As soon as we arrived in Kyoto it was apparent that the city was much different than fast-paced, crowded Tokyo. The traffic seemed slower, the crowds smaller. Even the weather was noticeably warmer and more humid. There were temples and shrines on what seemed like every block; the pointed roofs of ancient buildings peeked out from behind modern structures as a reminder of the city’s impressive history as Japan’s imperial capital.
Once we were settled into our Kyoto hotel (and full from our teppanyaki-style lunch), we set out to explore the neighborhood. We visited several temples within walking distance that were almost completely void of people. Because they were not big tourist attractions, we were able to explore the grounds and relax on the tatami mats in front of the shrines without battling a crowd of fellow tourists.
Our first site-seeing destination in Kyoto was visiting Sanjusangendo Temple, the Buddhist temple famous for its 1,001 life-sized statues of the deity Kannon. Officially called “Hall of the Lotus King,” the temple was originally built in 1164 but much like the Sensoji Temple in Tokyo, was burnt down and rebuilt in 1266.
Once inside, we removed our shoes, which was customary for all the temples in Japan, then walked through the ancient temple until we reached a large room. Inside were a thousand statues as big as a person, known as the Thousand Armed Kannon, shining bronze through a layer of dust. They stood shoulder-to-shoulder in rows of 50, surrounding a massive statue of Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara with 28 “guardian deities” standing in front, staying at visitors through crystal eyes.
Photography was strictly forbidden, but here is what the army of statues looks like. Strangely enough, not being able to use my camera forced me to truly take in the breathtaking sight and I can picture it perfectly in my mind.
After Sanjusangendo Temple we walked up the street to a smaller, less touristy temple called Chishaku-in Temple that is famous for its gardens. The temple was built in memory of the son of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a samurai politician known as Japan’s second great unifier, in southern Kyoto and moved to its current spot in 1598.
We happened to stumble upon the Green Leaf Festival, an annual festival on June 15 that celebrates the birth of Kukai, a priest and scholar who founded the Shingon School of Japanese Buddhism and may have invented the kana writing system.
The festival is a fire ceremony, which represents the symbol link between heaven and earth. Dozens of men in full ceremonial dress performed rituals with large axes and bows and arrows. While the performance was in Japanese so we couldn’t understand what they were saying, it was still fascinating to watch.
After watching part of the Green Leaf Festival, we wandered around the Chishaku-in gardens, which is what the temple is known for.
Our first taste of Kyoto was full of its rich history and religious devotion, not to mention beauty. And while Sanjusangendo Temple and Chishaku-in Temple were impressive, we hadn’t seen anything yet.