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Trip Ideas

Love Letter to Kyoto

In a city of 1,000 Buddhist temples, it's hard to narrow down your must-see list, especially when you've only got a day or two to explore. JS contributor Lee Cobaj chooses 8 ancient landmarks worth your time.

See recent posts by Carl Unger

Ornate Buddhist temples, Zen gardens, teahouses and geishas darting in the shadows. Just a one hour flight from Tokyo (or a three-and-a-half-hour ride by bullet train), Japan’s ancient capital is everything we hoped it would be – and more. And while five-star hotels are opening up and a creative food scene is flourishing, it’s the centuries-old landmarks and quiet gardens that tug at our heart strings.

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This ancient Buddhist temple is one of the busiest in Kyoto, but that doesn't detract from its beauty one bit. Halfway up Mt. Otowa, it has a grand wooden platform with one of the best views of the city (especially in fall when Kyoto is framed by a sea of red and orange maple leaves).

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On the eastern shores of the Kamo-gawa River, Gion is Japan's geisha (or geiko) epicenter. Hit the alleyways around Kennin-ji temple at dusk to catch a glimpse of these women, slipping between machiya (traditional townhouses) as they make their way to evening appointments to entertain Japan's inner circle.

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Maruyama Park

Wrapped around the Yasuka Shrine, this lovely park – all rolling hills, tranquil ponds and streams – is the perfect place for a picnic. No more so than during sakura, when the cherry blossoms bloom and locals descend for sake-fueled parties.

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Arashiyama Bamboo Grove

Strolling through this garden is a surreal experience, as sunshine and shadow fight for a place between a swaying, seemingly-endless sea of bamboo. The play of light is at its most magical in the morning – and the crowds fewer – so get there early.

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This Shinto temple is one of Japan's most iconic sights; its thousands of Fanta-orange torri (shrine gates) snaking for four kilometers across the countryside to the summit of Mount Inari. Trek through its tunnels of vermillion pillars and spot stone foxes (which symbolize rice, fertility and abundance) along the way.

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A vision of shimmering gold wrapped in forest greenery reflecting off a peaceful lake, Kinkaku-ji temple will leave you rubbing your eyes in wonder. Arrive an hour before sunset, when the temple glows in a bronze hue.

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Ryoan-ji Zen Garden

People have long been puzzled by the meaning of Ryoan-ji Zen for more than 500 years. It's considered one of the finest examples of a Zen garden, made up of 15 rocks scattered across an expanse of raked white gravel. Some believe it represents an ocean dotted with islands, others abstract calligraphy....our suggestion is to see it for yourself.

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Photo by Maria Martinez



The tourists tend to miss this tiny temple, and that's all for the better. Housed inside its 12th-century wooden walls are 1,001 statues of Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of compassion. While you can't snap any photos here, the sight of two giant Kannon endowed with a thousand arms and eleven heads, and flanked by 500 life-size figures, will linger long in your memory.

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