Ancient, venerable Kyoto. The former imperial capital of Japan for over 1000 years, it is the cradle of classic Japanese culture, an untold number of shrines, temples ... and crowds. Yep, all of that incredible architecture and refined culture has understandably drawn the tourists (and school field trips) in by their droves. And while that should dampen nobody’s desire to visit Kyoto or enjoy it, it can get a little bit too much.
But fear not! Kyoto is positively overflowing with history, and you’re never too far from stepping away from the crowds, slipping down a backstreet and finding a verdant temple or leafy shrine all to yourself. And in my opinion, these places offer just as much satisfaction as the classic “must-see” spots.
Here’s a few “Anaba” (Hidden Spots) in Kyoto that you can check out for yourself:
Former Kujo Residence (aka. “Doukakuji”)
You’ve surely already heard of Kinkakuji (The Golden Pavilion) and Ginkakuji (The Silver Pavilion)? These two monuments of Japanese architecture and their immaculately manicured gardens top the lists of many visitors to Japan – and rightly so.
And yet, with narrow pathways ushering the crowds around a set route, it can be difficult to appreciate the serenity that these places were originally meant to exude. You would pine to find a place like this but without the extra bodies and strict path to really soak it in, right?
Enter the “Former Kujo Residence”! Set beside a pond on the southern end of the Imperial Palace Gardens, the sight of the pavilion reflected in the green waters and equally green gardens really does make it feel like the forgotten kin of the Golden and Silver Pavilions. Indeed, the color of the building will put you in the mind of bronze, so I personally call this place “doukakuji” (the Bronze Pavilion)! But don’t just take the similarities on my word: like its more popular counterparts, it too is the former home of a revered family in Kyoto, so it has the history to back it up too. The bridge across the pond provides the best views, and there’s also a little shrine that pokes out onto the water that’s worth a visit. If you’re lucky you may also get a greeting from the local cats.
I come to this place every time I visit Kyoto, and every time it is a highlight. Entrance is free, crowds are almost non-existent, and you can really take the time to just revel in this peaceful little spot in the heart of Kyoto. I’m almost reluctant to share it with others, so this is our little secret!
Just past the southern wall of Nijo Castle is the delightful little Shinsenen Temple. This unassuming temple has some surprisingly deep roots in the city’s history. Founded in 824, it is believed to have the oldest surviving garden in Kyoto – which is quite a feat for a city that must have thousands of them!
The area is also the last sign that there was ever a palace here. Back in that time, Emperor Kammu had his Imperial residence not at it’s current site but right where this temple stands, except it was a much bigger area – this is nobility we’re talking about, after all. And, like any wooden structure in Japan that has a history, it inevitably burned down, but the ensuing Tokugawa Shogunate at least had the good sense to preserve a portion of the gardens and build this temple upon it.
And the result is this really quite beautiful, compact site where the temple grounds seems to float upon the waters that surround it. It even has an iconic curved red bridge to take some great photos from. And tucked away in the corner is a tiny shrine cocooned by bamboo shoots. You’ll see this a lot in Japan: Buddhism and Shintoism are very compatible and relaxed as religions, and so they can often be found sharing space quite harmoniously.
Photo: Kyoto-Picture on Flickr
While most of Kyoto’s landmarks lie north of the train station, the southern side is not without its charms. Toufukuji Temple is one of the main pulls, and though the grounds are a sprawling complex of gardens and buildings, many people don’t realise that sub-temples lie just outside of it and with significantly quieter surroundings. One such sub-temple is Koumyouin, literally one minute walk south.
While the temple itself has history stretching back to 1391, the real star here is the dry landscape garden, added a whole 550 years later in 1939 by a renowned gardener of the period. The raked stones and meticulously arranged rocks present an enigmatic view that could rival the famous zen garden of Ryoanji, with the added advantage that Koumyouin will be much quieter and you can truly contemplate the garden the way it was intended. Take a moment to view the garden through the circular window with the handsome wooden lattice pattern in particular.
Photo: Kyoto-Picture on Flickr
While a fine sight any time of the year, Koumyouin Temple is at its best in the autumn, though you can expect it to be a little more busy – though if you go early in the morning you might beat the crowds.
These are just three examples of Kyoto “Anaba”. There are so many that even people who have lived in Kyoto their entire lives still discover temples, shrines and gardens they didn’t know existed. By all means go and see the main sights, but try and fit in one quiet spot where you can really soak in the serenity.