After landing in and exploring Tokyo, the next city visitors to Japan should see is Kyoto. Virtually undamaged during World War II, Kyoto cleverly retains its past while building for the future. Hundreds of temples, shrines and historic sites coexist with 21st-century amenities in this extraordinary city of 1.5 million people.
Nothing is more au courant than the amazing rail station you’ll arrive in after a two-hour-and-20-minute high-speed ride from Tokyo. With soaring architecture and eye-grabbing design it is also home to a hotel, department store and dozens of restaurants and shops.
Kyoto’s heritage sites are widely scattered, both inside the city and in the surrounding hills. Trying to see everything during a short stay is virtually impossible, so grouping destinations within specific areas is a must.
A great starting point is the 400-year-old Nijo Castle, which is actually more like a palace, built by the first shogun to rule Japan from Edo (Tokyo’s original name). Wanting an appropriate site to use when he returned, he erected a multi-building complex with delicately designed meeting rooms, exquisite screens and floors that purposely squeak when walked upon, an ideal alarm against invaders or the uninvited. Here, too, are bridges, moats, fantastic gardens and greenery.
Another must-see at Kyoto’s northern edge is the three-storied lakeside Temple of the Golden Pavilion. A re-creation of a late 14th-century edifice, it was still standing in 1950 when a deranged monk burned it to the ground. Later rebuilt and slathered with multiple layers of gold leaf, it is best seen when bathed in late afternoon sunlight.
To the northeast is the wooden two-story Ginkakuji Temple or Temple of Silver Palace. It is named not for its actual exterior but for its serene reflection in moonlight.
Nearer to midtown is the 13th-century Buddhist Sanjusangen-do Temple, which houses 1,001 life-size statues of Kannon, the goddess of mercy. A short walk away is the Chisihaku Temple, which features serene gardens and multiple rooms with exquisite sliding screens.
Another easily accessible site is the Yasaka Shrine, reputed to date to the seventh century, and Maruyama Park. They are quite near the eastern boundary of Gion, Kyoto’s most extensive historic district.
While commerce bustles along Higashiyama Street, immediately above and below it are much quieter byways where numerous wooden buildings retain a real sense of times past.
Gion should be seen at least twice. During daytime mingle with shoppers and stroll the streets that parallel the canal that begins quite close to the Kamo River. Night is also prime time for spotting geishas. These women of all ages — notable for their traditional dress and heavy white makeup — still master music, dance and other centuries-old skills, which they are hired to perform. Evenings are when one is likely to see a geisha walking to or from appointments.
Page 2 of 3 - On the opposite Kano River bank lies Pontocho, a narrow lane lined with dozens of moderately priced eateries. And don’t miss the Nishiki Market, which offers an amazing array of products and affordable dining spots.
Kanazawa is another city that retains sizable portions of its heritage. Highlights include the beautifully restored 16th-century Kanazawa Castle. Rebuilt following major fires, it boasts the striking monumental iron Ishkawa-mon Gate, an arsenal and two turrets. The castle rises above sprawling Kenroku-en Garden, considered to be one of Japan’s finest.
You’ll also want to explore the separate Samurai and Geisha districts. Starting in the 17th century, ruling shoguns paid their Samurai warriors with rice and land where Samurai built large wooden houses. Today Kanazawa preserves Japan’s largest standing collection of these homes. One good example is that of the Nomura family.
Similarly intriguing is the Geisha region, conceived and built by the government in the 1820s to keep these women in one area. The structures were used strictly for entertainment purposes, and no one wearing a sword could enter.
The Art of Travel, a company that arranges first-hand and often hands-on looks at some fascinating local crafts, is another Kanazawa plus. By way of visits it arranges with guides, participants meet and often work with artisans in areas as diverse as basket-weaving, cooking, lacquer wear, calligraphy, flower-arranging, jewelry-making, ceramics, taiko drumming, silk chord braiding, sword play, playing a shamisen (a traditional stringed instrument), karate and even sushi-making.
Sixty-eight years after it was the first city to be hit by an atomic bomb, Hiroshima today is a modern industrial center with harrowing remembrances of horrors past. Seeing the Atomic Bomb Dome — the shell of the 1915 industrial promotion hall that stood almost directly beneath the bomb’s aerial explosion point — is unforgettable. So is the nearby Peace Memorial Museum, a vast repository of historical remnants and personal tales, all movingly presented.
Notable postwar constructions include the circular Hiroshima Museum of Art. Its compact but impressive collection includes works by Manet, Monet, Renoir, Seurat, Toulouse-Lautrec, Pissarro, Cezanne, Gauguin, Matisse, Picasso and van Gogh. Also fascinating is the totally rebuilt 16th-century Hiroshima Castle, now a history museum.
You’ll also want to visit idyllic Miyajima Island, about an hour’s ride from central Hiroshima. Peaceful, particularly away from its heavily visited center, Miyajima features the stunning orange Itsukushima Shrine, plenty of tame but hungry deer and fascinating back streets to wander. Depending on the tides — either in or out of the harbor is the floating tori, one of Japan’s most ionic images.
Osaka, Japan’s third-largest city, is also about now and the future. Boasting a metro system that matches Tokyo’s for efficiency and ease of use, it also has plenty of intriguing streets and lanes in which to walk, shop, snack and observe the youthful culture.
Page 3 of 3 - Osaka’s most exciting area is Namba. At its heart is Dotonbori, particularly near and along the Dotonbori Canal. Here, especially at night, the mood is controlled chaos decorated with riotous, eye-grabbing signage. “Running Man,” a giant, perpetual-motion crab and dozens of other action signs make this a real must.
During daytime hours the nearby commercial district is a walker’s and photographer’s feast for its wild variety of street food and maze of lanes. There, among other sights, be sure to seek out the moss-covered Buddha. Other Osaka highlights include its world-class aquarium, the Shitennoji temple and well-restored Osaka Castle.
Osaka is also an ideal launching spot for day trips to Nara. In the eighth century Nara became Japans first permanent capital. Among many shrines, temples and an intriguing old town, its most famous structure is Todai-ji, reputedly the world’s largest wooden structure. It was built to enclose a massive bronze Buddha. Osaka/Nara train rides take an hour or less.
WHEN YOU GO
For general information about traveling in Japan: www.jnto.go.jp/eng
The Hotel Granvia is a comfortable, convenient modern property within Kyoto’s rail terminal complex: www.granviakyoto.com. The Hyatt Regency Hotel is well-located and offers expansive rooms, fine dining and excellent concierge services: www.kyoto.regency.hyatt.com
Tempura Matsu restaurant, 21-26 Ohnawaba-Cho Umezu Ukyo-Ku in Kyoto, 615 0925 or 81 75 881 9190, is a fine choice for a Kaisecki dinner, a multi-course gourmet event. Reservations are a must, and be sure to sit at the counter to watch the dishes being prepared.
The Nikko Hotel: www.jalhotels.com/domestic/chubu_hokuriku/kanazawa
The Art of Travel: www.theartoftravel.net
Righa Royal Hotel blends fine views, excellent service and ideal location. The property is an affiliate with Worldhotels: www.worldhotels.com.
Nikko Hotel: www.jalhotels.com/domestic/kansai/osaka
Osaka Tourism: www.osaka-info.jp/en