|A purification pool (similar to a holy water station at the entrance to a church) sits in front of the Nishi Hongan-ji temple. People pour water on their hands (and sometimes face) in an act of purification before entering the temple.|
|The interior of the Nishi Hongan-ji temple. Ornamental and quiet, this large open room is where the Japanese pray.|
|Two of the gargoyle style figures on top of the Daitoku-ji temple in northwest Kyoto.|
|Chion-in temple as seen by night. The steps and lane leading up to the temple make this one of the most beautiful sites in Japan.|
|Standing at Isui-en garden in Nara. Near the great buddha, this garden is one of the most beautiful in all of Japan.|
|Todai-ji, the largest wooden building in the world. This temple is the centerpiece to Nara's collection of temples.|
|The 49 foot high Great Buddha (Daibutsu) sitting at the entrance to Todai-ji.|
|Two of the many beautiful buildings that is the Kiyomizu-dera temple in southern Kyoto.|
|The main building of Kiyomizu-dera and home to the Hosso school of Buddhism.|
|A gorgeous veranda lined entrance to the Ginkaku-ji temple in eastern Kyoto.|
|This main torii (Japanese religious gate) signifies the entrance to the Fushimi-Inari Taisha shrine in Kyoto.|
|Fushimi-Inari Taisha is famed for the thousands of toriis that line the grounds of the shrine.|
|Inside one of the many torii-lined pathways of the Fushimi-Inari Taisha shrine.|
|One of the iconic images of Japan, Kinkaku-ji (AKA the Golden Pavilion) attracts tourists by the thousands.|
|These wooden structures are impressive in their massive scale. This temple in Higashi Hongan-ji is central Kyoto is proof enough.|
Japan’s temples and shrines are a call to a cultural past and current context of Japanese. Straddled in between tall buildings and throngs of people going every which way possible, these wooden masterpieces conjure us to remind ourselves that while we are in a first world nation we are not in the Western hemisphere. Kyoto is the center of these temples and shrines, and continues to be a major cultural center and tourism spot (50 million tourists per year). Combining the nearby city of Nara, you will get a full glimpse of the best temples and shrines that Japan has to offer.
Kyoto, not Tokyo, has been the historic capital of Japan for the past twelve hundred years. Prior to Kyoto, Nara was the capital at the time Japan first became a nation-state near 710 AD. For underdetermined reasons (flu outbreak, logistics, protection from potential enemies), the Emperor’s palace and imperial family moved to Kyoto and would remain there until the mid-19th century. It was during this time that the iconic buildings we flock to see were built in this beautiful town.
You could easily take four days just to see the main sites that Kyoto and Nara have to offer. UNESCO has declared an astonishing amount of protected sites in this region. The temples and shrines are scattered throughout the Kyoto, so jumping from temple to temple takes time. Nara is an easy 40 minute train ride from Kyoto and can be walked in a few hours. Some of the more adventurous rent bicycles for $12 per day and brave the traffic to see more temples in a shorter period of time. Many of the temples are accessible via the Japanese Railway and subway system, but a few (Kinkaku-ji) are off the beaten track. (Terminology note: shrines are religious buildings of the Shinto religion and temples are religious buildings of the Buddhist religion) These buildings have major significance since 84% of Japanese practice Shinto and 71% practice Buddhism (compared to only 2% of Japanese being Christian).
I visited Kyoto and Nara during the fall time which gives the opportunity to see the leaves change color and avoid the blistering summer heat. I’d advise the spring time (beginning of April) when Japan’s famous cherry blossoms are in full swing and temperatures are still pleasant. Make sure to book well in advance as Kyoto is always full and can be difficult to find vacant rooms.