Speed dating isn’t a great way to get to know someone, but it is a quick way to determine if someone is worth seeing again. That’s how I feel about organized sightseeing tours. A necessary evil, really, when time is short but desire is high. It goes without saying that a city with as rich a history as Kyoto certainly deserves more than a speed date. (Kyoto, we apologize!!!!) That said, if you are in Osaka for only 2.5 days and are looking for a day trip, Kyoto should be first on the list. And so she was first on ours.
[And for those of you wondering why on earth we would only spend such a short time in Japan…this was a result of creative frequent flier negotiations. It was seemingly impossible to use miles to get directly from the US to NZ at Christmas (peak summer season), so my resourceful Kiwi hubby got us there with a side trip to Osaka thrown in for good measure! Excellent!]
So, it is in this context that I share our thoughts on Kyoto. We experienced her along with 2 buses full of our closest tourist friends, visiting 6 stunning sites (of which 3 are designated as world heritage sites by UNESCO) in the span of 8 hours with a break for a “Japanese/Western-style lunch” in a cafeteria-esque restaurant nestled within a souvenir shop. So there it is. We didn’t really experience her, we just saw her.
I will spare you the history lesson that we learned from our various tour guides (because I couldn’t repeat it all again if I tried!). But I will remind you that Kyoto was the capital of Japan from 794 to 1868, and that it survived World War II with little damage. So in that way, Kyoto provides excellent insight into Japan’s history.
With that in mind, I hope you enjoy some pictures of the sites we saw (below). [Please note that on flash-enabled devices, you can see more information and captions by clicking on the small i (info symbol) in the upper right. On non-flash enabled devices (eg, ipads) only the captions are displayed (losing the extra info). Please let me know if these don’t work.]
The overarching impression that I took away from seeing these historic places was how very different they are from what I have seen throughout Europe. This sounds obvious and simplistic, but it is so true. Not only are the Eastern and Western styles distinct, but the building materials also vary, which evokes different feelings (at least for me). Where Italy (for example) uses stone, marble, and glass, Japan uses wood. This difference made the Japanese structures look more at peace with their natural surroundings…which was likely as intended, since Shinto beliefs are based on nature and natural phenomena.
And with this difference in materials, comes an effect on history. Many of these structures had been destroyed by fire multiple times (most by natural occurrences like lightning, but at least one as a result of arson by a mentally disturbed monk), and the versions we are seeing are the most modern rebuild (sometimes still 800+ years old, sometimes much more recent).
Last but not least, the Japanese use of wood was not limited to the walls, but also to the thatched roof, the paper doors, and many of the statues. In the hall with 1001 statues, I would have sworn to you that these were 1001 statues made of metal, but no, these were all assembled of small wood pieces (like Legos, as our tour guide put it), then lacquered together and covered in gold leaf to look like metal. So I have to admit, this threw me off a bit! With Japan, there is so much more than meets the eye. Things aren’t always as they seem to be at first glance.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this vicarious speed date with lovely Kyoto! If you’d like more, I highly recommend the tour we took. More information can be found at: http://www.japanican.com/tours (Search for the Kyoto 1-day tour). But for me, I look forward to our return visit, when we can allow Kyoto to court us more slowly…