If you only have time to see one place in Japan, most sources state that Kyoto should be it. Into traditional Japanese culture and architecture? Then I couldn't agree more. Since Kyoto was spared during the WWII bombings, the city is chock-full of Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, villas, machiya and ryokans along with Imperial Palaces and the Nijo Castle (Ni Castle Castle?). According to some sites, there are over 2000 temples and shrines in Kyoto. Ironic since the capital was relocated to Kyoto during the 8th century in an effort to minimize the influence of the Buddhist clergy on goverment affairs.
Kyoto is also fairly developed (7th largest city in Japan); in some areas you won't be able to tell the difference between Kyoto and Tokyo. In a way the tension between old and new lends itself to a few dynamic places such as the shrine I saw nestled within a covered shopping arcade near Shijo Kawaramachi Dori. In addition to modern office buildings and shopping malls, there are also over 30 colleges and universities in the city in case you are compelled to get your learn on in a classroom setting.
McPho and I arrived pretty late during my first night in Kyoto since we spent most of the day touring Osaka. Kyoto has by far the most impressive looking train station that I've seen in Japan. There's a soaring steel trussed roof, huge underground shopping arcade and a hotel attached to it. Best of all, Astroboy makes his presence felt (out in front of the station and also within). Kyoto also has the best hostel I've ever stayed at, in fact, I sort of scheduled my trip around the nights K's Hostel had openings for.
Hanatouro / Hanatoro / Flower and Light Road
As luck would have it, we arrived during the Kyoto Higashiyama Hanatouro festival which means flower and light road. Hanatoro was developed by the city of Kyoto in 2003 to promote tourism during the otherwise dead month of March. Google rolled out some kiosks event using Google Maps to show you points of interest along the flower and light road. Not too sure the Japanese would allow corporate branding for the traditional events but since this was mainly a tourist event, guess they had no qualms.
Aside from the plethora of temples and shrines along the road, we saw some pretty nifty stuff like the Bamboo lanterns at the Profound Stream. From afar, I thought they were all 'modern' lanterns, you know the plastic bamboo with a light bulb in it. Upon closer inspection I realized all the bamboo used was real and more impressively, every stalk had a candle in it.
Nearby the bamboo stalks we also saw some contemporary pieces of art. These were done by the students of the nearby universities for the University Town of Kyoto Traditional Light exhibit. Found one large one particularly appealing (see photograph). The most interesting event that night had to deal with a woman in a cat mask riding a rickshaw. There was a huge procession of people and since I didn't understand Japanese, I couldn't figure out exactly what was going on. After walking around, we bumped into the cat woman again at a temple where she made her way to the front to ring the bell. I wonder if she was supposed to represent Maneki Neko, the cat goddess.
Kinkakuji Temple aka Golden Pavilion
The following day we hit up the Golden Pavilion, Nijo Castle, and the Kyoto Imperial Palace before McPho left to go back to Tokyo. Our first stop was Kinkakuji Temple (after we registered ourselves at the Kyoto Imperial Palace, reserving a spot for the 2pm tour). The admission ticket itself was a work of art, though the only photo I have of it is of me doing something stupid with it, so that will remain on my harddrive. The temple is not only impressive for the 106 lbs. of gold leaf on it (a total PITA to apply correctly) but for it's rich history. The temple was burned down twice during the Ōnin War. More interesting is the fact that a monk burned it down in 1950 and then attempted to commit suicide. You can read the rest of that tragic story in it's Wiki entry.
I only have a few photos up of the pavilion because you'll find much better ones online. Especially the photos of it during the winter with snow sitting on the roofs and in the surrounding area. Actually I think any area of Japan looks better in winter than any other season. One of the photos I have up is of the rooster weathervane (not sure if it is one, doesn't look like it moves) and another of the gold leaf. The other two detailed shots are of a gable detail on another building on the temple grounds. There's also a photo of me sitting on a rock. Not too special until you realize that rock is supposed to make you smarter. So listen up when I talk out of my ass.
Jo means castle, so maybe people should just call it Ni Castle? In general since this was a flat land castle and in some ways more of a show piece to impress visitors than a real fortification, I wasn't as impressed with it when compared to some of Japan's other castles. However, one design element was truly impressive and totally blew my mind when I experienced it. In the corridors, the floors are constructed in such a way that the nail rubbed against a jacket or a clamp creating a chirping sound whenever someone walked on the wooden plank. This protected the residents from assassins since they would be unable to move around in the interior undetected (unless they walked on the ceiling, which I'm sure ninjas, and Chuck Norris would have no issues with).
I don't have any photos up since you weren't allowed to take photos of the interiors and all my exterior photos are basically of me posing by one of the many gates, not too interesting.
Kyoto Imperial Palace
It might be a pain for some of you on tight schedules to visit this place. You can't wander around freely inside. Instead you must sign up for one of two English tours, a 10am tour and a 2pm tour. To be honest, it might not be worth visiting if you have other things to do. The security guards don't allow you to spend too much time in one area, always shooing you to make sure you stick with the tour group. I only have a few detailed photos up since wide shots aren't interesting at all. Like the Golden Pavilion I'm sure the palace grounds look much more scenic during the winter.
Return to Kyoto
A day after visiting Koyasan, I returned to Kyoto to visit the Kyoto International Manga Museum and Kiyomizu Temple before heading south to Nara. Housed in an old school building, the Manga Museum wasn't of much interest unless you can read Japanese, then I'm sure you'd have no issues sitting around all day reading to your heart's content.
The big draw of the day was Kiyomizu Temple (Clear Water Temple). Built on the side of a hill the temple offers impressive views of Kyoto. On the surface it's pretty much like any other temple you'll see in Japan except for the impressive covered balcony supported by hundreds of pillars. I spent most of my time below that 'stage / balcony' area checking out the framework below. Also noteworthy was the hand washing trough with a dragon shaped water pipe. Best hand washing trough design I've seen during my entire stay in Japan. Sure there are other elaborate fountains with multiple heads spewing out water, but this one just looks much more interesting than the others. Like many of the temples and castles, there's an interesting story behind this temple as well. Read up on it here and here.