Behind the endless skyscrapers of Tokyo and Osaka, Japan portrays her culture and heritage in every aspect of Japanese life. None of this holds more true than in Japan’s old capital of Kyoto. On a day trip from Osaka, I arrived to Kyoto early in the morning with vain hopes to see everything in one day. My co-workers laughed when I suggested seeing all the temples and shops in one day, especially in such cold weather, and, despite my best efforts, I ended up not being able to see more than half of the city.
Kyoto is known to be a traditional Japanese city, and Japanese women come from all around to dress in traditional clothing and makeup and take pictures at various temples. The city is exactly how you would expect a Japanese city to look, with small winding streets lined with shops selling souvenirs and Japanese sweets and occasionally a doorway into a small temple.
While exploring the old streets, occasionally you turn and find yourself looking at a massive temple you were not even looking for.
From the train station to the first temple I wanted to visit was quite a walk, and so I made sure to take plenty of time to stop and try the local sweets and gift shops.
Having not even made it to the first temple I planned to visit, I had already seen over 20 temples! But the biggest surprise to come was up this long flight of stairs many people seemed to be climbing; the staircase was so long that you couldn’t see what was at the top. On a whim, I decided to follow the crowd off the main street, up these stairs and once I reached the top I was awestruck. A gigantic temple with an even larger statue of buddha was staring directly at me.
Around every corner of Kyoto there was another surprise, but eventually I made it to the first temple I had planned to see: Kiyomizu Temple
Kiyomizu temple is a complex with many temples, unfortunately most of which were under construction when I visited. However, the ones not under construction were vividly painted white with orange accents and, not surprisingly, drew quite a crowd.
Learning how to enter all these temples without offending local culture was a challenge, but by just staying quiet and being respectful of my surroundings I seemed to not upset anyone. One common practice people did, especially at the bigger temples, was to wash their hands before entering them in a sink like this.
After visiting many temples, I started to understand more about the cultural symbols I had been seeing so far while in Japan. For example, at many of the temples you can buy charms such as for good health that you put in your bag to supposedly give you that charm’s attribute. I had seen many of these charms on peoples bags traveling to and from work, but didn’t understand what they were until coming to Kyoto. Another example is that hung by many smaller shrines, there are these wooden disks tied to parts of the shrine with writing. On these disks, which people buy them in stores in Kyoto, they write wishes before tying them to the shrine.
Exploring Kyoto gave me an entirely new perspective of Japan. While Osaka, where I live and work, contains the hustle and bustle of modern, technologically advanced Japan, Kyoto holds fast to the cultural heritage that embodies Japan. I feel humbled to be allowed to see such beautiful temples and statues, some created over 500 years ago. In America, we appreciate our history in so much of a different way than in Japan. Instead of embracing our history and preserving it in our cities, we remember our history to push us forward and seek new heights (e.g. the American Dream). One of the best things about traveling is comparing and contrasting your home culture to the one you are in, and it was astonishing to think that America has nothing close to what Japan has with Kyoto. America does not have an entire city dedicated to preserving its magnificent past. Yes, we have museums and colonial Williamsburg, but it pales in comparison to living, breathing and feeling the past where the present is still thriving. Kyoto is so hard to explain without visiting it yourself and I would highly recommend travelling to Kyoto if you find yourself in Tokyo, Osaka or another part of Japan. However, there is so much to see I will need to head back soon, hopefully during cherry blossom season!