset. Turns out I couldn't have been more wrong as the evening breathed new life into the city -- especially when it came to showing off all of Kyoto's natural splendor.
Perhaps one of the best spots I visited was the Kiyomizudera Temple (pure water temple), built in the late 8th century. From the main halls of this Buddhist temple, you get a great view of the grounds and the city. The temple grounds were a cornucopia of color filled with lush cherry and maple trees showing off their vivid red, green and yellow leaves.
Adjacent to the main hall is the Otowa Waterfall -- with waters flowing out in three different streams with each said to increase the drinker's longevity, academic success and fortunes in love. However, drinking from all three streams is not recommended as it is seen as greedy.
I spent a lot of time at Kiyomizudera Temple, but the grounds were vast and there was so much beauty to appreciate. Although I didn't have time to really take advantage of it, there were also plenty of great spots to eat and shop just outside the temple area.
As the sun went down, I left the Kiyomizudera Temple thinking the day was winding down. As I made my way down the road to Heian Shrine -- which was on my list of must-sees -- I noticed several people heading off the road toward the Chion-in temple. On a whim, I decided to follow the pack, which resulted in my most enjoyable unplanned detour of the trip.
Who would have thought that checking out nature's fall colors in the dead of the night would be awe-inspiring? But it was. After standing in line and paying my admission fee, I joined the droves of visitors and was treated to a spectacular show. The grounds and foliage were lit up by well-placed lighting. Just breathtaking. I spent more time than I intended soaking in the beauty. As I got back on the road and continued my journey, I noticed that most temples were packed with people checking out the colorful displays of nature that were in the spotlight. After a couple more hours of exploration, I grabbed a late-night dinner and called it an evening, fully satisfied.
My last day was spent exploring many of the popular travel spots in Kyoto. I visited Nijo Castle, the former residence of the Shogun and its very noisy nightingale floors, which would creak with every step. They were intended as a security measure to alert the Shogun of intruders, namely assassins and ninjas. Although I didn't find the scenery there to be as picturesque as other spots, I did find my tour of the castle very illuminating as many of the rooms were staged as they might have originally looked.
Next was a visit to the Kinkakuji Temple -- also known as the Golden Pavilion -- an impressive temple with its top two floors covered in gold leaf. Although a little out of the way from the city's center, the temple and the grounds did not disappoint.
I figured I couldn't make my first visit to Kyoto without visiting the grounds of the Kyoto Imperial Palace. Unfortunately, I wasn't really able to go inside any of the buildings. It was a pleasant little tour, but to be honest, I probably could've skipped it and not really felt I'd missed much.
I ended my trip with a visit to the Fushimi Inari Shrine, a Shinto shrine dedicated to Inari, the god of rice, sake and prosperity. This was certainly one of the more notable places I visited in Kyoto as there are approximately 10,000 torii gates that arch along the path up the hill to the shrine. I can't say I've ever seen anything like it.
I have to say that I really enjoyed myself on my first trip to Kyoto. I found the people friendly, the sites amazing and the setting truly Japanese. My only regret is that I didn't allot for more time to enjoy this wonderful, beautiful city. But it does give me a reason to go back for another visit.
Note: This story was originally published in Stars and Stripes Pacific, Jan. 6, 2011.