IN 1977 I read the Lady and the Monk by Pico Iyer and it became a life long dream to some day visit Kyoto. After our trip to Germany in 2008, J asked where I wanted to go next. “Kyoto”, I replied, she agreed and the planning was on. We chose Samurai Tours because they specialize in small group tours. We stayed in traditional Japanese hotels (ryokan) and traveled on buses and trains with the locals.

The first day we visited Ryoanji Temple with its famous dry garden (karesansui) and Rokuonji with its equally famous Golden Pavilion.

We took the train to Osaka to visit Osaka Castle, an immense structure constructed of giant blocks of stone that, similar to the pyramids and  Sacsay Huaman in Peru, no one had any idea how they could have been moved there or fit together with such precision.  Osaka Castle Park is home to 1250 Japanese plum trees and 4500 cherry trees.  Luckily the cherry blossoms were late this year and we got to see them in all their magnificence. 

After becoming sake experts, we toured the Fushimi Inari Shrine with its 10,000 vermillion colored torii (gates).  These gates form kilometer long vermillion tunnels winding through the woods and past many smaller shrines. 

Imperial Palace in Kyoto.  Even though we were the only visitors, we were instructed by the guards to stand in line at certain markers.  Only when we were suitably arranged, single file in a line we were allowed to enter the Palace grounds.  It encompasses 27 acres, consisting of multiple buildings in an eclectic yet harmonized combination of at least 3 different architectural styles.  The Oikeniwa Garden is a strolling garden, the main feature of which is a large pond and stepping stones across to a boat mooring.  There is also an arc shaped Keyakibashi bridge that stretches across the pond.

Then we walked up the steep hillside to the Kiyomizu-dera, which translates as “Pure Water Temple”. Supported by huge wood pillars the temple actually juts out over the valley.   Below the temple is the Sound of Feathers waterfall where you could drink, with long handled cups,  from one,  and only one, of three springs. The springs were said to bring health, wealth and wisdom, but you could only pick one.

The highlight of the day, if not the whole trip, was a visit to Saihoji, known as Kokedera or the Moss Temple.  It is considered by many to be one of the best if not the best garden in Japan.  It was originally constructed in A.D. 729 and reconstructed in 1338 by Zen priest Muso Kokushi.   

Friday – Nara –original capital of  Japan

Ken took us by train to Kasuga Shrine with its 1000s of stone lanterns.  Originally established in the 8th century and completely rebuilt in every 20 years in accordance with Shinto tradition. Then walked through Nara park, feeding the tame deer,  to Todai-ji Temple, the largest wood building in the world with the largest bronze Buddha statue (53’) tall  in the world. 

sayanora dinner at Ganko Nijyo. We had shabu-shabu (thinly sliced beef dipped in hot water) and then a maiko, which is a geisha in training, danced and taught us a game. 

We rented bikes and rode to Ginkaku-ji Temple, home of the Silver Pavilion.  This temple features a garden supposedly designed by the great landscape artist Soami.  The garden consists of two adjacent yet very distinct gardens.  The older part, consisting of a Zen style stroll garden organized around a pond, features rock compositions, bridges, and moss.  Directly adjacent is a dry landscape garden added during the Edo period. The long furrows of raked sand resemble waves on the ocean in the moonlight giving rise to its name Sea of Silver Sand.  This part of the garden is dominated by a perfectly shaped sand cone known as the Moon Viewing Hill which is said to resemble Mount Fuji and with its almost vertical sides, seems to defy gravity.   We ate lunch at a small noodle shop and then rode  our bikes along the Philosophers Walk.

This marked the end of the group tour and we set out on our own for Takayama. Five hours and 31 tunnels later we arrived at Takayama Station.  We walked to our new accommodations, the Rickshaw Inn, checked in and then went on the Temple Walk (Higashiyama Walking Course).  3.5 kilometers, 13 temples, 5 shrines. From here on we had no guide/interpreter  so communication consisted of whatever limited English they might know and our even more limited Japanese.

Monday we took a bus ride to Shirakawago, a UNESCO World Heritage site and toured the historical village and then the town of Ogimachi.  Houses are constructed with wood and lashings and steeply sloping grass thatched roofs.  Gassho-Zukuri (praying hands) A-frame style because of the heavy snowfalls in this part of Japan.  The place was deserted and we wandered in and out of the buildings. 

We toured Yoshijima-ke, a merchant’s mansion that once belonged to one the richest families in Takayama.  Built in1907 with its exposed attic, and heavy crossbeams it’s a masterpiece of geometric design. 

Tuesday – Takayama. In the afternoon we toured Takayama Jinya National Historic site.  This was a branch office of the Edo government and contains a garden, rice storehouse, courtroom, conference room. 


Kitayama Walking course Kitayama Park.  Cool pheasant like birds, 1200 year old gingko tree. In this country we consider old items in the hundreds of years. In Japan they have trees and buildings that have been there for thousands of years.  Then bus back to Osaka. Stayed at Hotel Ichai and ordered a traditional 7 course Japanese breakfast. 

Thursday After breakfast went to Tennoji Park with its animal statues, first time trying subways on our own. Luckily a friendly subway guard took pity on us as we stared blankly at the ticket machines  or we might still be down there, like Charlie from the MTA. Wandered around Keitauken Garden, a traditional Japanese style garden, then  Shitennoji Temple. The first state established Buddhist temple in Japan was founded in 593, it encompasses 27 acres.

Some signs were indecipherable.

But their manhole covers were gorgeous.

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