The ancient temples of Kyoto are time capsules representing the best of Japanese aesthetic traditions from the days when the Floating World was closed to visitors and outside influences. Any opportunity to spend a couple of days with these gems is reason enough to make the trip to Japan.
But don't expect them to be the first thing you see when you step off the Bullet Train. The city of Kyoto is a grid of small lots, each filled with buildings that bear little relation to their neighbours. The impression that most of modern Kyoto gives is that someone has shuffled the deck, architecturally speaking.
Within this sea of buildings there are fascinating houses and shops: massive department stores, noodle shops, stores selling only traditional brushes for religious calligraphy, Kentucky Fried Chicken, tiny stores with tiny perfect saki sets, a Tony Lama boot shop, a diminishing number of bath houses, and a few rivers and streams that refuse to obey the grid pattern.
Seeming to float in this finely chopped mix are those fabulous temples and important national buildings. Each sits on a plot of real estate whose size is more appropriate to rural Saskatchewan than to central Kyoto.
This list of must-sees in Kyoto will send you counterclockwise around the periphery of the old city. It's possible, in fact preferable, to do it all by public transit and a few hours of very pleasurable walking.
Higashi-Hongan Temple impresses with its size. Interior space is measured in Japan by tatami mats. They're measure about 1 metre by two metres of closely woven rice straw, a small bedroom is "three-mat room". The interior of Higashi-Hongan Temple is a many-hundred-mat room. Pillars of ancient trees support the vast roof. The immense empty volume of interior space is almost unique in the country.
Outside all temples water is provided for the ceremonial cleansing of the hands and mouth. In many temples the source of water dribbles from the mouth of a bronze dragon. Higashi-Hongan Temple has the biggest dragon.
Don't expect to be alone at any of these temples. Especially at Kiyomizu Temple to the east of the central city. To get there you can isolate yourself in a taxi or take the local bus and walk up the hill along "Teapot Lane". This street was traditionally the home of master potters and remains a good place to window shop or buy the perfect saki set.
On the grounds of Kiyomizu, water from the "Otawa" waterfall is thought to be sacred and therapeutic (this is Japan remember, no ironies on the name are intended). Visitors reach out long poles with cups on their ends to the falling water, drink it, and in an ritual that's as typically Japanese as any ancient superstition, they return the cups to a stainless steel tray bathed in ultra-violet light to be disinfected before the next use.
The walk north from Kiyomizu along the "Path of Philosophy", a canal-side pedestrian route overhung with trees (flowers in the spring), leads you to Ginkaku-ji Temple.
The name Ginkaku-ji means Silver Temple, so named for the intentions of the general who built it to cover it with silver. The general never followed through with the silver, but he really did mean to. So his intentions are commemorated in the name. The Japanese are infamous for having long-term industrial plans, it's a way of thinking they may have taken from their gardening. Only after centuries of cultivation it is felt that the Ginkaku ji gardens have finally achieved their mature perfection.
The Silver Temple, Ginkaku-ji, is not to be confused with Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Temple. The image of this shimmering building is reflected in a lake created especially for that purpose. And yes, it's real gold; not solid gold but real gold foil.
The paths through the grounds of this monument are usually filled with Japanese sightseers, each politely co-operating with the other to allow photos of the Golden Temple that make it look as if one smiling person is the only visitor to a quiet temple garden. The modern reality is thousands of well-mannered visitors, but it's still beautiful, it still exudes ancient tranquillity, it's still a must-see.
To the west of the old city, near Tenryu-ji Temple, a handful of temples are secluded in the bamboo forest. This area provides the most pleasant afternoon walks in all of Japan.
These "minor" temples climb the hillsides; they have graveyards or noodle shops around them, and each are memorials to their own stories such as the dream that the Emperor's spirit was a restless dragon living in the river that needed to be appeased by the building of a new temple.
Best left for last, in my opinion are the Katsura Imperial Villa and Saiho-Ji Temple. (Visits to both must be booked well in advance.) Both are considered to be the pinnacle of their forms, your appreciation of them will benefit from seeing other sites first: until you get accustomed to seeing them, temples, tea houses and villas can all look like tidy old wooden buildings. A few days of walking through Kyoto will educate your eye to the nuances of traditional Japanese design, and prepare you to appreciate the unequalled accomplishments of these two ancient treasures.
The Katsura Villa has 17 acres of grounds, each inch of which is lovingly nursed and cultivated to give it the best "rustic" appearance. "Rustic", in this context, means an idealized view of nature, the sort you might see on an exquisite Japanese screen, encouraged and tended within the boundaries of the palace walls.
Built in the 17th century for the younger brother of an Emperor, Katsura is said to be the first "strolling garden successfully constructed in Japan". In the simple pavilions every detail of construction has been meticulously designed and crafted to perfection. Even the different hardware on each sliding panel, specially designed to fit in with the decor, setting and purposes of the individual pavillions would be worthy of a graduate thesis.
"Pavilion for Appreciation of Flowers", "Hut of Smiling Thoughts", "Moon and Waves Pavilion" the names of the buildings at Katsura simply describe their pleasurable purposes. Tea houses are strategically located to enjoy to best advantage the highlights of each changing season. As in all traditional purpose-built tea houses, ceremony participants enter through a small opening which forces them to bend down and therefore humble themselves. Such an entrance also obliges them to remove any "cumbersome items, especially swords", as the official guidebook tactfully understates it.
Saiho-ji is famous for its moss garden: over 100 varieties of moss, lovingly nurtured in a large garden that surrounds a pond shaped in the Japanese symbol for the word "spirit".
Before touring the garden, visitors must donate $30 and spend about an hour respectfully participating in temple ceremonies: Kitov, listening to the sutras for the happiness of your ancestors; Skakyo, kneeling on the floor, copying out archaic Japanese symbols of anancient scripture which even modern Japanese don't understand; and Zazen, sitting in the posture prescribed for Zen meditation. Only after this can you be allowed into the garden. It's worth every moment of the exercise. I cannot imagine a more peaceful or more beautiful spot on heaven or earth.
If you can ever bring yourself back to reality, you might consider one of the best shopping opportunities in Kyoto: in the few miles between the Silver and Golden Temples lies the Kyoto Handicrafts Centre. It's strange, but correct, to see electronics at a store that sells only local products. There are also more traditional items such as kimonos, dolls and nice new and antique wood block prints for sale here, all at very fair prices.
The large department stores also have a few affordable items, but the days of bargain shopping in Japan are long gone. The same cultural treasures that enchanted the first Western visitors to Japan are once again the best reasons to visit Kyoto.